Google’s New Tune: Building a Music Hub With a Social Media Beat

Search titan Google looks to fill the void left by MySpace with a social media-fueled hub for emerging music acts and their fans

Can Google become the next MySpace?

Not the MySpace that has hemorrhaged users, advertising and cachet over the past several years, but the MySpace of its heyday — when it was both the premier music discovery platform and dominant social network.

“With MySpace’s fall from dominance as the place for artists online, which it was and did a great job of doing, that’s left a void,” Antony Bruno, a digital music consultant and former Billboard digital media editor, told TheWrap. “I don’t think anything has individually filled it — and there is certainly room to fill it.”

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Indeed, as the Internet has become the dominant platform for music listening and sharing, it has become harder for an artist to get noticed.

Artists’ webpages are inconsistent. Labels don’t have brand awareness. Facebook offers a variety of apps, including Spotify, but hasn't focused on developing a music-driven user base. Music services don’t have the scalability or diversity of offering. iTunes is about sales, not about discovery or socialization.

MTV is in the process of launching its own MySpace-like venture, Artists.MTV, and that has great promise. But there is little question Google is positioned to become a major player in the music business as it has in other areas, especially search.

It has brand recognition, something even the major labels don’t. It has its much-maligned but growing social network, Google+. Its core business, search, is crucial to any kind of discovery. And it owns YouTube, a dominant portal for consuming media.

But perhaps most important, it has the financial muscle to make e-commerce deals to sell concert tickets or merchandise. 

Google launched its music program out of Beta in November and earlier this year consolidated it and its other consumer offerings under the Google Play umbrella. 

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Google Play allows users to buy music, movies, books, apps and games — and also lets them upload their iTunes library. With Google Play, you can stream your library from any computer or to an Android mobile device.

Shop Music, the part of Google Play devoted solely to music, is a searchable collection of millions of songs and albums, both free and for sale.

Also under the Google Play banner is the Artists Hub, designed to help artists sell and share their music. They can create store pages, set their own prices and sell their original songs to fans. Musicians pay $25 to sell music directly, with Google taking a 30 percent cut.

Thus far, Google has not released sales figures, and while it appears they are underwhelming, there's no question the tech giant's intention is to turn artist pages into full-blown digital hubs for musicians.

"Creating an easy and intuitive a door as possible for people to walk through was job No. 1 from the outset,” Tim Quirk, Google’s head of global content programming, told TheWrap. “We designed everything with the idea that it should be as simple as possible for people to get their stuff in.”

Quirk said his dream with Google Music — which currently has 4 million users — is “seeing someone come in through the artist portal, upload their own stuff, and wind up at top of charts with no intervention from anyone on my team.”

Google’s Magnified program underscores its commitment to the indie music scene.

Under the program, Google selects an artist to highlight during big events, giving the artists added promotional support to raise their profile. The program started with the Sundance Film Festival, continued with the Grammys and South by Southwest. Last weekend at Coachella, Google placed DJ Ryan Farish (right) on stage at Neon Carnival, an after-party sponsored by T-Mobile and Armani Exchange.

“The Magnified program really helped us,” Laura Bergmann from the band The Family Crest (photo, top), one of Google’s Magnified artists, told TheWrap. “Being associated with names like Google and Red Light Management and T-Mobile made people interested in us."

Still, just because Google has placed an emphasis on aiding independent artists doesn’t mean it has yet created the kind of transformational digital hub that made MySpace a go-to destination for musicians.

“Google’s implementation has not been very impressive,” a person close to the situation told TheWrap. “They have a ton of potential, but they are just not there. If I’m an up-and-coming artist, why would I go directly at Google? There’s not a compelling answer yet.”

Liam McCormick, another member of The Family Crest, said Google needs to make its music programming more social, the way that MySpace did in its heyday.

“A large part of reason that MySpace exploded was it was taken over into social networking," McCormick said. "It was the Facebook of that generation.” 

A bigger problem is that the music section of the Play Store hasn’t taken off, even though Quirk says he is pleased with the 4 million users who have signed up. But it still has a long way to catch up with MySpace at its peak, which in December of 2008 attracted just under 76 million unique visitors. 

Now that there are so many sites and services devoted to discovering music, it will be a lot harder to create a multipurpose hub than a few years ago.

“Its going to be very hard to build a destination for discovery when that’s become somewhat democratized,” one person with a history at a few of these companies told TheWrap. “People are making the choices.”

But he recognizes the opportunity is there, noting, “It just has to all come together.”