What a week for online music. Two days after Apple jumped into music streaming with iTunes Radio, the new Myspace unveiled its mobile app, which allows anyone to create and share their own online radio station for free. “I think we have a bigger idea,” Myspace CEO Tim Vanderhook tells Fast Company. “We’re giving everyone in the world their own radio station. We’re crowdsourcing to make new stations. Apple’s taking an algorithmic approach. That’s been done before.”
The release of Myspace’s app (for Apple’s operating system–-awkward) is part of today’s official relaunch of a brand that was once the most popular destination on the web. In what seems like an eternity in Internet time, brothers Tim and Chris Vanderhook along with Justin Timberlake bought the beleaguered company two years ago for $35 million from News Corporation (which had paid slightly more, $580 million, in 2005). In January, as we reported, the Vanderhooks took their sleek new design public, but as a work in progress, one without an all-important mobile presence, it remained in beta. Users could choose between the old and new Myspace sites. Not so today. The site that News Corp. spent more than $1 billion building and maintaining is shuttered.
“We tried to do it differently than most tech companies that go behind closed doors in the lab and then do a big unveiling, like what Apple just did,” Tim says of the new site’s evolution. “We involved our membership. It was community-led development. Their feedback told us what we should have and not have done.”
The feedback also directly influenced the mobile app. The Vanderhooks see artists as their primary customer; if they come to the site to promote their work and engage directly with fans, the brothers argue, the users will follow. The personalized radio feature grew out of artists’ desire for more ways to promote their work and sensibility and control more of their business. “People asked, ‘What else can I do to separate myself from all the other creatives?” says Chris, Myspace’s COO.
Previously, the Vanderhooks had featured Pandora-like streaming on the desktop redesign. If you played a channel based on an artist, an algorithm selected the songs. Which didn’t make sense to musicians. “They look at this as, ‘That’s my image but not the music I chose,’” says Chris. “A computer’s deciding.”
On the app, an artist, or any Myspace user, programs his or her radio station and then shares it with others who can listen for free. The brothers are hoping that the stations lure fans just as Twitter feeds attract followers. “Artists are in control,” says Tim. “They can play their tracks or the music that inspired them while making their album, the work of their collaborators, their overall influences.” The app will launch with 25 featured artist stations, including ones by Pharrell, Lil Wayne, and Lady Antebellum. (Only the genre stations–rock, country, R&B, etc.–will still be programmed by algorithms.)
This change reflects the Vanderhook’s philosophy toward music discovery, that it’s best done by people. “We think human taste, smart curators, DJs, have their fingers on the pulse of society,” says Chris. “It’s a big differentiator for us in the market.”
It could be. Where else can you learn that Timberlake’s listening to Otis Redding these days? But online music is only getting more crowded. Even before Apple joined the fray, Google launched its streaming service, Play Music All Access, in March.
In January, the Vanderhooks didn’t run any ads or make a formal announcement for the public beta. They preferred to let users get the word out, in particular Timberlake, who streamed the first single from his long-awaited new album on the site. The Myspace co-owner (more on what he actually does here) was everywhere, hosting SNL, sitting in on Fallon, announcing a summer tour with Jay-Z.
Starting today, Myspace is promoting its comeback through a marketing blitz that includes TV spots. “We have a significant amount of dollars going into the campaign to create awareness,” says Chris. “We’re deep in this. In the past, [the old Myspace] rolled out quick redesigns and didn’t market it and help promote it.”
The Vanderhooks may be moving on from the old Myspace with the official launch of their ad-supported platform, but they weren’t able to escape one relic: GIFs. They were the bane of many a Myspace user, and the brothers had no intention of including them. “They were all over before,” says Chris. “They got out of control. They became ugly.”
Yet what was one of the most common critiques of the beta site? No GIFs. The new owners caved. “We were forced by our membership to do it,” says Tim.
The brothers decided that the technology has improved, and some of the new ones they’d seen were actually funny. The mobile app’s “create” button allows users to write a post, submit a photo, or create a GIF. Yes, the new Myspace not only includes the annotated snippets, but it also makes it easy to build them. The site is geared for creative types, and, Chris concedes, “GIFs are a form of creative expression.”