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Indie Digital Music: Ending with a Whimper?

Last week CNET announced its purchase of "certain assets" of the once-ballyhooed independent music distribution company MP3.com for an undisclosed sum. Those assets appear to be mainly the domains and any clout the MP3.com brand may still carry: as of 02-Dec-03, the existing MP3.com will shut down and the company will delete and destroy the hosted music and materials of an estimated 250,000 artists from all over the world. The company also says it won't be giving CNET any information about its customers or users. CNET hasn't announced its plans for MP3.com, but I expect it will create a new site focusing on the technologies and news of the digital music world, much as it has done with the video-game-oriented GameSpot.com site.


Although MP3.com's heyday passed long ago - following substantial legal setbacks, the massive popularity of the original Napster, and MP3.com's ill-fated acquisition by Vivendi/Universal - the final demise of MP3.com marks a milestone in these early days of online music distribution: the one major, centralized outlet for independent, unsigned artists is no more.

For the sake of disclosure, one of my non-TidBITS alter egos is a professional musician, and I once maintained a page of freely downloadable music on MP3.com (as did several of my colleagues and clients). I mainly used MP3.com as a means to provide downloadable demos without consuming my limited bandwidth: I never attempted to sell CDs or earn money via MP3.com. This last was probably true for the vast majority of MP3.com artists: with a few notable exceptions, most never earned much or tried to sell anything.

Nonetheless, for several years MP3.com was the most recognizable and most-used online music distributor, search engine, directory, and clearinghouse for independent online music - and even for some signed artists who had online rights to their material or reasonable contracts with their distributors. It was still wise for artists to maintain separate Web sites (particularly once MP3.com's user experience began to decline as the site was "monetized"), but having a presence and even just a single recording on MP3.com was a great way for listeners and other artists to find you. Part of the joy of using MP3.com was searching for previously unknown artists and tracks, whether local acts or artists from the other side of the world.

I remember finding some neat electronica from a British duo (wish I still had it!), wonderful modern bossanova from a Brazilian teenager and his grand-uncle, and some truly horrendous rock from a local high school band - to be sure, much of what was on MP3.com wasn't all that great. But also I received numerous notes and inquiries from listeners around the world who would never have encountered my music otherwise, and the MP3.com page directly and indirectly helped me land a number of paid jobs. In fact, just this weekend I sat in with a band I first encountered via the site's regional charts - go figure.

There are still other independent online music distributors - prominent among them are 1Sound, SoundClick, and Ampcast - but none of them have captured the mindshare or experienced the massive artist adoption of MP3.com - and certainly none of them have approached MP3.com's levels of budget, resources, or staffing. There are also hybrid distributors like the seemingly very savvy CDBaby, which may emerge as a preferred way for independent artists to get into online services like the iTunes Music Store - over 5,000 albums are lined up right now at CDBaby if Apple ever opens its doors!


There's no question MP3.com was an unwieldy behemoth, but without it the community of independent online artists becomes a much more unnavigable, fractious morass. Enclaves of outstanding artists, music, and even online music distributors will survive and even thrive without MP3.com, but the means of discovering these things will be known to only a precious, clued-in few.

Make no mistake, I come to bury MP3.com, not to praise it: MP3.com made many tragic errors, broke many promises, alienated countless users and artists, behaved poorly, and ultimately suffocated under its own weight. But MP3.com nonetheless played an important role in the world of independent online music, and for that, it will be missed.


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