Money for nothing?

MP3.com's Michael Robertson leads the music industry into techdom, but some say he's led it astray.

WHEN MP3.COM CEO and chairman Michael Robertson addressed a room packed with 200 record-industry personnel and musicians in Portland two weeks ago, the vibe was more revival meeting than music conference. The attendees of North by Northwest came to hear the golden boy of the synergized music and tech communities, whose company is currently worth about $2 billion, and he didn't fail to dazzle.

He clicked around the MP3.com site on a computer, his every move reflected on a giant screen behind him. As dozens held their hands aloft, anxiously hoping to get in a question, he coolly played off comments from loyal musicians who offered testimony about their initial successes with MP3.com—"Thank you," he said more than once, flashing a San Diego smile.

The musicians, like investors and Wall Street analysts, are rewarding Robertson and MP3.com with their support, though it's entirely unclear how the company—which went public this summer—fits into the music industry's future. The site offers free downloads of songs in the MP3 format, but it also allows virtually any would-be rock star to supply tracks free of charge; currently, more than 26,700 artists have taken Robertson up on the offer. Critics say that this makes it impossible to find any worthwhile music on the site. They say that MP3.com's riches stem from its having the right name—that of an insanely popular compressed sound file—at the right time, and they're quick to add that this scenario won't last forever.

Robertson is indignant. "A brand is what you build behind it," he tells Seattle Weekly on the phone from hometown San Diego. "Amazon wouldn't be Amazon without their customer support."

To understand Robertson's vision, one must put aside traditional notions of record companies, radio stations, CDs— essentially the entire infrastructure of the music industry—for the legions of unfamiliar band names on MP3.com; besides artists like Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos, with whom MP3.com has forged promotion deals to help establish its brand, most of the acts on the site are unsigned and unknown.

The business model for this company hardly seems static, but at the moment the primary goal is like that of many other players in the tech sector: Take names first and go from there. Thus MP3.com is wantonly signing up bands, registering users, and working deals with other music and tech companies now, and figuring out what to do with them later. Eventually, MP3.com's thinking goes, this will lead to more intelligent interaction with customers, thereby cutting away the waste associated with the $30 billion record industry. "Selling music will be replaced by selling consumers," Robertson has written in the column on his site.

In the meantime, MP3.com does have some tangible benefits for artists and consumers. Seattle's Kevin Goldman says that MP3.com is one of the sites he chose to promote his band, Maktub, for several reasons. It allows him to upload songs, offer sample tracks, and organize these tracks into CDs that MP3.com in turn manufactures and sells for 50 percent over whatever price he sets; currently, a five-song Maktub EP is available for $5.99. Another factor is that the site is easy to navigate. MP3.com may get faulted for overloading users with choices, but the search engine passes muster for Maktub. "If I run into a friend in the street and tell him to go to MP3.com," Goldman says, "I want them to [find our song] without being confused. MP3.com is a really solid site." He adds that a band can extend this concept, sending an email plugging its MP3s to recipients on the mailing lists that bands traditionally maintain to keep in contact with fans.

But most musicians don't have such a hands-on attitude. That's why the ultimate goal is to sign with a label, which in theory separates the bad bands from the good, thus facilitating the music world version of Darwinism. The record industry, and increasingly the music-minded sector of the tech industry, refuses to swallow Robertson's vision whole. Fully aware that there's money to be made and music to be promoted on the Web, they're sticking closer to the original system. "MP3.com is a Web site for people who are interested in a file format, not for people who are interested in music," says Matt Wishnow of Insound.com, a fledgling New York-based site. Insound.com works directly with labels and artists, offering downloads, custom compilations, a record store, zines, and streamed videos; it mainly caters to an indie-rock crowd. "It's not to say the content [on MP3.com] is bad," Wishnow adds. "It's just completely unfiltered."

OTHER COMPETITORS ARE less charitable toward free MP3 sites. "It's a Utopian ideal they have in allowing anyone to post songs," says Rich Bauer, executive vice president of CDuctive. "I'm sure it's meaningful to the [bands], but it's not meaningful to anyone else." Bauer's company consists of a street team that scouts talent, then signs labels and the artists to deals that include selling CDs, tracks to be used on custom CDs, and downloadable songs.

Taking the scouting idea one step further is the just-launched Garageband.com, a San Francisco-based company cofounded by former Talking Heads guitarist and current rock producer Jerry Harrison. The new site allows artists to upload songs, which in turn are scrutinized and voted on by a community of peers and record producers. Eventually, Garageband.com will serve as a sort of label, offering $250,000 recording contracts to those whose songs score best.

All of this is academic to Robertson, who plows on with MP3.com, striking deals (the latest allows him to post previously unreleased live recordings by Tina Turner) and preaching his gospel. "Any artist who thinks they're going to make a living selling CDs is wrong," he says, allowing that some superstars buck this thesis. "Artists have to take advantage of a lot of resources."

 
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