Music Ally’s Stuart Dredge sat in on today’s headline interview session with Owen Van Natta, CEO of MySpace. Highlights included the announcement of a new partnership with SoundExchange to help unpaid artists…
Having taken over as MySpace CEO last year, Owen Van Natta is the man charged with making the most of the social network’s music content and services – as well as repositioning its brand against competition from Facebook. He previously worked at Facebook, before moving to Project Playlist, and then on to MySpace.
Billboard’s Bill Werde helmed the interview at MidemNet, kicking off by asking how Van Natta’s perceptions have changed since he joined MySpace.
“I’m excited about the progress that we’ve made over the last nine months, and really excited about what we have going forward,” he said. His first job was to overhaul the people, the product and the platform of MySpace, stripping down the product roadmap, and kickstarting further evolution in the platform behind it all.
“We’ve dramatically reduced page download times, and you can see users reward that by spending more time on the site and engaging with more content,” he said.
He was also asked to elaborate on the differences between MySpace and MySpace Music – or at least their respective strategies. Van Natta stressed the deep strategic partnerships created around the music service, with the labels. “We set it up as a joint venture because we really needed to have those partners be owners in that business,” he said.
More than 180 million playlists have been created by users on MySpace Music, according to Van Natta, who talked about users wanting a “holistic” experience, not just the music itself, but an experience around it. “That’s what the social web is all about: The ability to have these experiences on the web with other people,” he said.
And monetisation of that? Van Natta claimed MySpace Music is now the largest ad-supported music service on the web, and that it’s tying in music, merchandise and ticket sales to bolster that revenue stream.
MySpace has been the focus of much speculation in recent times – for example about whether it’s paying its way for parent firm News Corporation, and the viability of the site if and when its advertising deal with Google runs out. Werde asked about this, inviting Van Natta to tackle the speculation head-on.
Or, to put it in a nutshell: what does Rupert Murdoch want from MySpace? And is it delivering?
“We believe that the future of content distribution is going to be through people, not portals,” said Van Natta, by way of a response. “We think that gives us a platform – and this is what I talked initially with Rupert and the News Corporation people about – to build a content distribution platform.” Which he said will be a hugely valuable asset to a large media corporation like News Corp.
However, he also pointed out that for MySpace, being an autonomous entity is crucial, to attract the kind of people it needs to build this social platform.
“One of the big opportunities that is emerging on the internet that we’re taking advantage of is.. the economic downturn has caused a lot of big brands to re-evaluate their advertising spend,” he said, continuing on the business model theme. “We’re really pleased with the way we’ve integrated brands into the MySpace experience.”
This extends to the 50 secret gigs held by MySpace in the last year, where brands get a presence. Also, it’s working with Toyota, which gives away a free download every Tuesday. “We’re gonna continue to push on that, and we think that brings a big opportunity in terms of revenue,” said Van Natta.
Selling music is another revenue stream for MySpace that’s becoming more significant, as is ticketing. The latter has been “incredibly successful”, he said. “We’re trying to work on products and partnerships that allow us to integrate it much more deeply.”
Specific numbers? No. But he has an announcement. “We’ve created a partnership with SoundExchange,” he said, talking about the money put into escrow by US collecting body SoundExchange for bands that it can’t find. MySpace is going to help. “We’re going to be using the MySpace platform to get those connections and get the money into the right hands.” 25,000 artists who are owed money have already been found, said Van Natta.
Werde moved the conversation on to how Imeem and iLike – both recently acquired by MySpace – fit into the picture. “With iLike we got a lot of great talent – an incredibly talented development team,” he said. “We’re focusing on being a lot more open. We think users should be able to consume their content wherever they want to.” – with iLike fitting in because it runs across every social platform, including Facebook and Bebo.
And Imeem? “It was a site that users had literally invested tens of thousands of hours creating playlists,” he said, pointing out that MySpace has made a big effort to map those playlists against its own catalogue, announcing last week that the playlists are now available to those users again, through MySpace Music.
Van Natta did share some numbers at this point. He cited comScore’s claim that MySpace increased its unique users by 7.2% last month. MySpace Music, on the other hand, has grown 92% year-on-year. Artist pages have played a big role, as has the new music videos element of the site.
He also talked up the MySpace Artist Dashboard, which gives artists stats on who’s listening to and watching their content. “We’re hearing back from bands that they’re using it to determine where their tour schedules should go,” he said.
How does mobile fit into the future of MySpace Music? Van Natta says mobile has been explosive for MySpace itself in terms of growth, especially for younger users. “We think there’s a huge amount of opportunity there,” he said, while admitting that the business models may be different for music.
“Less of an extension of our website, and more of a primary platform to be able to discover, showcase and share content with other people,” he said, talking about MySpace’s mobile strategy. Which was a very polite way of not talking about the specific mobile strategy for MySpace Music, of course.
Van Natta also talked about the opportunities on the main MySpace site around gaming. “We have an audience that is more willing to spend on virtual goods and other things that you purchase inside of those social games than other platforms are able to,” he said – i.e. Facebook.
MySpace is focusing on making games more viral on its site, which ties into its strategy of unifying users’ activities into one area – the real-time stream. “There’s so much content and so much activity on MySpace every single day, the only way to truly keep up with it… is to do that type of product innovation.”
And thus gaming is getting more traction, because people can see what games their friends are playing, and also connecting to play against people they don’t know.
Finally, he was asked about Facebook rivalry – with artists using it a lot more for interaction with their fans. Is this a threat – are artists moving over to Facebook for their marketing? “We literally have millions of artist profiles,” replied Van Natta. “Pretty much every band that exists out there has a profile on MySpace.”
But are they active profiles? He said the Artist Dashboard is a key tool to keep artists engaged with MySpace. “The reality is artists are going to use a lot of different tools out there to try to connect with their fans and try to advance their business,” he said, saying that’s why MySpace is integrating with other platforms – e.g. its link-up with Twitter last year, where status updates on MySpace are pushed to Twitter, and vice versa.
So MySpace is trying to become a single platform for artists to publish, which then pushes their content out to lots of different sites. “It’s not about a walled garden, it’s really about leveraging all the different platforms out there”.