Hello, hello. I have a couple of quick announcements. First: I’m conducting a poll about the Penny Fractions Patreon that you can find here. Rather than clutter up this intro, my reasoning for the poll comes after all the fun stuff. Second: On May 29th, I’ll be speaking on a panel hosted by The Baffler and organized by Liz Pelly that will include performances by Public Practice and Xenia Rubinos. If you’re in NYC, I hope you can make it out. Now let’s get to chatting a bit about MySpace and the not-so-permanent life of digital music.
In March, MySpace reportedly lost its entire back catalog of music. 50 million is the number of tracks that were allegedly lost in this slow decay of the once nearly ubiquitous music streaming and social media platform. The company provided a single uninspired statement about what happened to all of its digital history: “As a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago may no longer be available on or from MySpace.” Later I’ll dive into how we got to a place where a decade worth of culture could be so effortlessly lost, but first I want to give a little bit of context around the music environment that birthed MySpace.
What Was a MySpace?
The early 2000s were a fairly exciting time to be a music fan, even if they were a bit unnerving for the overall industry. The hyper-inflated CD-driven profits of the 1990s suddenly nosedived due to a rise in competition for the attention of music fans. After causing the fall of Napster, record labels put their collective weight behind restrictive music download and streaming platforms like MusicNet and pressplay. Unlike in the contemporary music market, fans could find plenty of legal and illegal alternatives to downloading their favorite songs, which left both platforms as rather unappealing options.
The iTunes store launched in early 2001 and offered a legal option for fans to opt out of the exploitative CD model that defined the previous decades, where record labels colluded to jack up CD prices. Then, on the less-than-legal side, platforms like Limewire and Kazaa offered fans the ability to seek out their favorite songs without having to buy into the restrictive digital rights management of iTunes systems. Blaming piracy for blowing up the music industry glosses over just how radically the music market shifted from 1998 (a year before Napster’s launch) to 2003 (the year MySpace launched).
MySpace was founded in 2003 by employees of eUniverse, an internet marketing company, who were enamored with the early social media site Friendster. The platform quickly grew in popularity and in 2005 was bought by Rubert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $580 million in hopes to expand its internet reach. Looking back on that purchase, what was it specifically that Murdoch’s company was looking to gain from the emerging social media platform? Well, the press release shared around the purchase helps shine a light here (emphasis mine):
As a result, MySpace.com is a favorite with online advertisers - in June the site served more than 8 percent of all ads on the Internet, putting it in the company of Web giants Yahoo!, Google and AOL. It has also become a key music destination, with more than 350,000 bands and artists - including REM, the Black Eyed Peas and Weezer - having used the site to launch new albums and enable users to sample and share songs.
Fast-forwarding to the present and looking at how uninterested MySpace appeared with its massive catalog, shows the issue of instilling for-profit companies with such cultural artifacts. MySpace sought to make money through online advertising and I doubt there were many pitch decks concerned with how to best preserve its contents as if were a public good like a city park. This issue is further exasperated in the digital era, where without any physical products being made, the only record of the music could potentially rest on abandoned servers that may simply be lost to history. I don’t say this with glee, but it also can’t be a surprising outcome when such a big part of culture is absorbed by an advertising-driven company that lacks any desire to find value in material that can’t bring in money.
Do All Songs Go To Heaven?
I’m 27, which I’m sharing with you because when I was an early internet user in the late 90s and early 2000s there was a strong strain of tech-utopian ideology that seeped into many parts of how people conceived certain aspects of the internet. The heyday of torrents and illegal downloads made it seem like once something appeared on the internet, it’d remain in some easily duplicable copy format forever. However, now in 2019, that vision of the internet is slowly crumbling and in certain spaces, it’s already gone.
The criminalization of media piracy and the slow suppression of file-sharing and more recently audio-ripping sites only heightens just how the seemingly endless supply of illicit media was never quite that permanent. Thus, when MySpace finally admitted that its own archive was lost, no public campaigns were launched, no billionaire or superstar artist offered to save the music. Nope, a decade's worth of mainstream and underground culture simply evaporated, as music fans were forced to accept that only multi-national corporations could be their ultimate gatekeepers of a readily available musical canon.
Contemporary music streaming services aren’t meticulous histories of recorded music, but rather a partial history of recorded music with the intent for profit. This is an undercurrent that Joseph Ohegyi, a musician and writer, touches on in Rhyming Guitar, a zine that he released earlier this year, which dives into a number of albums that never quite made the proper transition from vinyl to CD or from CD to streaming. He opens the zine by detailing the convoluted recording and release history of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express:
The modern listener is unable to compare the differences and decide their preference. Their choice is simply mediated by what the artist or record company desire they hear. In the case of Trans-Europe Express, they choose not only the modern remastering, but the English-language version of the album, and display an album cover that is entirely different from the original. These revisions have become the “identity” of the album for many listeners, and remain unchallenged in the marketplace.
What music piracy offered throughout the 2000s was an option to find all of these different versions of songs and albums as if to say all of these different versions were worth giving a listen, as they represented different points of reproduction. Yet, a decade-plus of litigation sued most of these ecosystems out of existence, and in some instances specific people were targeted with the full weight of the music industry as a strong arm measure to say, “don’t you dare go into those waters.” The destruction of illegal music distribution platforms and the ongoing battles that happen with song-ripping websites today are ultimately a concerted effort by private multinational companies and state governments to crush out the ability for a non-commercial musical archive to exist. Musical knowledge, rather than building upon each successive generation, instead limits itself by simply reproducing what can or is expected to generate revenue.
That’s why it oddly felt so normal to read about MySpace losing millions of songs. The consolidation of digital music in the 2010s leads to these moments, where older platforms decay and fall away without any real desire to sustain them once they’ve lost the relentless competition for listeners. If there ever were an art form that should exist without bending to the whims of market pressures, it’d be nice to imagine that to be a medium of air vibrations. Perhaps that’s utopian, so for now enjoy the streaming service of your choosing until we wake up and realize that there are no other options.
6 Links 2 Read
Music industry takes aim at Fortnite over song royalties - The Guardian
Record labels can’t ever miss out on a potential revenue stream!
Watch out, record labels: Spotify is inserting podcasts into personalized playlists - Music Business Worldwide
Obviously, Spotify would rather users listen to podcasts (that aren’t connected to record labels and are often longer) which could increase how much time users spend on the app. Are users interested in algorithmically chosen podcasts in between their songs? Who knows. But also, to be perfectly honest, Spotify users could likely see this happen whether they like or not, simply because Spotify needs to start making podcasts look like a success to potentially spook labels and to make more inroads into the industry.
Music Superstars Are the New One Percenters - Wall Street Journal
Unsurprisingly, just like in many other sectors of the economy, the top 1% of live musical acts are increasingly taking a larger share of the money. The article doesn’t highlight the consolidation of live music to essentially only mean AEG or Live Nation, so while so artists are indeed making bigger bucks, it’s those two companies who are the real winners here.
The short story here is that Playboi Carti got a small viral hit, based off of a snippet of a Young Nudy song leak. If there ever were a case for entirely re-examining how music streaming payouts work its encapsulated in this little story.
Cherie does a nice job here of breaking down why despite rap’s dominance over streaming charts, it doesn’t seem to produce the same eye-popping opening day numbers. I’ll get into another week, but Cherie’s piece points to another trend I’ve noticed that non-rap music is finally starting to break in this streaming-first era.
Patreon Survey Thoughts
I mentioned this survey at the top but wanted to explain the reasoning for it a bit briefly here. I do spend quite a lot of time on this newsletter every week to find news stories, research, talk to people and keep up with all that’s happening in the industry. The point of the Patreon is ultimately to help set up a way for this project to not only continue sustainably but also improve week-over-week and not stagnate into just a thousand words of poorly researched thoughts. That’s why I brought on a couple of people to help with copy editing and now research as well. Yet, unsurprisingly, I wanted to compensate them for their time and effort helping me with this. The next current Patreon goal is $300, which I’d love to reach by the end of 2019, so as this newsletter hits two years of age I can feel it’ll be able to keep going in the longer term. So if you have some time to take the survey that’d be appreciated!
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found on his website. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. Any comments or concerns can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.