Netizens can't get enough of hip-hop and mall pop

Catering to specific niches of music fans is what the Internet has been doing virtually since its inception. Among the first-ever sites posted to the Web were fanatical paeans to early Netizens’ favorite musicians, offering the patient reader more than he ever wanted to know about musical genres from Philly Soul to ’70s Krautrock.

More recently, however, a number of slick, well-designed music-oriented sites have sprung up, often with substantial financial backing and far loftier goals. They’re each gunning to become the premier portal for their particular niche in the music world, and subsequently figure out ways to make a tidy profit off that reputation.

One is Sweet16.com. Splayed out among his bandmates on a cartoonish blue leather couch in a New York video/recording studio, Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins is doing his damnedest to maintain his gutter-mouthed rock-star credibility. That’s no mean task, considering Jenkins and his group are taping a Webcast for Sweet16.com.

But the radio friendly alt-rock foursome, whose most recent album has sold more than a million copies, would be ill-advised to ignore what Sweet16.com has to offer: direct access to an invaluable niche of rabid young music fans.

Sweet16.com, funded in part by Britney Spears and run by a phalanx of music industry veterans, tailors its online fare to the 12- to 17-year-old set — offering music, information and Netcast videos from teen-friendly groups such as 98 Degrees and Soul Decision.

In the process, the site is tapping into a 28 million-strong audience that’s fanatical about its music and has been on the Internet virtually since birth, says CEO and founder Shelly Palmer.

“This is a generation of kids coming into the world completely wired and completely digital and music is so important to them that their heroes are rock stars, not film or television actors,” he says.

While teen-oriented music certainly lends itself to this strategy, one of the most well-developed of those musical niches by far is hip-hop. Born in the youth centers of the Bronx in the mid-’70s and cultivated through tape-trading and pirate radio, hip-hop’s roots are certifiably grass-roots. In the intervening years, however, the genre has matured into a global culture, embraced by kids from New Orleans to New Delhi.

That combination of underground cachet and viral marketability makes hip-hop a near perfect fit for the ‘Net — a fact not lost on Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, chief creative officer of one of the most popular hip-hop portals, 360Hiphop.com.

“The thing about hip-hop is it has a lot of vibrancy to it,” says Hinds, who was editor in chief of the Source before joining 360. “It has a sense of urgency that has always energized any format that it’s seeped into. Sites that are about hip-hop reflect that.”

The brainchild of legendary hip-hop producer-record exec-entrepreneur Russell Simmons, 360Hiphop bowed last year with much media fanfare and a strong advertising push.

Site offers news, interviews, bulletin boards and chat communities grouped into four subject areas: music, culture, lifestyle and politics. It also boasts exclusive downloads and streams of audio and video clips, recently including the premiere of a video from California hip-hop collective the Pharcyde.

But 360 is by no means the only site looking to corner the market in hip-hop heads on the Net. A number of other portals have sprung up, with various degrees of financial backing, trying to market their content as the Yahoo! of the hip-hop world.

One of the most prominent rivals is Hookt.com, a high-budget, well-designed site that offers most of the same functions as Simmons’ baby, but is laden with flashy graphics (in both the literal and Macromedia senses) and is more unabashedly e-commerce oriented.

Nearly all roads on the Hookt site lead back to the Hookt store, which offers gear from brands like Enyce and Triple 5 Soul. The site also is gearing up to sell hip-hop related media of all kinds, from CDs to videos to Playstation games.

But the opportunism is balanced to some degree by some entertaining content and tools — along with music and video downloads, Hookt has some neat Flash toys, like a make-your-own graffiti tags utility and an interactive DJ program that lets you try your hand on the virtual wheels of steel.

Unfortunately, music-related portals, like most other operations in dot-com land over the past few months, face their share of their financial challenges. 360Hiphop, despite its distinguished pedigree, has hit some snags, resulting in a recent round of staff layoffs. Thirsty.com, a teen-oriented site that competes with Sweet16, recently announced that funding “issues” forced it to shutter entirely. And Urban Box Office, a hip-hop culture portal that runs music destination Sohh.com, is also rumored to be in dire straits.

That may be why some sites in the group are trying their best to broaden their horizons. 360Hiphop in September agreed to be bought out by BET.com, the Net division of cabler Black Entertainment Television. The two plan to leverage content over both online and offline media, thereby getting the most out of their content creation buck.

And Sweet16 is banking on its niche brand to carry it into traditional media forms. The company has launched a magazine and a syndicated radio program, and plans to unveil its own cable TV show with appearances by their financial white knight, Spears.

“For us a Web site is a window on our demographic; you put something up and in five minutes you get a reaction,” says Sweet16′s Palmer. “But if all we had was a Web site we wouldn’t be here right now — It’s not a business, and it never has been.”

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