The new owners Tim and Chris Vanderhook talk about a pending overhaul but is it too late? And what happened to Justin Timberlake?
It’s been a year since Specific Media bought MySpace and vowed to make it hip again, but after 12 months the once-hot brand is still ice cold.
A major redesign, promised after Specific Media CEO Tim Vanderhook and COO Chris Vanderhook took over the teetering social network from News Corp., has yet to materialize. Traffic to the website is mostly flat while other music-focused companies like Spotify and Vevo just keep getting bigger.
And what ever happened to Justin Timberlake, who a year ago was named as a creative partner and part owner of the new company?
"I'm not sure what Justin has brought to the table," said MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe in an interview with TheWrap. "He's obviously an extremely talented and creative guy. I'm not sure how that translates into usability on a social media site. Nor is it clear how much time he spends on the creative development of Myspace."
Although the Vanderhook brothers promise that a complete overhaul is in the works, the social network is still shuffling along with more or less the same public face it had when it was bleeding money for Rupert Murdoch.
The lack of high-profile involvement is Timberlake's choice, the brothers say. “Tim and I speak to him regularly and he has his hands in basically everything,” Chris Vanderhook told TheWrap. “But the strategy isn’t to make this a marketing platform for Justin, it’s to make it a platform for all artists.”
(At right: Tim Vanderhook introduces Timberlake at CES 2012)
Under its new ownership, MySpace has doubled down on its efforts to become a premiere destination for music lovers and, more importantly, a platform for young talent to be discovered, the Vanderhooks say.
It has launched a new music player and unveiled a partnership with Panasonic television.
“When we first were thinking of buying MySpace, we ran a survey on the site and asked users, 'Why are you still coming?'” Tim Vanderhook told TheWrap. “Sixty percent said, 'Because I’m going to be discovered and become famous.' That’s when we knew our vision for the site was dead on.”
“What you see on MySpace today is lots of what News Corp. was doing, except the focus has become more about music,” he said. “I don’t want to say that this [current site] is our strategy, because all of the tools, vision and execution will come at a later time.”
Indeed, some think the company still has an opportunity when it comes to music discovery and artistic self-expression.
“There are a lot of musicians, artists and creative folks that still look at it positively because for some of them, they got so much value out of it,” said one person familiar with MySpace who insisted on anonymity due to past business dealings. “MySpace was so comprehensive, you put your talent and your media up in this environment and didn’t need to be your real-life physical self.”
The Vanderhooks say that the redesigned site is already being used by its employees and will be accessible to its community of musicians by the end of the year.
But precisely when the new MySpace will be ready for its closeup remains to be seen — the brothers would not give a date for when the general public gets a peek. The lack of any large-scale overhaul has led some prominent people in the tech world and from MySpace's past to conclude that the Vanderhooks lack a grand vision.
"It doesn't seem like the new organization is really product driven," said DeWolfe. "The site is disjointed and they appeared to have stepped up the advertising. Perhaps they're more concerned about getting their money back from their investment, versus transforming the property into a social hub for the creative community."
Meanwhile, as MySpace went into hibernation, competition reached a fever pitch.
Pandora, Spotify and Vevo have emerged as the dominant players for listening to music online, along with stalwart YouTube. Moreover, upstarts like Soundcloud have established their own footholds, becoming key tools for musicians hoping to get feedback on their compositions.
And MTV launched its own version of a MySpace-like hub for musicians this spring called Artists.MTV. It creates pages for stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, who can then curate them as they like, with tour dates, tweets and photos.
“The influential kids are paying attention to Vevo or Facebook, there’s no demographic for whom MySpace applies,” Anil Dash, a technology consultant and the director of Expert Lab, said.
“There is enormous awareness of MySpace,” he added. “People know the name and brand and there is a residual familiarity in Hollywood and the industry, but those associations are not good associations.”
The Vanderhooks understand that the status quo is unacceptable. Until people rediscover why they once liked MySpace, it’s going to remain a digital also-ran.
“I don’t see how they ever become a brand that people care about or wear T-shirts for again,” Robert Scoble, a technology blogger and author, told TheWrap.
Or, as another tech expert put it, “Historically, if you look at turnarounds on the internet, there aren’t any. Your ability to turn the ship correctly is exponentially more difficult than in other mediums that move more slowly.”
“Of course it’s not the right company to turn it around,” the individual told TheWrap, “It’s a company that will take advantage of data and traffic to augment and support its ad network. They aren’t product guys or tech innovators.
Ironically, pairing Specific’s ad technology with MySpace’s content was seen as the primary reason for the purchase, but the brothers say they have largely kept the businesses separate, besides laying off roughly eight percent of their staff to eliminate redundancies.
For the time being Specific’s profits are funding the investment in MySpace’s redesign. The social media network, which was losing tens of millions of dollars when News Corp. offloaded it, still is not profitable and the Vanderhooks declined to say how much it is costing them to reinvigorate it.
After they first took the reins at MySpace, the social network’s user base continued to shrink, from 33.1 million unique visitors in July 2011 to a low point of just over 24 million in December 2011, according to Comscore. The Vanderhooks say that they have stopped the downward spiral, and the numbers do bear that out, climbing to 32.6 million unique visitors in May and down slightly to 29.3 million unique visitors last month.
“In terms of our site’s traffic, we went from negative to neutral,” Tim Vanderhook said, arguing that this shift is a sign that “consumers are already responding to where we want to take MySpace.”
The Vanderhooks say that what this proves to them is that their strategy of emphasizing MySpace’s library of 42 million songs with their music player and better promoting emerging talent is what led to the traffic improvement.
Since the new player launched, users have played 129 percent more songs. It has been particularly popular among teenagers.
Analysts like Scoble and Dash acknowledge that the traffic on the site has improved, but they argue that sustaining those gains will require a substantial investment in people and technology, and that’s something MySpace may have trouble pulling off. The best programmers and designers are unlikely to leave a Google or an Apple for a brand believed to be nearing its expiration date.
For their part, the Vanderhooks say they have made no plays for Silicon Valley talent. They’ve brought in a few people from Los Angeles, but have mostly stuck to the existing team at MySpace, a group they say is loaded with talent.
It better be, because as analysts are quick to point out, the internet is a fickle mistress and once a digital brand is left for dead, resurrection is almost impossible.
“They are trying to do something nobody has ever done in the history of internet — which is bring back a community that has faded,” Dash said. “There has never been a site that has peaked and had people move on that became relevant again.”
The brothers insist they know what they are up against, and while their first year at the helm has not electrified MySpace watchers, they insist they’re up to the challenge.
“We’re excited about it,” Chris Vanderhook said. “We didn’t take this on in blind faith. We knew what needed to be done.”