MySpace is essential for independent artists. Every band I've played with in the last five years has had a MySpace page, and it completely changed how we did things compared with the pre-Internet days. Getting gigs, maintaining mailing lists, fliering--all of those formerly labor-intensive tasks could be accomplished by sitting in front of a computer. One group I played with got 90 percent of our gigs through other bands on our friends list. Another had a couple dozen teenage fans who'd come to every all-ages show when they read about it on our MySpace page. (We were all in our late 30s and 40s and had no idea that ska would appeal to that demographic.)
But there was always a major gap: if we wanted to sell downloads, CDs, or anything else, we had to guide fans to another site or service, such as our own home page with a PayPal account or CDBaby.
Today, MySpace announced a deal with three of the four majors (EMI is sitting out for now) to offer DRM-free MP3 downloads, ringtones, and merchandise through the artist pages on MySpace. This is long overdue: the music industry needs to go where their fans already are, and with 30 million people regularly listening to music on the site, it's a mystery why the labels haven't tried to reach these folks before now.
But major label acts are a small part of the MySpace experience. The only reason you ask The Police or Death Cab to be your "friend" is to show off your impeccable taste to your real friends, the individuals and small-time artists who you're actually connected with. These are the folks who leave individualized comments on your page and send you instant messages, and their gigs appear right alongside Radiohead's on your home page. MySpace is the ultimate long tail site for musicians, where bar bands and small-town heroes can appear in the same context as the biggest bands in the world.
So I'm not sure that MySpace Music will be a game-changer. Fans of big bands already know where to buy merchandise--the band's Web site, or Amazon's CD section, or iTunes, or their local retail store. Sure, big fans who count major-label acts among their "friends" might now stay within MySpace to buy new songs from these bands, and some MySpace users might discover (and buy music from) new acts via friends of friends. But a lot of fans don't know (or care much about) the difference between major and independent artists, and might wonder why only some acts make their wares available for purchase. The inconsistency will be confusing, and drive users back to the traditional music-buying sites (or free file-trading services, which aren't going away).
The real game-changer comes when MySpace offers a full e-commerce store--downloads, CD sales, the works--to every artist with a musician's page on the site. That way, users would never have to leave the site to buy any music they heard on the site. The challenge would be building the infrastructure, but once things like billing and provisioning downloads are in place for the majors, it might not be much harder to set up a CDBaby-like system for everybody else.