In March, a Web designer named Justin Ouellette created a brilliant music-sharing site called Muxtape. Ouellette took his inspiration from the past— the Nick Hornby era of cassette mix tapes, a time when countless lovelorn souls fancied themselves the curators of high-concept custom albums. These days we've moved on to mixing CDs, but Ouellette—like everyone else who's bemoaned the state of the recording industry during the last decade—saw that the Internet had much greater potential to broadcast our musical tastes. With Muxtape, Ouellette made sharing music over the Web much simpler than creating a physical mix tape: Just upload your MP3s to the site, name your mix, and send the link—an easy-to-remember URL, yourmix.muxtape.com—to all your pals.
That, at least, was Ouellette's vision—and for five months, Muxtape was a sublime reality. But not surprisingly, on Aug. 15, Ouellette's hosting service received a copyright infringement notice from the Recording Industry Association of America. Last week, Ouellette published a lengthy account of his dealings with label executives during the past half-year. His story reveals that the music industry has a more nuanced take on upstart music-sharing sites than it did in the Napster era. Only some of the industry reps Ouellette spoke to threatened to shut him down immediately. The others wanted to discuss ways to license music to Muxtape—though at terms that Ouellette found onerous. Ouellette walked away from the talks; he says he's relaunching Muxtape as a place for bands to release music and manage relationships with their fans. As a simple mix-tape service, Muxtape is no more.
I began to realize how much of a shame that is as I tested MySpace Music this week. Industry observers are calling the service—a joint project between MySpace and four major record labels that allows people to stream millions of songs online for free—a "breakthrough," though that term only highlights the industry's history of intransigence. Sure, it's nice that the music industry has finally found a way to give us free music while also compensating artists. (They'll get a share of the revenue the site generates from advertising.) But while the site may represent a breakthrough in business negotiations, it doesn't offer much that other online music services (both legal and illegal) haven't offered before. As I struggled to navigate its cluttered user interface, I thought fondly of dearly departed sites like Muxtape—services that weren't authorized by the industry but that succeeded because they offered a better experience than anything music executives have yet cooked up.
MySpace Music does indeed let you listen to a huge number of songs through the Web. I found its catalog extensive—I was able to listen to most songs that I searched for within a few seconds of typing their names—but not complete. For instance, while I dug up a somewhat obscure Greek song (Stelios Kazantzidis' "Efuge Efuge," used in a memorable scene in Season 2 of The Wire), there were only a handful of tracks available from the new Jenny Lewis album. While MySpace Music may come in handy while you're at work or DJing a party, creating a streaming playlist from a huge catalog of songs isn't completely novel. At least two other industry-licensed music sites—Imeem and Last.fm—have offered the same service since last year; they, too, feature lots of songs but also many omissions. And none of these sites beat the simple, fast-loading user interface of YouTube, which remains the best place to search if you feel a sudden need to hear a song you don't have.
With certain restrictions, MySpace Music also lets you share your playlists with your friends. This might have been its best feature, but the restrictions rankle: MySpace will allow you to make only one of your playlists public—you can't make one mix tape for your spouse and another for your mom. Worse, you can share your playlist only through your MySpace profile; if you want to send it to your co-workers, you've got to be OK with them seeing pictures of you dressed up as a drunken pirate. Imeem's playlist-sharing features are much better—it lets you share more playlists, and you can embed them on other sites.
This gets to the single biggest problem with the MySpace Music service—it's MySpace's music service. Every feature remains tied to a social network that has become enormously popular despite its terrible user interface and—since the rise of Facebook—appeals mostly to an adolescent demographic. You need to have a MySpace account to use MySpace Music; if you've resisted getting a MySpace profile, the music service isn't reason enough to sign up. Little about using MySpace Music is pleasant: Its song search engine, for example, is extremely limited, giving you no way to refine your query by narrowing it down to certain albums or versions of songs. When you search for a popular track—say, Lil Wayne's "Lollipop"—you get dozens of results and no explanation for how each version differs from the other. MySpace also lacks any "music-discovery" engine—it doesn't tell you what you might like based on what your friends like or what you've searched for or listened to in the past. Worst of all, the system is gummed up by ads. Every inch of every page is plastered with some flashy sponsorship message; along with being ugly and off-putting, the ads slow down the entire site.
These annoying ads are expected to be quite lucrative for MySpace and the music industry. Record labels also hope that MySpace will present competition for Apple, which has gained enormous power in the music business through the iTunes Music Store—the largest retailer of music in the country, beating not only other online stores but also offline stores like Wal-Mart. But if the labels want to create an alternative to iTunes, they would do well to study its rise. Apple's genius was to minimize its service's restrictions by amping up its usability. People are willing to put up with iTunes' annoying copy-protection scheme because finding and buying songs there is amazingly fast, easy, and fun. The same holds for Hulu, the wonderful TV-streaming site that NBC and Fox launched last year. Sure, it has ads, but they don't crowd your entire field of view, and the sponsorship messages feel like a reasonable price for the service you're getting. MySpace Music doesn't elicit the same thrill. The site's design is so terrible and overly commercialized that not even the service's amazing breadth—remember, you can find nearly any song you want in seconds—can save it from being a drag to use.
Still, MySpace Music offers some hope. Two years ago the idea that the music industry might allow a Web company to stream songs for free seemed unthinkable. But we've been getting music for free online for years now—a site that offers to give it to us legally isn't going to succeed unless it throws in features that haven't been implemented well elsewhere (like sharing playlists). And it's got to be pretty and work well, too. That the industry has taken a stab toward creating such a service is promising. Maybe someday it'll consider doing something as simple and elegant as Muxtape. As Ouellette put it in his farewell note: "The industry will catch up some day; it pretty much has to."