Heave Ho: Blue Lagoon booker Cory Atkinson, who moonlights as bassist for Los Dryheavers, says MySpace is 'pretty vital,' but no replacement for a healthy real-life cultural scene.
Thanks for the Ad
As MySpace becomes the predominant means for doing business, Santa Cruz artists consider the pros and cons of selling themselves to Rupert Murdoch
By Paul Davis
The online networking service MySpace is the sort of phenomenon you'd expect conservative pundits at Fox News to single out as the undoing of an entire generation. After all, stories that characterize Internet communities as lawless, dangerous and degenerate places (see sidebar) are the type of sensationalism on which Rupert Murdoch's television network thrives. But if you're waiting for Bill O'Reilly to single out MySpace as one more example of the decline of Western civilization, you might not want to hold your breath. After all, the people signing his checks are also keeping the lights on at Intermix Media, MySpace.com's proud parent company.
Started in 2003 by Southern California club-hopper and star Intermix employee Tom Anderson, MySpace quickly overtook the previously dominant networking site Friendster, which hit the market a year earlier but quickly got bogged down by server overload. MySpace not only succeeded because of its reliability, but also because it offered much more freedom than Friendster, less restrictions on content and language, and the ability to extensively customize the user's page.
Seeing enormous potential in the advertising model of the site, which relies on users to supply the free content that generates page hits, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation acquired MySpace last July for $580 million. Now folded into the company's Fox Interactive Media subsidiary, the site boasts over a reported 65 million users and is consistently ranked in the Top 4 most-visited sites on the Internet, beating digital media giants such as Google and Ebay while leaving Friendster and the community-minded Tribe in the dust. The result is a de facto monopolization of the market similar to that of AOL Instant Messaging or the iTunes Music Store.
Given the many daily views and free registration, it's not surprising that underground musicians and artists quickly recognized the site's value as a promotional, networking and scene-building tool. Unlike Friendster, the site has encouraged such use, creating separate band profiles that allow musicians to upload their MP3s to an embedded player that starts every time a user goes to the page. Meanwhile, site design remains open enough that web-savvy artists can radically redesign their MySpace pages to promote their work. In the course of two years, MySpace has revolutionized the way underground music and art are promoted, often serving as a band or artist's only online presence. It's not rare to see a punk band flogging their MySpace page during their set, and a MySpace link has become as familiar a part of the press kit as email or phone contacts. In the process, it's becoming a new battleground in the ongoing debate about the lines between commerce and art, and how those issues are played out in such content-fueled advertising models.
The Chop Tops: You can take their MySpace when you pry it from their cold, dead fingers.
The View From Santa Cruz
Amatai Heller, singer for local art-punks the New Thrill Parade, has found the site to be invaluable in maintaining a web presence for his band. "MySpace has a very easy interface for people without a lot of technical expertise," says Heller, who has a traditional band URL that only gets updated a couple times a year. "None of us know how to edit that site, so we use MySpace in lieu of our webpage."
Heller's situation illustrates one of the keys to MySpace's popularity. With its ease of interface, an artist no longer needs extensive website coding experience or the money to pay a hosting service to do it for you. Depending on the server load at any given time, musicians or artists can sign up and have their own unique page, with a MySpace URL displaying their name, set up in less than half an hour.
Even tech savvy musicians appreciate MySpace's user-friendly design. Cooper McBean of the Devil Makes Three, who also maintains the band's site, notes that "the thing I really like about it is that the interface is so easy. For a smaller band, it's nice that the tool is available for no money, that they don't have to deal with code or a hosting package." McBean has witnessed the benefits of the site firsthand. "It's turned out to be a very valuable tool for us. We're up to about 800 friends, which is way more than on our email list," he explains. "People put our songs on their profiles and we get a lot of hits from people just browsing through. We've sold a lot of CDs online where people comment that they heard us on MySpace."
Gary "Sinner" Marsh of rockabilly band the Chop Tops is a particular evangelist for the benefits of MySpace, and in fact convinced McBean to start a profile for the somewhat-wary DM3. "We've seen huge returns from MySpace, and have turned a lot of other bands on to it," Marsh says. "The Chop Tops now have four times as many fans as before ... we're up to 5,000 fans right now."
Given the simplicity and convenience of MySpace, it's not surprising that the site is becoming a one-stop-shop for time-strapped journalists and club bookers who can easily and reliably learn more about musicians and artists through what amounts to a one-page, online press sheet. Cory Atkinson, who both books shows at the Blue Lagoon and plays bass in punk band Los Dryheavers, has found the site beneficial from both sides of the booking relationship. "As a booker, MySpace helps out a lot," says Atkinson "MySpace gives a band an efficient and economical way of getting me music and press info. When a band emails me I want to hear what they sound like right then--I don't have to wait to receive their press kit, when I possibly will have forgotten all about them."
As a musician himself, Atkinson appreciates the site as a free resource that offers bands with little promotional budget or no record label backing to promote their music. "Someone with very little computer experience can open a MySpace account, put pictures of their band on it and upload MP3 files to share with millions of people. To reach the same audience in print advertising via magazines and papers that kind of exposure could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Even ukulele picker and Santa Cruz DIY maven Oliver Brown has found the site to be an invaluable booking and promotional tool. "Just about every band I know has a MySpace page. I've sold more of my CDs via MySpace than I ever did with my own domained webpage, and have booked two tours for myself with MySpace." He notes that the site has made the booking process "a million times easier than before."
Having organized the town's annual Big Bang indie music festival for years, Brown is well-acquainted with the long process of booking shows and creating relationships with bands from all over the country in an effort to establish a collective DIY community, and sees the site as a watershed for the underground music scene. "A friend of mine in New York asked me how to book her band for a West Coast tour. In 1985, 1995 or even 2002, the answer would have been much different than it is today. Today this answer is, 'Start a MySpace page.' It is currently the best way available to book a DIY tour."
Indie Gods Weigh In
Still, many underground artists and musicians feel a certain ambivalence about MySpace, recognizing its usefulness as a promotional and scene-building tool while having reservation about its ties to News Corp., whose Fox News outlet serves as the mouthpiece for the sort of staunchly conservative, pro-big-business sentiments the DIY community has often defined itself in opposition to.
Indie icon Ian MacKaye understands both sides of the issue. Since his days in the early '80s as the singer for Minor Threat, the inception of his label Dischord Records and up through his work with Fugazi and the Evens, MacKaye is one of the individuals who laid the groundwork for what has become the underground DIY music scene. Spurning corporate involvement in his music and business dealings for over 20 years, he has instead relied on a carefully built and cultivated underground music community to book tours, distribute music and promote his music. Though MacKaye is not on MySpace, he recognizes its value and potential as a tool for DIY artists.
"I don't use MySpace, though I have been sent to MySpace pages of other people's bands and clubs that have proven to be useful," MacKaye explains. Despite his strongly anti-corporate ethos, MacKaye sees the issue as one that illuminates the inability to completely extricate oneself from using corporate tools and resources. "[On my current tour] I flew over on United Airlines and bought diesel from Esso, and every phone call I make is carried by one giant company or another. MySpace, despite its ownership, is a tool, and DIY people have found a use for it."
K Records founder Calvin Johnson is another titan in the DIY scene, having started his label in the early '80s as an outgrowth of the zines and compilation tape-trading networks he had built across the nation and world. For 23 years Johnson has been performing and releasing music under the K Records banner, priding himself on developing an underground community that is based on artistic integrity and small business ethics, not stockholder concerns and corporate synergy. While he sees the potential offered by MySpace to foster this community online, he cannot condone its ties to News Corp.
Although Johnson maintained a Friendster profile and viewed MySpace with curiosity as it grew from potential fad to cultural phenomenon, the News Corp. deal quickly soured him on the service. "After MySpace was bought by Fox, I decided I was not interested with the site," Johnson explains.
But while Johnson may not be on MySpace, his label still is. "Our promo director has a K Records MySpace site, which I've never interfered with, because that's her thing," says Johnson. "But it occurred to me, 'Why are we on there?'"
"You could rationalize being on the site by saying that the phone company controls your access, but there's something particularly insidious about News Corp.," he continues. "There was once a concept of fair and balanced news and having a journalistic responsibility, but with Fox they've completely thrown that out of the window, in sort of a William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalism sort of way. I think a lot of people don't understand how insidious a corporation like News Corp. is in creating an atmosphere of fear. People are absolutely petrified with fear, while Bush and company are using these snow shovels to empty our children's bank accounts," Johnson says. "News Corp. is encouraging that, so I find it very troubling that many bands are using one of their propaganda tools."
Many Santa Cruz musicians share Johnson's distaste for MySpace's corporate owners, but express a pragmatic view of the relationship. "The incredible ease of use and huge DIY music community on MySpace supersedes the News Corp. aspect," notes Brown. "I hate that News Corp. is involved, but the sad truth is that if I were to boycott media conglomerates, I'd have to give up movies, books, newspapers and radio stations. There's too much out there for zines and pirate radio to be my only resources."
Other local musicians concur with Brown's outlook, and even see the site's potential to unseat the promotional power of the major label record industry as a worthy trade-off for the affiliation with News Corp. "If it puts people in the music industry out of business, then oh well, maybe the focus ought to be on why it costs $17.98 to buy the new Strokes CD," Heller explains, adding, "the cross-promotional aspects are definitely a trade-off. I find it objectionable that I am promoting Rupert Murdoch, but it's a compromise that I make."
Sinner definitely feels that the trade off of using a News Corp.-owned site to undermine the record industry is worth it. "You couldn't buy this kind of promotional tool for any cheap price--you'd need publicists, promoters, booking agents. For forever the record industry's been screwing their artists, because no one's been able to touch it before MySpace and things like (file sharing program) Limewire. Now it's all turning around," Sinner explains.
"I am a realist," Sinner notes. "I wish I could make thousands of CDs for free and give them out, and I wish my electricity was free, but you've got to work with the tools you've got and hope people are making the right decisions." This pragmatism is echoed by McBean. "While I'm not bosom pals with ol' Rupert, it has to be making money for someone somehow," he explains. "Any website online runs by this ad model. I don't mind, because I feel that it's a good service they provide."
At this point, many artists and musicians are applying a "wait and see" approach to the site, appreciating the free service it offers while eyeing it warily in the long term. "I have no problem with responsible corporations getting involved and keeping this resource a free and well-oiled machine," says Sinner. "If it became part of a propaganda campaign, then I'd have a problem, as would any other punk out there."
The experiences of local artist Koak on MySpace illuminate the difficult issues that arise when the spheres of commerce and art intermingle online. Her sexually provocative works, often featuring nudity and graphic sex scenes, were deleted from her MySpace profile according to their terms of service.
"I had an image for a comic book I was working on deleted off of MySpace. It was a black and white line drawing of two women having sex. This particular image is a little bit safer than most of my images due to the positioning of the women and the fact that all you can see is some boobs and a butt," Koak says. While she was well aware of MySpace's terms of service that state that the site reserves the right to delete sexually explicit content, she believes the site displays an inconsistent approach to censoring and deleting sexual content. (MySpace did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
"Every time I log on to MySpace, I see photographs of naked and half-naked girls," she notes. "The only difference is that their nipples are covered. These often are in the context of sexual profile images, advertisements for online dating services, and other purposes that don't seem to have anything to do with artistic expression." Koak sees MySpace's content standards as representative of a larger issue with corporate content providers' attitudes towards sexuality and nudity. "I have a problem with the double standards with which sexual content is censored in the American media, but what more can you expect from Fox?"
Despite the site's popularity with many underground musicians and artists, Koak remains skeptical of the site's effectiveness as a promotional tool and suspicious about the relationship between the corporatization of the site and free artistic expression. "I highly doubt 10 or 20 years down the line that you'll read about an artist who made their break by showcasing their work on MySpace." If anything, she notes, the site "does a disservice to artists in the fact that it cheapens their artwork."
"I feel that a key element in real art is free speech and the ability to comment on social and political issues. Art that exercise these right has always been the only art of interest to me," she explains. "It's difficult for me to imagine the creative process taking place in an area of censorship and product placement, all in the shadow of big business."
Thanks for the Add!
One of the issues that DIY musicians and artists using MySpace agree on is the increasing difficulties for their MySpace pages and personal domains to be noticed among the sheer number of bands and artists vying for online attention, as evidenced by the burgeoning phenomenon of "band spamming." A cursory look across MySpace will show countless instances of the "Thanks for the add!" comment on bands and individuals' pages, often placed on their friend user's pages by automated bots that are increasingly advertised via MySpace spam mail.
It has become commonplace for bands and promoters to deluge users with such "friend requests" regardless of whether the users might have any interest in the band. This ultimately devalues the site's effectiveness at introducing a band to new people who might have an interest due to their first or second degree of personal separation from the musicians. These days, users find their MySpace mail inboxes overflowing with event announcements for upcoming shows on the other side of the country, and the comments section of their pages overloaded with band advertisements with a generic "Thanks for the add!" statement and an image and link to the band's page. Competing with these band spammers, musicians who choose to not utilize these techniques find themselves grasping for attention amidst all the noise and distractions.
Koak believes that the usefulness of MySpace as a promotional tool for artists and musicians is undermined by the sheer amount of detritus on the site. "The two main ways I can see MySpace being a promotion tool for visual artists are the bulletin board and the events calendar, both of which have major flaws," she says. "The bulletin seems to be constantly filled with 'what are you wearing right now' type quizzes which can make it difficult to find any real content, and I rarely if ever check the events calendar."
"There are so many people promoting on MySpace that it's a system overload for me," she explains. "I shut it off and don't want to look at any of it, from the bulletin board to the bands that try to add you just to make their friends list grow." Bemoaning the common appearance of automated friend requests from bands, Koak says that this spamming in fact turns her off from a band. "I don't click on the links and I don't listen or look and hence the ad does not work. The bands and musicians that impress me are still the ones whose shows I go see and I like, not the ones who self-promote on MySpace."
Greg Braithwaite, drummer for the bands Spitzer, the Gales and Dead Ghost, concurs that this glut of band requests and spamming can do an artist more harm than good. "I don't think that MySpace makes artists good--if anything people may get turned off by the overflow of random friend solicitations for things that they are not interested in whatsoever," Braithwaite notes.
McBean believes that the best way for a band to stand out on MySpace is to abide by a set of promotional approaches that would do Miss Manners proud. "I think the band spamming is weak. I'll accept requests from bands if I know them or like them, but generally I don't. I treat the site passively ... if someone wants to be our friend, I accept them but I don't generally go out looking for people," he says. "I like to follow the 'do unto others' model."
Monopolization and Centralization
With the increasing ubiquity of MySpace as the "one stop shop" for online information about bands and artists, some express concern that the site is accruing a near-monopolistic hold on the dissemination of underground culture.
Booking a tour for his new band the Evens, MacKaye has experienced this monopolization of information first hand. "Last year, I was looking for a place for the Evens to play in a town down South," he explains. "Someone had mentioned a particular venue to me, so I searched it out on the Internet and found a website. The website description made it clear that this was definitely not the place for us to play, and I never found anywhere else to play, so I ended up skipping that town."
"Later I spoke to a woman who was organizing the gigs at the venue, and it turned out she wasn't even aware of the website or the content. It had been placed there years before, and the place in many ways would have been the perfect spot for us. This information was only available through their MySpace page." Adding to the noise and the slew of abandoned websites on the information highway, MacKaye has found that "the redundancy of the Internet, propelled by MySpace and the like, makes research a bit of a challenge."
Johnson finds MySpace's effect on the online flow of information more pernicious, and believes it speaks to larger issues affecting the Internet, pitting the free exchange of information that has been the rallying cry of Internet evangelists since its inception in direct contrast with the increasingly monetized corporate interests. "I believe it's indicative of the way in which the Internet is becoming less and less decentralized. One of the things that I loved about it was it allowed people to communicate outside of the system," Johnson notes.
"Popularity comes with a price and large corporations haven't forgotten that the Internet was supposed to be a be-all, end-all panacea, despite the bursting of the bubble a few years back," he explains. "MySpace was a useful tool, people saw that, and Fox noticed it and viewed it as an easy way to buy all these new eyeballs. I think it points to the way the Internet is becoming more and more consolidated in the hands of a small group of corporations."
In this way, Johnson views News Corp.'s buyout of MySpace as being emblematic of the very consolidation of information that the underground, DIY art scene has traditionally actively resisted. "As the ownership is getting concentrated under fewer hands, the corporations are going to have more control over the servers," he warns.
Still, most local musicians remain pragmatic yet wary about the site's corporate ties, finding an uneasy middle ground between corporate affiliation and the benefits they can reap from using the free resource. Many warn, however, of becoming overly reliant on the site as a one-stop booking and promotion tool. "For better or worse I think MySpace has become pretty vital to independent bands, promoters or bookers," says Atkinson, while noting that the site is no replacement for a healthy real-life cultural scene. "I don't think bands should rely on MySpace for promotion and booking. If you live in the area come to a show and introduce yourself, don't sit at the computer all night sending MySpace messages."
During the New Thrill Parade's last tour, Heller found the site is no replacement for the time-honored methods of booking and promoting a band. "I've heard a lot of people saying that MySpace helped them book their tours," Heller says. "It definitely didn't hurt us, but by and large the shows that we booked through our MySpace account were far less enjoyable or well-attended than the shows we booked through previous touring and personal relationships."
Despite his aversion to MySpace's corporate parents, Johnson sympathizes with artists who have come to rely on the site as one of their primary promotional tools. "A lot of bands were already on there and using the tool before News Corp. bought it, which is unfortunate," he notes, before pointing to the diversity of resources online and emphasizing the continued value of other methods of creating and maintaining a creative community. "It's possible to use other tools not owned by News Corp. ... almost every town has a message board, all you have to do is a search and you'll find the message board for the town you're trying to set up a show in. There's tons of resources available. MySpace is not the only one."
A recent wave of media attention, complete with headlines like "Don't Talk to Invisible Strangers" from The New York Times and "Keeping an Eye on Kids" from the San Francisco Chronicle have made the popular online social network, MySpace.com, the nation's evil du jour. The accusation: predators are using MySpace to harm our children.
Locally, the fire has been stoked by the arrest of Nate Contos in early February on charges of child molestation and intimidating a witness. According to the Santa Cruz County sheriff-coroner's office, Contos, a drummer for the local rock act, Static Revolution, is accused of engaging in "illegal/inappropriate sexual contact" with a 14-year-old girl he met on the Internet.
National media attention soon followed. After the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News ran stories claiming that Contos first met the girl through MySpace, Santa Cruz parents and teachers responded with a barrage of warnings and condemnations.
However, in this instance, MySpace was not the true culprit. According to detective Ian Patrick with the sexual assault division of the Santa Cruz County sheriff's office, "MySpace is not how the victim met the suspect and it's not the only way they communicated." (Attempts to reach Contos for comment were not successful.)
Patrick says the the two met using either AOL or Yahoo chat programs, just as many have done over the last decade.
A popular forum with teenagers, approximately 25 percent of MySpace users are under the age of 18. This figure does not count the number of underage users who misrepresent their ages as anywhere from 19 to 99.
Considering the youth of MySpace's patrons, a heightened vigilance is required regardless of the specifics of the Contos case, according to Sgt. Fred Plageman of the Santa Cruz County sheriff-coroner.
"It's difficult to control the behavior of others," warns Plageman. "You may not know the true identity of the people you talk to. It allows people say things they wouldn't otherwise say and reveal thing that aren't necessarily true."
Still, although MySpace may be a new forum for people to gather and share information, it is by no means an original phenomenon.
"We're seeing this happening now on MySpace but it isn't new," says Plageman. "Just listen to citizen band radio and you'll hear the same stuff."
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