Why the New MySpace Music is So Damned Disappointing

I’ve mulled the idea of writing this opinion for several days now. Mostly because I’ve wanted to give this one decent try before crying foul. But I’ve demurred enough. There’s no getting around it. MySpace Music is really, really bad.

First, some kudos to Tom and company. The way MySpace Music has grown into the de facto social music network, where most any band or solo musician absolutely must keep a page, is definitely a great thing. No denying that. Some artists really reap some tangible benefits from exposure on the site. But that’s where my appreciation ends. The experience the service provides the listener with is an entirely different ball of wax. It’s terrible. It wasn’t good before, and it remains that way even after last week’s relaunch. Which is truly unfortunate.

Now, I don’t think MySpace Music needs to be iTunes. Some might argue that it needs a really slick wrapper to take off. No, I don’t think that’s the problem. The issue I have with MySpace Music is much more basic: browsing the place is just dreadful. So much so that anything it does in the way of on-demand and full-length song play is pretty much negated by technical hurdles. Navigation just isn’t easy. You can’t explore. At least not well.

I know, I know. The existence of MySpace Music hinges on those two words that make up its label. MySpace and music. MySpace is arguably the reigning social network of the music world. It’s not the other way around. It’s not music plus a friendliness factor. (Though I’m confident many users do browse the site from that angle.) Furthermore, having the chance to share songs and playlists with friends is quite wonderful, especially given the opportunity to assemble personal libraries stuffed with full-length songs to listen to whenever one’s heart so desires. Now users get to have that familiar MySpace world with lots more content to share. Awesome, right? Absolutely.

But my point here is that the content you want to share depends to some degree on knowing about the material to begin with.

Yes, there are various ways to learn about new artists in a myriad of places around the Web. MySpace doesn’t have to be the primary destination for fans of particular artists. It can be an adjunct. Which I bet it is for millions of people. A place to visit once they know what it is they’re looking for. But that doesn’t mean MySpace should accept that as its own status quo and simply strike deals with major labels to put forth their respective catalogues of music, to be published to artists’ MySpace pages, come what may. The network should instead work to intelligently aggregate that wealth of content into a streamlined interface so that the net benefit is the speedy promotion of more artists and not something so scattered as what it manages today. Because as logic would have it, such promotion would grant the site more traffic. It’s clearly the case that consumers enjoy shopping as much as sharing what they discover. Those two things go hand in hand, really. It’s just not fun to have one without the other.

I don’t expect the relaunched MySpace Music to fail because of these shortcomings. It’ll have plenty of users in the weeks and months ahead. Prior to last week it was already quite popular. But if it has the potential to be much better and more user friendly, and its designers don’t follow through with that expectation, well, the companies involved lose out - MySpace as much as the major record labels.

The labels have their hits, but it’s always been certain that they make considerable investments in the long tail to their financial detriment; they produce albums that don’t hit the mainstream and don’t sell very well. MySpace can change that. It has for years given musicians stuck among the unknown some much-needed exposure they would be hard pressed to get elsewhere. Yes, it’s true that musicians can now utilize Web services to such great effect that the record companies may well be irrelevant to achieving success. But my position is one which regards vast portions of record labels’ catalogues as valuable and potentially still very lucrative, and so it is in their interest as much as MySpace’s to “make the most of what’s around.”

The fact of the matter is that the concept of a new MySpace Music has been one that users have been waiting months, perhaps even years for. And this is what they get? Something that looks so devoid of character and collectivist power that the user cannot experience new sounds with any real measurable alacrity? Yes, the website showcases several album premieres, a handful of featured playlists and videos. But anything beneath the cover almost completely cuts away from it all. What’s more, the way in which featured playlists are shown is quite strange. A widget presents itself in the center of a page in a fashion that just feels deflating. It’s almost as if you’re sampling, rather that really engaging with what the site has to offer. Meanwhile, the number of playlists alone is…well…small.

Honestly, if I were to sum up the flavor of the MySpace Music environment, I would say it’s empty. Which is kind of annoying, given how extensive the network really is. It should appear to be overflowing with content, and it doesn’t.

Even if you choose to browse as a buyer might traditionally do - say, within the area of ‘Top Artists’ - interaction with lists and menus is woeful. Really. Sure, you can browse by genre, but you’re made to view a sort of amateurish layout of artists names and descriptions, with everything segmented into divisions called ‘Unsigned,’ ‘Indie,’ and ‘Major.’ Those specifications aren’t what trouble me. It is that even with those specifications, the pages of links still feel distracting and unintuitive. In part because there’s no sense of chronology. New and old, it’s all the same.

I can appreciate what MySpace Music is solely for its dimensions. It’s got a lot of stuff. And even if that stuff is hard to find if/when don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s probably there, so once you come across a name somewhere else on the Web that piques your interest, you can scour MySpace to see if it has the desired material. But that’s what MySpace Music is, isn’t it? Tolerable. It could be pretty stellar. But it’s not.

It isn’t what I was hoping to see when it arrived. And I’m willing to guess that a whole lot of you think the same way. Am I wrong?

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