Saturday saw the launch of eefoof.com, a site that promises to share a percentage of the site’s revenue depending on how many viewers a video clip attracts.
Now, because I am very old, I remember the late-1990s, before any talk of Web 2.0, when user-contributed music websites like mp3.com were ‘the future of the music industry’, because they would allow undiscovered talent to bypass the gatekeeping mechanisms of the record industry. (Bearing in mind that conventional wisdom also suggested that these sites were really a workaround – a way for the companies concerned to stake out marketshare for digital music sevices without having to wait until the copyright mess was cleared up).
The idea ostensibly was that artists made their tracks available for free download and used the architecture of the network to ‘virally market’ their music, and that the cream would rise to the top in an unmediated, democratic fashion. Sound familiar? so far, so Youtube. But the business model for the artists (not for the site, which was based on an eyeballs-to-advertising model) relied on converting browsers’ attention into bums on seats at real-world gigs and online record sales – you could sell CDs via the site, a service offered in exchange for a small percentage of the sale price. There were some notable success stories – Darude’s single ‘Sandstorm’ became hugely popular on mp3.com and effectively launched him, which he talks about in this interview. I had some of my electronic music up there, and even though hardly anyone ever downloaded it, I did get some radio play and some gigs scoring games (that you would never have heard of) and flash websites out of it.
Then along came a couple of smaller competitors, like amp3.com, which announced that they would offer per-download ‘royalties’ to artists in exchange for the insertion of short audio advertisments at the beginning of each track. In the case of amp3.com, this never really got off the ground because they apparently couldn’t settle on a workable system for this, and got embroiled in agonistic debates with the artist community that eventually stalled, and the site merged with iuma.com a few months later. MP3.com eventually integrated a pay-per-download system, but then also introduced payola schemes that effectively delivered a competitive advantage to the fat end of the long tail (e.g. ‘platinum’ membership which resulted in your tracks being prioritised in search and browse pages). It was a strangely schizophrenic and yet, in hindsight, entirely predictable pattern. More (from a younger, idealistic and more bitter me) on the demise of mp3.com here, here and here. This model hasn’t died – for one, garageband.com is still going strong, but I haven’t looked closely at its business model for a while.
So I’m wondering, a little tongue in cheek, just what does ‘Web 2.0′ have that is new for participatory culture, except for broadband video and RSS and apple-esque design elements like tabs and rounded corners? As Anne pointed out recently in relation to ebay, the trajectory I describe for digital music portals above is increasingly looking like a familiar pattern – it speaks to the question of just how far the neoliberal ethics behind business models that promote ‘participatory culture’ can sustain their tenuous links with cultural democracy once their platforms actually start to work in the ways their developers dreamed they would.