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In the years since News Corp. bought it, the name “MySpace” has become a synonym for a certain type of epic freefall, the kind that can only happen in the frictionless atmosphere of the internet. When something so big plunges so far so fast, it generates a lot of downward momentum. Anyone who tries to reverse its trajectory risks getting pulled down with it.
But what if MySpace wasn’t really a disaster in the first place? Or, rather, what if there was a substantial success concealed within the failure, one that could form the nucleus of a healthy new business?
That’s the view of brothers Chris and Tim Vanderhook. A year ago, their ad network, Specific Media, bought MySpace from News Corp. for the fire-sale price of $35 million. Their partner in the deal was singer/actor Justin Timberlake.
Investing in tech companies is quite the fashion now for young entertainers, but Timberlake’s no mere digital dilettante. Nor is his presence a publicity stunt. His role is to help MySpace rediscover what the Vanderhooks say ought to have been its core mission all along: connecting musicians to their fans.
Musical artists were among the first to flock to MySpace, and they were the last loyalists to stick around when most casual users had moved on to Facebook and Twitter. “If you think about the MySpace brand, to the average consumer it was negative, but to the artist community it was positive,” says Tim, Specific Media’s CEO. “They need MySpace to succeed.”
Musicians only soured on MySpace after a relaunch in October 2010 that took away a lot of the functionality they relied on to promote their music and touring to their fans. “They ended up alienating who their core was,” says Tim.
Still, the orientation lingers. When Specific Media surveyed the site’s remaining registered users last year to find out what they were hoping to get out of Myspace, 60% said they were there in hopes of getting discovered.
The Vanderhooks approached the idea of buying MySpace with a vague idea of refocusing it around music. They approached Timberlake — “We knew we needed a third leg of the stool,” says Tim — who convinced them that they key was to win back artists by giving them a platform from which they could run their businesses and manage their brands.
The new MySpace is just that. It’s not a social network per se but a socially-powered venue wherein music fans can experience artists through every facet of their output — music, videos, photos, profiles, social feeds, live events and ticket sales. “MySpace is the only site in the world where you can get everything an artist does if you’re interested in that artist,” says Chris. “To do all those things would probably take you 30 different properties.”
In essence, MySpace is going from being a Facebook also-ran to being a more comprehensive Spotify alternative. In fact, its music catalog, at 42 million songs, is more than twice as large as Spotify’s. “It’s the world’s largest library of music,” says Chris. “It dwarfs anybody else’s.” (To be fair, the bulk of the difference consists of long-tail stuff from unsigned and unknown artists.)
After a year of rebuilding both the site’s front-end and back-end, the new site is almost ready for its public debut. “We had to take a billion dollars’ worth of technology investment and trash it” because of unfixable problems such as slow page load times, says Tim.
An employee-only beta period is now under way. Later this year, it will open up to artists, followed by the public.
Even now, with the site still showing its News Corp.-era face, MySpace’s tighter focus is starting to show results, say the Vanderhooks. After shedding audience at the rate of 3 million unique users a month for two straight years, it has stabilized at 30 million uniques and begun slowly climbing back up.
Would progress be faster if MySpace didn’t have that troublesome name weighing it down? The brothers say no. They never considered changing it. “Why would I have bought it if I were going to change the game?” asks Tim.
“We believe in the brand,” says Chris. “We’re not into positive territory yet, but we’re starting to notch it toward neutral.”