Directory:Akahele/The more things change...

MyWikiBiz, Author Your Legacy — Thursday May 19, 2022
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It never fails to amaze me the amount of loyalty some people will give to whatever website happens to be the latest big thing. If one looks at the underlying function of most of these sites, one wonders why things which are intended to serve as tools for conveying information, images, or other such content are seen as objectives in and of themselves. Yet, over and over again, the crowd flocks to whatever happens to be the flavor of the month, insisting that this is going to be the thing to completely change the world.

If one were cynical, one would be tempted to recall dear Mr. Plato and his allegory of the Cave. However, perhaps Rousseau's plus ça change, plus que ça reste pareil or Léo Ferré's Quand c'est fini, ça recommence would suffice. Human nature tends to repeat itself and what is happening now has probably happened before. Web 2.0 is no exception.

Back to the Dark Ages of Web 1.0

Of course, the Web 1.0 was another story, since things were much simpler back then. Musicians were almost uniformly excited about how this internet thing was going to change our lives. And it did: in the digital dark ages (way back in 1995), a man named Robin Whittle wrote an article entitled Music Marketing in the Age of Electronic Delivery which basically predicted pretty much everything that we take for granted today. To quote his abstract :

By the turn of the century many music consumers are expected to have fast network access, home computers and CD-R disc writers. This will enable them to purchase music via electronic delivery, rather than on physical media such as compact disks. Existing distribution channels and radio's stylistically restrictive music discovery process will be bypassed as artists and listeners engage in two way communication, without geographic restrictions. Radical changes to industry structure are expected. As amateur musicians share music electronically, folk music - withering in the age of mass media - may flourish in the 21st century, in a profusion of contemporary styles.

For those of us working in the backwaters of the music business (classical music, jazz, world music, etc.), these new possibilities seemed like the answer to many problems facing us: how to deliver our product to our relatively small audience without spending the profits on producing stock. These tools have changed the way we do business, but they have also led to a number of developments which no one could have expected.

The darling of Web 1.0: MP3.com

800px-michael_robertson_2006-150x150.jpg
Michael Robertson
former MP3.com CEO

For example, take one of the biggest success stories of the dot-com era: MP3.com. Started in 1997 by the CEO of Z Company (filez.com, websitez.com, and sharepaper.com) Michael Robertson and his head of sales Greg Flores, the initial idea was to simply purchase the domain name MP3.com and set up a redirect to filez.com. When ad revenue and large amounts of traffic began to flow into the domain name because of web searches, a decision was made to use the domain to feature unsigned "indie" musicians, and musicians in the thriving techno genre.

A Musician's Utopia

Musicians flocked to the site, leading to a concentration of talent, creativity, and a real sense of community. Those who were there in the early days still remember sensing that they were part of something that was on the edge of changing the music business in a profound way.

mp3comlogo199.gif
MP3.com logo, circa 1999

For artists, it was exciting, completely self-empowering, and unlike any other creative experience ever. You could have an idea in the morning, record a demo at noon, send your track to someone halfway across the globe to add vocals or an instrumental part, and put your work up in evening for the world to hear. The management of MP3.com seemed to understand the importance of this vibrant artistic community, in submitting an ad to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy magazine in 1998:

What the whole world listens to…Future Grammy winners found here

The beginning of the end

When MP3.com went public in 1999, the stock sale raised over $370 million, which was a record for an Internet IPO at that time. To motivate the musicians on the site, the management began a promotion called Pay for Play which paid a "promotional fee" to each artist based on their monthly streams and downloads...Oddly, this was the beginning of the end.

Why? For many reasons. The first of which was that, like the Devil's contract with Faust, the Pay for Play deal with too good to be true. It wasn't a royalty: it was a promotion which could be halted at any time. But since people had already given royalty-free licenses to their music to the site in the first place, that drawback didn't seem like a big deal. What should have happened at this point is that MP3.com should have started paying into Performance Rights Organizations such as BMI and ASCAP to cover regular performance and mechanical royalties. But since they already had a free license, they could not be persuaded to do this by a bunch of unsigned artists. And when the paychecks started coming, it seemed like a very good deal indeed.

Some people started making lots of money. As in, enough money to live on. Certain stars emerged such as Bassic who got written up in some mainstream news magazines, 303Infinity who ruled the Techno charts, and even some big names like Alanis Morissette, who was closely associated with the site in 1999. And everybody wanted a piece of that pie... even people whose music wasn't likely as good as those who were up there at the top of the charts. So, the game changed. Music making became a sideline.

The new game : phony fights, faked stalking, sex, and DRAMA = traffic

The first thing that people noticed was that drama led to attention, which in turn led to downloads and streams. So, the message boards which had previously been about collaboration opportunities, trying out songs, and socializing, now began to be about creating fights (real or imagined), insults, trolling, and baiting others. People started using off-site message boards to try to get people to visit their site, polluting Usenet groups with endless insults, off-topic questions, and other ploys to get people to click those links. People pretended to get into fights with other artists and also pretended that other artists were stalking them. Several people posted nude photos to pornography groups, with links to their MP3.com pages. Anything to get people talking.

Bending the rules and bending the facts = better product placement and more power

Secondly, people figured out that music placed in certain categories did better than if it were placed in other categories. The techno charts ruled the site, but there was still money to be made in out-of-the-way places such as the Classical or World Music charts. A Mexican pianist named <a href="http://www.last.fm/music/Ernesto+Cortazar">Ernesto Cortazar</a> discovered that placing his Muzak-inspired versions of such golden hits as "Strangers in the Night" in the "<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_music">Romantic classical</a>" category led to much higher traffic. His rather lame excuse was my music makes you feel romantic. He made a killing at MP3.com, but the stable of concert pianists was always trying to boot him off of the classical charts. However, Ernesto's status as a high money-maker made him immune to any sensible rules about what music belonged in the classical music genre.

A little help from your friends = Cabals for fun and profit

Then came the "gamers" or those who "cracked the code": although the MP3.com system examined the IP addresses where the listening and streaming came from (to prohibit people from streaming their own songs), they couldn't examine all of the data. People quickly figured out that although their own listens didn't count for themselves, their listens for "friends" did. Around the same time, MP3.com launched a promotion called "New Music Army" which allowed people to make money by promoting other artists. The people who had "rosters" to promote would distribute all of their artists' playlists, which they would encourage recipients to stream several times a week. Many people streamed these playlists on multiple computers all day, with the sound turned off.

The Script Kiddies made profit a question of point and click

As to be expected, somebody wrote an automatic script which could play all of the songs on a cabal's playlist automatically, but which played them only for the amount of time necessary to get "credit" before going to the next one. There were rumors of entire blocks of computers running playlists automatically at various server locations. MP3.com tried to catch those who were cheating and did manage to ban some of them, but there was no way that they could ban everyone. And since the site traffic soared and ad revenue went through the roof, maybe it wasn't that big of a deal?

The sausage factory, version 1.0

Finally, people figured out that you didn't actually have to make music to get into the game. You could simply record your girlfriend moaning erotically, or you could mindlessly convert to mp3 format any MIDI files found on the web and upload those. And by this point, it didn't really matter. Nobody was listening anyway... at least, not many people. In November 2000, Salon.com wrote an article entitled Whoring for Downloads, which spoke of a woman who traded downloads of her song for a porn video on adult sites, and another woman who described her "song" 90 seconds of ecstasy as:

"90 seconds of my ecstasy as I make myself come. This is the real thing! When I scream as I come loud with the mic near my face, you can even hear the sounds of my breasts slapping against each other and I go wild with pleasure."

This was rather far from the actual act of making music, but it did indeed get lots of streams and downloads. What used to be vibrant artistic community became a mindless factory of worthless content which was mainly comprised of porn, machine-generated copies of public domain material, and some of the most mind-bogglingly bad music ever produced anywhere. Much of the music became so bad that Time magazine featured a story on the phenomenon in their May 27, 2001 issue.

The disillusioned old guard

The artists who were there at the beginning and who were there during those very exciting first few months took these developments badly. There was a great sense of something unique (perhaps unique in the history of Western music) that had gone terribly wrong and a sense of being caught in the middle of a boring and pointless game.

One of the the most evocative and direct responses to this situation is a song by the artist Dyonisos " "Play my song list again, my friend" which sums up the aggressive atmosphere, the drama, and the endless quest for "more hits! more hits!" -- not musical hits, but simply hits on the play buttons on the artist pages, like so many mice running through a maze and hitting a button to get a reward. In other words, the tool became the master and the original usefulness of the tool became an activity which replaced the entire point of the exercise. What should have set musicians free became a depressing prison, where one spent one's days promoting music to people who weren't listening, except if you clicked their buttons.

Reality rears its ugly head

And the management of MP3.com? They were at the head of an extremely popular website, at the effective control of the largest online music catalog ever amassed which had a huge potential value, making lots of ad revenue as well as other revenue from a commercial music service. They were seen as the movers and shakers who were changing the face of the music industry. They had an army of non-salaried worker bees who drove endless streams of traffic and content to their site. They made money off of ads, from album sales, and other promotions. They were the new guys who were calling the shots. And because they were at the top of the food chain and at the helm of the hot new technology, they got cocky. And then they made a huge mistake.

The name of this mistake was "Beam it". This was a service which allowed users to convert CDs that they had purchased into MP3 format, directly onto the MP3.com servers, and then play them from a personal "locker" on the MP3.com site. Up until this point, MP3.com had not been attacked by the major record labels for copyright infringement because nobody really knew whether or not the law covered the types of uses that MP3.com was pioneering. This time, however, the majors felt that here they had a clear case of unauthorized duplication and therefore a strong case.

MP3.com hid behind the concept of "fair use", giving as an argument that only music which had already been purchased was stored on their servers, as well as their idea that because they were cutting edge and providing a new service, these attacks would not be successful. All of the recording companies, save one, accepted an "out of court" settlement. The outlier was Universal, and they wanted their day in court. Universal won the case easily: the first line of the UMG v MP3.com decision reads as follows :

"The complex marvels of cyberspatial communication may create difficult legal issues; but not in this case. Defendant's infringement of plaintiff's copyrights is clear,"

So much for being "cutting edge" as a defense ploy...

MP3.com was then sold to Vivendi, who had already been given a large amount of stock in their out-of-court settlement. Not wanting to have to pay for a lot of unsigned artists whom they had no intention of signing, the "Pay for Play" program became the Premium artist service or PAS (with the worst promotional slogan ever: PAS is a GAS!), in which you had to pay to get paid. Then predictably, the payments to artists were phased out.

Pavlov was right

What was extremely odd was that the behavior of the artists after the payment incentive was discontinued remained the same. People still did all of the old empty rituals to get to the top of meaningless charts which no longer meant anything. It was as if they were addicted to the same meaningless tasks they had undertaken to get the cash and it no longer mattered whether or not there was a financial incentive.

The end of the world's largest archive of free online music

Finally, Vivendi (the owner of UMG) had enough and sold the entire operation to CNET. As Andrew Orlowski put it in his Register article, this was a bit like waking up in bed with someone that you don't remember going home with... and CNET decided to do the sensible thing and wipe the servers clean. Thus ended the largest collection of online music ever amassed in one place. While I find the comparison a bit exaggerated, I found the fact that Wikipedia's article about MP3.com links to the article about the Destruction of the Library of Alexandria to be a fitting tribute to the spirit in which the site was founded.

And the beat goes on...

Well, we're in the POST web 2.0 world now, you say? We're past all of that!

Are we really? The crucial difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, according to Andrew Odlyzko's 2001 article "Content is not King" is the idea that communication is more important than content, or in other words traffic is more important than thought. And this idea seems to underline the entire transition from music to traffic which characterized the MP3.com experience from the artist's perspective. However, on another level, it was a transition from using tools to being used by tools. Isn't this second image close to what Web 2.0 is becoming?

The failure of the artists to see that everything they had created in the context of the site could be and would be destroyed at the whim of site management, the mindless creation of content to generate traffic rather than to provoke reaction and thought, and site management who feel immune from attack because of their position as the next big thing... aren't all of these issues alive and well at our favorite Web 2.0 sites? And since the genesis of these sites and the current processes are so strikingly similar, how can the final outcome be any different?

Image credits:

Comments

19 Responses to The more things change

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Jon Awbrey
Absoulootely Brilliant Analysis!!! Best thing I’ve read about the dynamix of web phenomena in 5 years. Give Paul a raise immediately.

Jon Awbrey

Paul Wehage
Thanks, Jonny! (If Greg gives me a raise, we won’t be able to afford beer and pretzels at our next board meeting, but I appreciate the thought!)

Gregory Kohs
I’ll take this as a quick opportunity to add my praise for Paul Wehage’s thoughtful narrative, but also to remind readers that I’m not the one to dole out “raises” to our Board members (who, of course, are all volunteering without compensation for this non-profit enterprise).

The corporation was founded by four people, it was formally registered by Anthony DiPierro, and if anything, I merely had the not-so-original idea of creating an Internet review site where the ownership would be split between multiple, real-name-identified individuals. Imagine that — accountability.

I’m happy that Akahele is resonating favorably with most everyone who reads it. I had a feeling it would.

W.R. Somey
I was impressed…!

A lot of this is still going on, actually. “Vanity-distribution” sites like tunecore.com and iodalliance.com make it possible for anyone to get their music onto practically all the major digital-distribution sites, including iTunes, for a small fee and a percentage. Nobody actually listens to the material that’s being distributed in advance, so the artists can categorize it however they want (i.e., wrongly), and of course there’s no quality control whatsoever. Some listeners don’t mind so much because you can occasionally find a gem amidst all that dreck, but the downside is that it becomes very difficult for talented new artists to stand out when there are hundreds of new releases every day, and none of the actual download sites are paying much attention (though I will say that eMusic does a better job than most, and of course, iTunes handles it by simply ignoring anything that comes from a vanity-distribution site).

I remain pessimistic about the future of music as a way for people to make a living, but folks are still going to try… Another interesting new MP3.com-like scheme that’s appeared recently is amiestreet.com, which has a rather unique and convoluted rating/recommendation and pricing scheme – it’s too complex to describe here, and there’s a good chance it will fail too, mostly because established artists won’t want anything to do with it. But in some ways, it’s what MP3.com should have been, and maybe would have been if they’d thought things through better at the outset.

Emperor
Excellent article. It’s good to hear things put into perspective.

Great job with Akahele. So far, it’s the kind of site I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell my friends to go read.

Maybe someday I’ll comment here under my real name.

Darby Lines
Paul, I just wanted to pop in and say that this is a brilliant analysis. Also, I’d like to thank all involved here for this effort. As a disaffected wikipedia reviewer, I’m very much looking forward to a place where some responsible adults can comment on these issues.

Alison Cassidy
Excellent analysis indeed. Well done, Paul!

Paul Wehage
@Somey, actually quite a few things which look like “non-vanity” labels actually are “vanity” labels, if you know the business. We call these types of recordings “artist calling cards” since they’re basically used for people either to get University jobs or gigs. Nobody really makes any money off of them (except for composers and publishers who do get broadcast royalties and mechanicals), but they are indeed useful for other reasons.

The only way anybody makes any money in music these days (outside of teaching) is if you do everything yourself, as in have your own label, release your own recordings and manage your own concert work. Many successful classical artists do just this and, even if they’re not rolling in the dough, make enough to live upper-middle class lives. It’s a lot of work though and requires a great deal of energy. Many people would rather just dump their masters into the hands of a label and not worry about sales etc–you make your money off of concerts anyway. Of course, because of this, most of these artists fail WP’s notability requirements (because they’re self-published), but that’s simply because WP hasn’t figured out that this is the new norm.

It’s real life concerts that make the difference these days in terms of separating the wannabes from the real talents. You can’t just rely on the web to make your reputation, especially these days when anybody can sound great on a recording, at the press of a button.

The really incredible thing about mp3.com was that for two years (and perhaps for the first time in the history of music), there were people who did make their living from recordings who did everything themselves; without management, without labels. That’s not happened before or since. We (as a community of musicians) really blew it by making the wrong choices. I’m not sure if it could have been changed, but it was a really exciting thing to be part of that.

@Emperor, Darby and Alison, your comments are greatly appreciated.

Dan T.
Pretty nice piece. But, since I don’t share the antipathy to anything in the “geek”, “cyberlibertarian”, “Web 2.0″ mode that’s common on sites like this, I’d prefer it without the preordained conclusions that the way to go is to conservatively follow the way things have been done for 100 years in other media, like “What should have happened at this point is that MP3.com should have started paying into Performance Rights Organizations such as BMI and ASCAP to cover regular performance and mechanical royalties”, like making any attempt to come up with a different business model was some sort of sin that the site was justly punished for.

What your article shows is that systems will get gamed and abused by people, sometimes enough to doom the entire project. Sticking to the way things were done a century ago might be one way to avoid this (those old systems get gamed too, but clearly not enough to make them collapse, since they haven’t), but this is no guarantee of continued success either (ask the buggy whip industry, if it were around to ask); sometimes times change and it’s necessary to adjust, even if this involves trying and failing at new ideas before something better is eventually arrived at.

Paul Wehage
@Dan T. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. This is kind of like writing a paper about the French revolution: you already know that Louis XVI gets his head chopped off in that story. The interesting question is whether or not anything he did before could have been changed to make the end of the story different.

In this case, I already knew why mp3.com got sued by Universal: because they weren’t following copyright laws and thought that they were protected by the “new technology” and that their innovative business model made them immune to these laws. The lawsuit proved that they were wrong. If they had “conservatively” followed the usual practice at the beginning and had gotten licenses from BMI/ASCAP/FOX for everything on the site, Universal could not have sued them. Since they thought that “Beam it” was covered under “fair use” (are you listening, Wikipedia?) and that they had free licenses for the rest of the content, mp3.com thought that they had their bases covered. All of this could have been avoided.

The whole point of that passage being that although the law takes awhile to catch up with new technology, it eventually does. Innovative technology and business practices sometimes do give innovative operations a bit of slack, but not always…and not forever. Being the “new thing” is not a license to do whatever you wish without bothering to follow the rules.

On pps 115-116 of her article “Cyber Civil Rights” (which can be downloaded here), Danielle Citron gives a very interesting model of how the law adapts to new technology. At first, the risk is identified. Secondly, a more permissive period begins where the law allows the new technology to flourish. Finally, in the third stage, the law sees that ligation is not going to hurt the emerging technology and starts accepting cases, which leads to lawsuits which drive some out of business, but not all. I believe that this process is what happened to mp3.com. I also believe we are currently going from stage 2 to stage 3 in community-driven web 2.0 websites. This is a theme that I will be exploring in future pieces.

David Holley
Interesting and thoughtful analysis. It seems that yet again a lack of control over content contributors inherent in many “crowdsourced” applications, combined with a refusal to recognize these problems as they arose, led to the downfall of something which had the potential to be successful.

Hopefully subsequent articles will continue in this thought-provoking vein.

Dan T.
The people running the site didn’t believe themselves to be breaking the law; they had a reasonably sensible argument for their activities being covered under fair use. Unfortunately for them, the judge didn’t agree, but it was impossible to predict this in advance; they gambled and lost. It doesn’t seem to be so much of an open-and-shut case as you make it to be.

Paul Wehage
@Dan T. I never intended to imply that Universal’s case against mp3.com was “open-and-shut”, as a matter of course. In many ways, in much the same way that Wikipedia is at the top of its game today, Mp3.com was untouchable: a wildly popular and profitable website, an army of artists to do the promotion and content creation, a profitable business model, and innovative use of technology.

The problem is that the story did indeed end the way it ended and mp3.com’s servers were erased. That’s what happened, so mp3.com was not reasonable in implying that they were protected by “fair use” because they weren’t.

No one could have “known” this in advance, but one can know it after the fact. And the process seems to be common enough that other legal scholars have identified it and are applying it to other cases. This hypothesis seems to have validity in that sense.

Kato
This is an excellant blog post, by the way. I think I’d grown used to the repetitive and frustrated critiques we usually read and write on the Wikipedia Review, and was refreshingly impressed here.

Much food for thought, and the piece has significantly impacted on my thinking about this whole business.

Great start, and good Work.

Paul Wehage
Thanks, Kato!

I think that it’s extremely useful to take a few steps back and get away from the focus on Users that is so prevalent on WR to look at the larger patterns. I think that there are many “larger picture” issues that can be uncovered through this type of comparative analysis…and at the end of the day, the problem is not what one user does to another, but what the whole does to society.

Jon Awbrey
Preacher, Choir. Choir, Preacher.

Anthony DiPierro
I don’t think that licenses from BMI/ASCAP/FOX could have saved mp3.com, because these licenses would have only covered broadcasting, while what mp3.com wanted to do with “Beam It” was duplication and distribution (and thus not covered by statutory license).

Maybe they could have negotiated licenses for each song/album, one at a time, like Apple has now done for iTunes. I was under the impression that the vast majority of record labels were still under the delusion that they didn’t need to embrace these new technologies, though. Maybe I’m wrong on that point – I didn’t realize that many/most of the record labels other than Universal negotiated an out of court settlement.

In any case, mp3.com opted for the wiki wiki path rather than the akahele one. And that made all the difference.

Thanks for the great post, Paul. You’ll be a tough act to follow.

TCO
Read BURN RATE. I read it in 1998 and already knew the dynamic at that time. Wolff talks about “chat” versus “edited content”. Chat ruled then and now. Web 2.0 is just Wolff’s chat.

Les McQueen
Thank you Paul. Tremendous article.

Tragic really, the demise of such an inspirational site. Fond memories.

For a moment mp3.com really did offer a new way for musicians and songwriters. People often misunderstand what motivates ‘artists’. The power of the community there, the previously unknown opportunity to be heard and appreciated by an audience of other music lovers across the world meant a huge amount to many people. Empowering stuff. Mp3.com mattered.

Yes a few people were making a living (and yes things did get stupid with the gaming), but I don’t think the emotional return that the site offered artists should be overlooked. That was the saddest thing about mp3.com disappearing, all the connection, all the interaction, the kudos, the culture, the community, the esteem, all the relevance rendered irrelevant at the flick of a switch.

Back in your box you unsigned twats (twatter perhaps)

It’s a shit business. LM