Label hucksters upstaged by MySpace guerrillas

Social networking Web site MySpace.com has become so ingrained in the fabric of today’s wired generation that it wouldn’t be an understatement to refer to its coveted networking demo — roughly 16-34 — less as Gen X or Gen Y than the MySpace generation.

Say what you will about the legitimacy of the virtual friendships the site engenders, or the fetishistic nature of many of the 102 million personal profiles it boasts, the wildly popular site has seemingly cracked the code that has baffled music execs ever since the biz began its downward descent in the premillennial days of Napster.

Now that downloading music has gone legit, MySpace has become a first port of call for people who want to check out new music by unknown bands, and it has given musicians a free platform to promote record releases and gigs all over the country. More than 1.8 million artists and bands use MySpace to promote albums; they stream songs from their own profile pages, where people can download them; and they post lyrics, tour dates and biographies.

Initially threatened, the labels — whose expensive publicity machines have been outshined by MySpace’s guerrilla tactics — have essentially surrendered to the site’s savvy ability to penetrate even the most obscure musical niches, and the most finicky consumers (the site’s music page lists no less than 66 genres, including trance, grindcore and something called “screamo,” which lists more than 46,000 hits).

It’s now not uncommon for label chiefs to have their own profiles on MySpace (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) and well-known acts such as Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, the Black Eyed Peas, Death Cab for Cutie, R.E.M. and Madonna are not above using MySpace to debut new tracks.

Initially raising eyebrows, Rubert Murdoch is now being hailed as a visionary for throwing down $580 million in July 2005 to make the site part of the News Corp. empire. And now that Google has ponied up $900 million for the opportunity to provide search services and advertising across the Fox Interactive network of online properties, with MySpace viewed as the crown jewel, Murdoch’s investment is looking less pie in the sky than a stroke of genius.

Staggering numbers

At the same time, the site has established its own label, MySpace Records, to promote bands that are gathering a following on MySpace but that do not have a contract with a major record company.

Considerably driven by its music accessories, MySpace has become the fastest-growing Web brand, bursting from 16.2 million unique visitors in July 2005 to 46 million in July, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

An average of 230,000 new members join every day, and more than 6 million join every month, the site’s managers say. In terms of page views, MySpace ranks second only to Yahoo! and has overtaken MSN, eBay, Hotmail, Google and AOL.

“For an artist 10 years ago, you had to spend money to create a Web site, and it was considered an elitist thing,” says Alan Miller, co-publisher of Filter, the L.A.-based music magazine and online marketing company. “Now, if you’re an artist anywhere in the world, you can create a page on MySpace free of charge. The advantage is that this is something an artist can do on their own; they don’t need a Webmaster or a designer. They can communicate directly with their fan base. It’s very easy to start promoting yourself.”

In years past, before the advent of sites like MySpace, Miller says, bands often labored in obscurity, not necessarily because they were no good but because there were too many obstacles to fame.

“If there was a band from Manchester who wanted a review in Filter, they’d have to make a CD, put it in the mail and hope that we’d discover it,” Miller says. “Now they can send me a link to their page on MySpace via email and I can hear their song in seconds, and I can also get a good idea of how popular they are in their own country by how many ‘friends’ they have.”

Guns and poses

The impact has resulted in solid numbers across the Pond, where British Phonographic Industry chair Peter Jamieson recently credited MySpace for helping boost sales of a record number of debut albums in the U.K.

One of the recent MySpace success stories is the L.A. band Shiny Toy Guns, which on its profile page lists about 88,000 “friends” and 1.4 million “profile views,” meaning the number of people who have called up the page to look at it or post comments, many of them adulatory and accompanied by frolicsome photos. Not too surprisingly, the band has just signed a deal with Universal Records, Miller says.

In addition, Shiny Toy Guns recently complied with requests on the site from fans in Alaska to embark on a brief tour of the state before a scheduled 11-gig swing through Canada that began on Aug. 18.

Peter O’Fallon, a television director and owner of the Gig — a bar on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles that features live music every night as well as live Webcast concerts by the likes of Macy Gray and Michelle Branch — says most of the bands he books have links to MySpace, a fact that he says is “mutually beneficial for all of us.”

“The great thing about the Web is that there are no gatekeepers — no lawyers, managers, A&R people,” says O’Fallon, whose bar specializes in unsigned bands, MySpace’s prime territory. For an admitted “old Deadhead” like O’Fallon, both MySpace and his bar’s stage serve as testing grounds for talent.

Nick Storch, a New York agent who books dates for touring bands, says MySpace has had an “incredible” impact on the speed with which bands become known.

“It blows my mind,” Storch says. To illustrate his point, he recalls a concert that he booked earlier this month in Asbury Park, N.J., for the nascent band Heavy Heavy Low Low. “The band has never had a release and this is their first legitimate tour, and yet the kids already knew the words to their songs,” Storch says. “They got just as much attention as the headliner band, and they’ve had three records out.”

What MySpace does, he says, is “jumpstart” careers.

“But the flip side is that a band’s career can be over in two seconds,” Storch goes on in a quick demurral. “By the time a band signs a record deal, some fans may have moved on to other things.”

(Nick Madigan is media critic for the Baltimore Sun.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more