Digital Museum Burns To The Ground
By Michael Robertson
My hometown of San Diego was recently hit by devastating wildfires which burned countless homes and acreage. The unpredictable nature of fires makes them difficult to prevent and they often cause massive losses. On December 3rd, another fire is actually scheduled to take place in San Diego, and it will burn to the ground the largest collection of digital works ever assembled. We're certain this blaze is scheduled to happen; the question is, can we stop it in the next 2 weeks?
San Diego is home to MP3.com, the largest digital music site on the planet. It all started 6 years ago in an extra room of my house, and it grew into a global phenomenon. Artists from around the world - whether they were a famous star or the newest hobbyist - posted their music to MP3.com for the world to experience. At virtually any event that had at least 100 people in attendance, I could ask the crowd if anyone had music on MP3.com and a few shy hands would be raised. For some it was all business, for some it was a way to share music with family, and for others it was a place to get feedback from the community to improve their musical ability and to connect with fans. Today, MP3.com has more than 1 million full-length songs from more than 250,000 artists, available for people to listen to and download. The majority of this music cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
MP3.com wasn't always a giant music archive. It started off as a tiny music site promoting the consumer-friendly MP3 format with just a handful of web pages showcasing less than 20 songs. We soon created an automated way for folks to add their own music in a self-serve manner, and the amount of music exploded far beyond what anyone had expected. At first, 3 bands a day were signing up, then 10, 20, 50, 100 - until eventually, more than 200 bands per day were adding their music to the site. Formally unknown artists such as Emily Richards, bassic, trancecontrol, Killer Spam Comedy, and many others used MP3.com to gain fame as independent artists, each gaining a massive fan-base all over the world, generating millions of downloads and selling thousands of CD's.
This initial, rich catalog of music, along with early MP3 developments like Winamp, Rio (one of the first MP3 players which the music industry unsuccessfully sued), and MusicMatch (the first easy to use MP3 creation program) created a globally accepted standard. Consumers gained complete control over their own music collections, and digital music was sent in a listener-friendly trajectory. The music efforts making news today are standing on the shoulders of these early MP3 pioneers.
Along the way, MP3.com faced ups and downs in the business realm and the courthouse, but eventually was purchased by the largest music company in the world, Vivendi Universal. Last week, VU announced the sale of MP3.com to Cnet. Conspiracists have publicly said that VU's intention all along was simply to shut down MP3.com, erasing the MP3 format and the digital collection of artists' work; that's complete nonsense. You don't spend nearly $400 million on property you intend to destroy. In fact, VU deployed the technology and people from MP3.com throughout their media empire. VU now uses a customer tracking system across its media properties to manage email campaigns and profile music listeners in a scientific way. They took the digital publishing engine MP3.com perfected, and now have the most advanced digital publishing architecture in the world. Music goes from the recording studio directly into a digital library, where it can be sent to the CD pressing plant, music subscription systems, publishing libraries, and much more -- all digitally and precisely tracked. VU also took the my.mp3 subscription system and used it as the foundation of the Pressplay, which became the recently launched Napster 2.0 music subscription system.
Lost in all this corporate development was the actual library of more than 1 million songs. It simply didn't fit into any of Vivendi's corporate initiatives.
A few days ago VU sent out the announcement that the url MP3.com had been sold and the new owner was not taking possession of the music and band pages. This means the music will die, disappear, and vanish forever. MP3.com is a global treasure. First off, it is the largest music site in the world, nothing else is even close. And as I mentioned, it contains a diversity of music found nowhere else. If you want Britney Spears, there are lots of places to go. If you want Brittany Bauhaus, Brittany Lacy, Brittany Frompovich, or even Lymp Brittany, MP3.com is the one place in the world you'll find them. On December 2nd, their sites there will no longer exist.
Many web sites cease operation but can still be found, captured for posterity, in the brilliant online library known as Archive.org, also called the "wayback machine." Here, massive servers and storage captures run by the visionary (and my personal friend) Brewster Kahle periodically take snapshots of the Internet as a means of recording history. Future generations can then look back at the evolution of the Net, of thought, trends, digital media and much more. It's a modern-day Smithsonian and Library of Congress, all in one. Unfortunately, Vivendi has not given Archive.org permission to capture the MP3.com site.
My hope is that by writing this essay, others will see that we're about to lose a museum filled with digital antiquities that are every bit as meaningful as their physical counterparts filling today's museums. There is a glimmer of hope that those in charge at VU will grant permission to Archive.org to make a copy of the band pages, music and stations before they dissolve. Perhaps the new owners, Cnet, have rights over the content and can allow Archive.org to take a snapshot? I hope one of these things happens, otherwise we'll lose a major digital museum with no way to ever recover it, and the world will be a less musical place.
-- Michael Robertson