Friday, September 26, 2008

The return of Muxtape... sort of

After a long period of silence, Muxtape's Justin has posted a story of what happened before the service disappeared, and what he plans to do next.

The next is fairly simple - a relaunch as a Web 2.0 networking service:

Musicians in 2008 without access to a full time web developer have few options when it comes to establishing themselves online, but their needs often revolve around a common set of problems. The new Muxtape will allow bands to upload their own music and offer an embeddable player that works anywhere on the web, in addition to the original muxtape format. Bands will be able to assemble an attractive profile with simple modules that enable optional functionality such as a calendar, photos, comments, downloads and sales, or anything else they need. The system has been built from the ground up to be extended infinitely and is wrapped in a template system that will be open to CSS designers. There will be more details soon. The beta is still private at the moment, but that will change in the coming weeks.

If that sounds a bit like MySpace, and a slew of other services, that might be because it is. That doesn't mean he shouldn't try, but it's not Muxtape, it's something else and if we've learned anything from Napster, sticking a popular name on a legal-but-less-useful service is no guarantee of success.

So, then, what happened with the shut down? Justin's surprisingly generous to major labels, confusing the people who work for them who aren't kneejerk against web developments with company policy; even while he was getting legal threats from the RIAA, he believed he was winning labels' hearts:
. An RIAA notice arrived in triplicate, via email, registered mail, and FedEx overnight (with print and CD versions). They demanded that I take down six specific muxtapes they felt were infringing, so I did.

Around the same time I got a call from the VP of anti-piracy at one of the majors. After I picked up the phone his first words were, “Justin, I just have one question for you: where do I send the summons and complaint?”

But this, it seems, is just how those companies do business:
The conversation picked up from there. There was no summons, it was an intimidation tactic setting the tone for the business development meeting he was proposing, the true reason for the call. Around the same time another one of the big four’s business developers reached out to me, too.

Justin sees this as a positive sign - and, perhaps it is. But his experiences at Universal and EMI suggest otherwise:
In May I had my first meeting with a major label, Universal Music Group. I went alone and prepared myself for the worst, having spent the last decade toeing the indie party line that the big labels were hopelessly obstinate luddites with no idea what was good for them. I’m here to tell you now that the labels understand their business a lot better than most people suspect, although they each have their own surprisingly distinct personality when it comes to how they approach the future. The gentlemen I met at Universal were incredibly receptive and tactful; I didn’t have to sell them on why Muxtape was good for them, they knew it was cool and just wanted to get paid. I sympathized with that. I told them I needed some time to get a proposal together and we left things in limbo.

A few weeks later I had a meeting with EMI, the character of which was much different. I walked into a conference room and shook eight or nine hands, sitting down at a conference table with a phonebook-thick file labeled “Muxtape” laying on it. The people I met formed a semi-circle around me like a split brain, legal on one side and business development on the other. The meeting alternated between an intense grilling from the legal side (“you are a willful infringer and we are mere hours from shutting you down”) and an awkward discussion with the business side (“assuming we don’t shut you down, how do you see us working together?”). I asked for two weeks to make a proposal, they gave me two days.

Does this really sound like companies who "understood" Muxtape and wanted to work? One guy from Universal; a slew of figures from EMI whose idea of a business discussion is to run it like a bullying showcase?

And while all this was going on, the RIAA was getting ready to tell Amazon - who hosted the site - to take it down. Which is hardly fair dealing - sure, they may well have had the right to do so, but if their members are having discussions with the service about turning it legal, does it even make sense for them to be in the background also trying to kill the thing? Wouldn't square dealers at least say "look, this has to be closed, but let's talk about reviving it. That way, we can tell users what's happening, give them a date for the new, legal service."

But that's where it would have folded anyway, because, of course, the music industry didn't want Muxtape. It wanted its own service under the Muxtape brand:
The first red flag came in August. Up until then all the discussion had been about numbers, but as we closed in on an agreement the talk shifted to things like guaranteed placement and “marketing opportunities.” I was denied the possibility of releasing a mobile version of Muxtape. My flexibility was being constricted. I had been worried about Muxtape getting a fair deal, but my biggest concern all along was maintaing the integrity and experience of the site (one of the reasons I wanted to license in the first place). Now it wasn’t so simple; I had agreed to a variety of encroachments into Muxtape’s financials because I wanted to play ball, but giving up any kind of editorial or creative control was something I had a much harder time swallowing.

So the music industry "understood" Muxtape, except what it was. It was at this point Justin decided to walk away.

The upshot? Something would could have been delivering revenues to artists has vanished, replaced by other services which are fractured and harder to police; the audience loses something that was giving them new ways to love music and discover new artists. It's hard to see where the winners are.

[Thanks to Simon T]