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How to save MySpace

To survive, it needs to return to its core vision: connecting musicians with fans, adding more free music, and letting the technical folks run the show.

Both TechCrunch and Silicon Alley Insider posted stories this week about how MySpace is in big trouble. Traffic's down, users aren't spending much time at the site, Google hates its current ad deal that's up for renewal this year, and the relatively new CEOs are apparently planning to lay off up to 50 percent of the company--another 750 people--to save the company.

What happened? I remember when MySpace was the site of choice for musicians and music fans to keep track of their local scenes, and it seemed to have a pretty strong lock on general-purpose social networking until Facebook came along. Now, it looks like one big electronic billboard, and the only people who care about it are band managers and publicists trying to get "adds" for their artists so they can sell these acts up the chain to club bookers, radio stations, and record labels. There was always a commercial aspect to MySpace, but it's overshadowed everything else: Fox Interactive seems to have killed the goose that laid the golden egg, and covered its corpse with blinking Christmas lights spelling the name of the latest disposable major label act.

I exaggerate, but not much. If MySpace CEO Owen Van Natta wants to save the business, here are several steps he should take as soon as possible.

Get back to your core mission. What am I supposed to do at MySpace? I know what I used to do--I used to follow bands to find out when they were playing in my area, and perhaps exchange messages with them. As a musician, I used it to communicate with other local bands and fans and to post gig listings. Simple.

One of many areas that needs improvement. MySpace

I don't understand how MySpace Music, which lets you watch videos and play songs from bands of all sizes and popularity levels, ties back to this initial vision. Why should I go to MySpace to hear this stuff? How does it tie back with my friends? How does it tie back with local and famous artists I'm following?

Solution: Get rid of MySpace Music as a separate site. Let any artist with a musician's page make their music available to all users in exactly the same way--users run a search, visit the musician's site, and add any content on that site to a playlist that they can post on their own site. Any user can ask any musician to become his friend. And so on. Forget the distinction--it's all music. Which gets me to my next point...

If you're going to offer free music, do it right. As I wrote Thursday, a couple years ago, free online streaming music was hard to find; now, it's commonplace. So let's try using MySpace Music to add some Led Zeppelin songs to my profile page. Nope--the first result is a promotional page for the band's 18-month-old "Mothership" compilation, and the rest of the results are various cover bands.

OK, what about Pink Floyd's "One of These Days"? Once I scroll past the sponsored listings that take up most of the page, the first result is a MySpace home page for a Pink Floyd cover band. Eventually there are some listings that appear to be the song I wanted, but by this time I've pretty much given up and decided that I'll be using Grooveshark or Imeem or any of the other countless competitors that give me the song I want, on demand, right away.

Solution: figure out how your competitors got those deals with the majors, and sign the same deals.

Fix your advertising. Online advertising pays for all the free content (including this blog--hooray!) that we're accustomed to getting, so I'm all in favor of reasonable and relevant ads. But MySpace has littered its most important pages with intrusive and annoying advertisements. My personal home page has two big graphical advertisements for Bank of America, plus graphical plugs for a game by Zynga, a MySpace Karaoke site, and sponsored listings for a concrete company. Admittedly, there hasn't been much action on my page for MySpace to use to target ads, but even when I visit other musicians' profile pages--the main reason I use the site--I'm bombarded by graphical banner ads for low-value products I have no interest in, like mortgage refinancing and online education classes. When I search for a particular song on MySpace Music and the top two-thirds of the page--nearly everything above the fold--is devoted to sponsored links and annoying video ads.

Contrast that with Facebook, where the ads on the most popular pages (home and profile pages) are limited to a clearly labeled right-hand column and are sometimes surprisingly relevant. One relative, a big Jerry Seinfeld fan, didn't know he was coming to her town until she saw an ad on her Facebook page. She actually bought a ticket through the site! I'm willing to bet that hardly ever happens on MySpace.

Solution: devote less space to advertising, eliminate the super-annoying blinking flashing banner ads, and do a better job of optimizing advertisements to individual users.

Fix search. It's better than it used to be, but it's still not very tolerant--unless you enter the exact band name, you might get a lot of irrelevant results. When I look for one of my favorite new Seattle bands, The Curious Mystery, I have to enter the "The" or it won't find them. If I search for one of the bands I used to play with, Half Light, I must enter it exactly: I can't enter "Half Light Seattle" even though that's the exact spelling of their unique MySpace URL (there was another Half Light when we tried to get that space).

Solution: wasn't that Google deal supposed to be about more than advertising? Maybe your next one can include some technology transfer as well.

Let the geeks run the company. One of the most interesting things going on at MySpace right now is the development platform: I'm seeing more digital start-ups who are essentially using MySpace like the Windows of online music, tapping into the functionality and social networking connections that have already been established there, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. This shows promise: build the ecosystem of apps, and users will have to keep coming back.

Solution: I don't know how MySpace is organized today, so I can't get too detailed here, but put the people with technical chops in charge, and don't let the marketers, ad salespeople, and record-industry business development folks run the show.

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