By Richard Menta 1/24/09
At Midem this January Google VP of content David Eun relayed this bit of personal insight about his negotiations with Warner Music Group over their pullout of YouTube. "There is a culture that says, 'these are my interests, meet them, and if you meet them, then maybe we'll let you have access to our content'." Eun continued, "In that sort of approach, there's really not a concern for the other person's business."
Eun's comments reveal the real root to the label's more than decade long struggle to manage their content on the web. The culture he refers to make the labels poor business partners and this has severely hindered their ability to build successful digital business models. Internally, this label culture clashed with the culture evolving on the Net, thwarting any insiders capable of building a competent digital vision.
Of course, this struggle is what made it all so interesting to the MBA in me. How companies handle disruptive technologies is studied in business school. The signs that the record industry would have difficulty came early on, though I never imagined the conflict would go so deep or last so long.
The Road to MP3 Newswire Continues
I left Simon and Schuster in 1998 for a position at the New York Law Journal where I would run their newly minted Internet Marketing effort. Before I made this leap I started my own website for fun, literally.
The MentaNet News appeared during the early winter of 1997 and it was a news humor site that allowed me to mangle the top stories of the day, part time, for my own personal amusement. It was a little thing, really - until I looked at the statistics I set up for the site and discovered that some of my stories picked up some serious traffic. For me it was a lesson in the egalitarian nature of the web that confirmed that anyone with something to say can generate an audience from their living room. For a brief period I wrote for both sites at the same time, but eventually shuttered the humor site for the MP3 site. For those curious, the MentaNet News still exists on the Internet archive.
Back to the New York law Journal where I was overseeing the re-design of their eCommerce site by the fall of 1998. Among the books, magazines and other reference material hawked by them, the Journal sold cassette tapes of presentations held at the various conferences they hosted. This creaky, but ubiquitous, technology allowed me to be creative with yet another digital business model. I applied my audio codec knowledge to build a section on the NYLJ.com website where the audio from each session was digitized and sold as a download. It was one of the earliest attempts to sell digitized audio content over the web.
While working on this project one of my co-workers dropped in to my office. He wanted to show me something he knew I would find interesting, a little toy he picked up for himself that might fit with the digital content store I conceived. In his hand was the 32MB Diamond Rio PMP 300, the second MP3 portable to hit the market.
I was amazed at that little device. It was Spartan in design and held only a mere 32MB of memory, enough for a dozen or so songs. It was also expensive; the Rio cost a very healthy $250. Nonetheless, it also represented a dramatic improvement from the bulky portable cassette and CD players, which were enslaved by the dimensions of the physical formats they played.
I was told by the marketing people at the Journal that most of the lawyers who bought these cassette conference sessions listened to them while commuting to work. My co-worker suggested that if lawyers were going to buy presentations in digital formats they might be interested in a portable device to play it on for the commute. He idea was compelling and on the spot I made the decision that these downloads would be sold in the MP3 format. The Rio made that decision for me. It also inspired me to do more.
The Rio PMP 300 was more than a milestone player. It was more than the first DAP to sell well in the marketplace. It was the player that launched a fleet of digital music initiatives and an infusion of market capital to go with it. That's because the Rio was such a success leading into the holiday season of 1998 it served as proof-of-concept that there existed a vibrant digital market. That ignited a rush to capitalize on it.
MP3.com, which launched the end of 1997, can partially credit its record breaking IPO in the summer of 1999 to the success of the Rio. Sony rushed to get its first DAP out by the end of 1999, hoping to dominate early on (it didn't). And let us not forget that little collegiate side project that made such a noise, Napster.
The now defunct Rio can likewise claim MP3 Newswire as one of its progeny .
The combination of digital media and the Internet promised dramatic changes and I wanted to do more than follow it. I wanted to document it. Document, but not write about it initially. I was already consumed by a day job and the MentaNet News and that didn't leave a lot of personal time left over. When I launched MP3 Newswire that December of 1998 it was as a simple news aggregation site that pointed to the articles of others regarding the technology and its use.
Immediately it became apparent that the real story was not hardware and applications, but the visceral conflict between innovation and copyright holders. More important, few stories at that time dared venture in the gray areas of fair use and the rights of copyright holders. People could now do things with digital media never before possible. Who decides which of these new uses are acceptable and which are not, let alone makes statements on what is morally correct? The RIAA? The consumer?
As a member of a then very select group of people experienced in this space I felt compelled to throw my two cents in. So as we ventured deeper into 1999 I scratched out a commentary whenever I got the chance. The problem was that there was a lot to comment on and so few people commenting on it.
I began to write more and more frequently, probing those gray areas between the rights of consumers and the rights of business people trying to make a buck. I gave my insights, not as the only answer to given issue, but to start talk and debate.
Without trying to I became the first digital music columnist. There were others who wrote about digital music and digital media in general before me, but to the best of my knowledge I knew of no others who specialized in it. Digital music was just one topic out of a much broader spectrum of stories these authors wrote about. Wired and CNET gave plenty of early coverage on digital music and its struggles, but MP3 Newswire was arguably the first news publication to solely focus on it. MP3.com did have a news section, which ran commentary including my own, but that site was about much more than news. The point is sources of original digital news were very few and far between at this stage.
Looking back, it suprises me that I had the time and stamina to write all the MP3 Newswire articles I penned in those early years. 1999 was also the year I started my career as a dotcom executive for a start-up called Desktop News. I decided that I would earn my dotcom fortune via a full news aggregation service that already had millions in investment dollars rather than a topic specific site with a growing audience, but narrow revenue potential.
I was the head of content at Desktop News and I waited anxiously for our IPO to come to fruition. My eagerness for the IPO was not so I could cash in - though that thought still sounds very appealing - but because with that money I was going to shift Desktop News away from aggregated content and build one of the first online-only news organizations.
For someone ambitious Desktop News offered far more potential. My vision was to build an organization designed to experiment with new business models for online news gathering and delivery, which meant it would have flexibility built-in so we could quickly shift from models that struggled to those that showed clear results. By definition start-ups are risk heavy and the flexibility I planned to build into Desktop News would have helped control this risk. It never got to that point.
Even in failure, Desktop News could have been my greatest legacy to date simply as a case study for today's cash-starved newspapers as to what does not work online and why. Unfortunately, the dotcom bust killed all IPOs for a time and shortly thereafter Desktop News. Our investors, who made up our board, no longer could stomach the risk. Despite the fact we were not burning though our cash as the Boo.coms of the world (of which there were sadly too many) the investors pulled their money back out. Desktop News formally expired in 2001, leaving MP3 Newswire as a survivor of the dotcom crash .
In between Desktop News and a shift in careers to Information Security I scribe even more articles for MP3 Newswire. MP3 player reviews became a particular specialty of mine by this point. Again, I didn't plan on it, but I found many of the early DAP reviews all too brief and sparse on detail. I suspect some were written within hours after receiving the unit, that's how superficial they could be. I preferred to live with the device for between two weeks to a month before putting pen to paper. This way I could better relay the true user experience.
I wrote these reviews not from the viewpoint of a tech savvy person looking to compare S/N ratios, but from the experience of an average - not necessarily technical - consumer. I focused on the day-to-day use of the player. How well do the keys work? Is the navigation intuitive and the display clear? I also talked about how these units were evolving, focusing on features that I saw as groundbreaking and how it could all fit in the grand scheme. Just read my 2000 review of Creative's Nomad Jukebox to get an idea.
These player reviews could get quite lengthy at times - lengthy for then, normal today - but the detail was welcomed among the digerati. They were so well received that I eventually became the MP3 player reviewer for Amazon and the original MP3.com.
Looking back I am amazed that I managed to do as much as I did with this site. My professional life certainly took a lot of turns during this period. In 1999 I left the New York Law Journal for dot com fortunes as head of content for Desktop News. When everything went dot bust in 2001 I changed careers and moved into Information Security (yes Virginia, my day job is in intellectual property protection and that is not as ironic as you may think).
More recently I have cut down quite a bit on my writing, but I'm still offering my two-cents. I am extremely proud of what this site has achieved, which is mostly that is fostered debate.
I would especially like to take a moment and thank all the writers who allowed there own take on the subject to dress these pages. I learned from all of you as did all of your readers. The list includes George Ziemann of AzOz whose five part series "Thomas Edison, Intellectual Property and the Recording Industry" was epic. There is Jon Newton of P2Pnet who wrote from the viewpoint of the artist. Thomas Mennecke of Slyck.com who has the pulse of the P2P applications. There is Russell McOrmond and Michael Geist who offered their Canadian insight. I would also like to add Paul Resnikoff of Digital Music News, who never wrote for the site, but who influenced my writing through the many phone conversations we had on the state of digital media and the record industry.
One more note. MP3 Newswire has been in desperate need of an update for years now. It is a relic of pre-2000 web design, but I barely have time to write for it let alone focus on a total re-design. I don't know when I will be able to give it that badly needed update so I just ask all of you to please be patient with it.
I would like to end now with a short list of some of the recognition the site has received over the years. Yes, I guess I am blowing my own horn a bit, so forgive me. I am simply very proud of what has been achieved:
Here is a reconition from last November I personally was a part of outside of MP3 Newswire:
Again, to all who have read and supported us. Thank You........
iRiver Spinn is available on Amazon