Come on over to MySpace

The much-praised website is the first port of call for many music chiefs - but not everyone is a fan, says David Sinclair
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Glenn Crouch is a product manager at Virgin Records. One of his bands, Cat the Dog, have been touring this month with The Kooks. So every morning when he gets into work, Crouch logs on to MySpace to see how they have been getting on. He reads any new comments that have appeared, checks how many new "friends" (ie fans) they have picked up and notes how many extra plays their tracks have had since the last gig. This monitoring process has a direct bearing on the recommendations that Crouch will make in the future marketing of the band. "You want to know that the excitement is building," he says. "If it's remaining static, then obviously that is a worry."

In a short space of time, MySpace has not only become a social networking phenomenon, it has also revolutionised the working practices of the music industry. Music is the de facto hub around which the vast, globally sprawling network of MySpace members (123 million and still rising) revolves. And with that kind of audience signalling either approval or indifference on a daily basis, it is the movers and shakers of the record industry who are paying the closest attention.

Crouch, like most industry professionals, is a fan at heart. So, once he has checked out the bands on his own label, he will stop off at the MySpace pages of one or two of his favourites. These include Whispertown2000 and Giant Drag, both of which are quirky, indie-rock bands from California with shrill female singers who came to his attention through MySpace. "A lot of it is down to what your online friends are listening to and what people you have hooked up with tell you is hot," Crouch says. "If I click on a friend's list of friends and I see a couple of bands on there that I've never heard of, then I'll check them out. And, obviously, as I work for a record company, I get new bands coming to me all the time, wanting to add me as a friend. I listen to all of them, probably reject quite a lot of them and add a few to my friends as well. Also, if I'm looking in NME on a Tuesday afternoon and there's a couple of bands in there that I haven't heard of, I'll get straight on to their MySpace page to check them out as well."

The idea that a band or solo artist with any aspirations whatsoever would not have a page on MySpace is now virtually unthinkable. And it is the sheer universality of the experience that makes MySpace such a compulsive and exciting prospect. In his groundbreaking book, The Long Tail, Chris Anderson profiles the interests of a typical 16-year-old boy called Ben, brought up in the era of the internet. "From Ben's perspective, the cultural landscape is a seamless continuum from high to low, with commercial and amateur content competing equally for his attention. He simply doesn't distinguish between mainstream hits and underground niches..." - Anderson is writing about consumption in a more general sense, but this description matches the experience of a music fan flitting around the endlessly connected musical world of MySpace. The biggest bands on the planet will all have a MySpace page. And so will the kids that you heard last weekend hammering away in their dad's garage. And so will just about everyone in between. And while the quality of the musical content may vary enormously, the sites are all constructed to essentially the same, simple-to-manage (free) template.

As a member, with my own songs up on MySpace since last year, I can vouch for the efficiency with which the site puts your music in front of people from all over the world. On a practical level, it helps to steer people towards your gigs and generally aids in building a profile. It also provides a generic platform for music, along with other creative activities (writing, photography, poetry, art), which didn't exist a few years ago. And it is a lot of fun.

"I'm on MySpace every day," says Dante Bonutto, an A&R executive at Universal Music. "Any band you want to find out about, you go to MySpace before you go to their official website now. A lot of young bands don't even run an official website. If a band didn't have a MySpace site, you would think they are not on the case. The corporate world is expecting bands to do that first bit of work themselves."

Bonutto has been closely monitoring the MySpace progress of a band called Enter Shikari from St Albans, who secured a publishing deal with Universal some time go, but have yet to sign a recording contract. "MySpace has been their major weapon," says Bonutto. "They're now getting something like 3,000 plays every day and because record companies can see that for themselves, they have become one of the hottest unsigned bands around."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Jon Webster, director of independent member services at the UK record companies' trade association, the BPI, has little inclination to go browsing there in search of new music. "It became a cliché at the start of this year," he says. "The world can't all be looking at MySpace. There's so much on there, it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. I went to an industry do in Belfast recently with all these bands. And they all come up and they all give you their demo. And they've all got a mobile phone number and they've all got their MySpace address on it - every single one of them. It starts to become a bit meaningless."

Did Webster go and check out their sites? "No. I didn't have the time. There's an awful lot of music out there. There has never been an easier time to make an album cheaply, easily and make it available to the world. That doesn't mean that they're all being more successful or that anyone's hearing them. Also, there's a lot of crap out there. Just because you can easily do it, doesn't make it any good. It's a lazy A&R man's tool."

Webster also manages Francis Dunnery, who used to be the singer and guitarist in It Bites, and now enjoys a flourishing independent solo career. Webster tells me that Dunnery doesn't bother with MySpace. He has his own website and that is sufficient. But hang on. Two clicks and I'm looking at the MySpace site for... Francis Dunnery. "Well, someone has put his music up there without permission. I'll kill 'em," he says, cheerfully. "What does copyright mean these days?"

The Dunnery MySpace site, like many others, has been organised by one of the singer's more industrious fans, who has made no attempt to conceal this detail from visitors to the site. The fans who have gravitated to the page are not particularly bothered by this. "I am thankful someone has given Francis Dunnery a place on MySpace. I miss hearing his music and would love to order more CDs in the near future," reads one message posted by Janet, who is 38 and comes from New Cumberland in Pennsylvania. A graduate in photography, Janet is also a fan of Morrissey, David Gray, James Blunt and Keane, all of whom she links to on her own MySpace page. And so the cycle continues.

The authenticity of many MySpace sites and the degree to which artists are involved in constructing and managing their own MySpace pages is something of an issue, not to mention the unauthorised use of copyrighted material. Generally speaking, the bigger the act, the less likely they are to be playing a genuine hands-on role in managing their MySpace page. Often, it is a simple matter of not having enough time in the day, and many acts will leave it to someone at their label or management company to do it on their behalf. The labels try hard not to make their involvement too obvious, but you can usually gauge how much personal input a particular band has made by the general tone and level of professionalism of the page.

One major-label artist who continues to run his own MySpace page is the American star John Mayer. The level of traffic on his site is phenomenal - about 40,000 plays per day - and yet Mayer keeps a close eye on the site and still writes his own blogs there. "MySpace is the mouthpiece for a culture now," says Mayer, in London this week to promote his album Continuum. "It's not television any more, it's MySpace. It's how people are communicating. I don't respond to all the comments, so much as I read them. I don't like responding on the internet. There's something about it that is so futile. We're going to have a whole generation of kids who can't drop an argument. Because you just go back and forth."

Dan Keeling, the managing director of Island Records and a former A&R man responsible for signing Coldplay and Athlete, and for co-signing Lily Allen, says: "MySpace is useful, but it is not the be-all and end-all. You can get a little lost if you spend too long hanging round in the virtual world and neglect the grass-roots part of the job, which is to go out, hear bands and communicate face to face with people. You've got to maintain a balance."

David Stark, who runs SongLink, an international tip sheet that helps to place the work of songwriters with recording artists, is another convert to MySpace. "I've found some really good people on there, good songs, made lots of contacts and I use it for my business, increasingly so," Stark says. "People look to me for guidance, so I get a lot of wannabes, but I also get a lot of good people. If anything, I think it makes it too easy. That's the problem. There may be a lot of fakers, but you can quickly weed them out. I know that some people in the business only go on MySpace and don't go on anything else these days. For me, it's the tip of the iceberg."