Outgrowing Tom

Bugged by MySpaces clutter and limitations, some musicians are turning to smaller, artist-friendly alternatives

Candee D*Vine wants to be your friend! She's 19, cute, bisexual and "up for anything." If you approve her request, and you probably will, she'll go into the pile with the rest of your "friends," who are more than happy to invite you to check out their naughty webcams, remind you about half-price drink nights at a club 2,000 miles from your house, or offer to "pimp out" your profile and send spam on your behalf. The one thing they won't do, however, is buy your records or check out your shows.

These are the perils of MySpace. Although many artists continue to use it effectively to grow their fan base and sell more records, the site has become a hassle for some aspiring bands, DJs and producers. Their list of complaints is long: The user interface is ugly and hard to navigate, the site is littered with intrusive, annoying ads, there aren't enough customization options, and maintaining a high-quality presence on the site means spending lots of time filtering out junk comments and fending off scammers and spammers. And as more artists set up profiles and start mass-mailing their potential fans, the music community on MySpace is beginning to look like a massive bazaar with thousands of sellers, but no buyers.

Like Friendster, Tribe.net and dozens of sites before it, MySpace is losing its place at the center of the social networking universe; some are departing for the cleaner, more feature-rich Facebook, while others are opting for more specialized sites such as the business-oriented LinkedIn. And musicians are increasingly turning to sites like Virb.com, which offer a more artist-friendly way to share their songs and connect with fans and collaborators.

Beyond the standard menu of social networking features, Virb allows artists to post a seemingly unlimited amount of music—for now, at least—and organize it by release, with cover art and liner notes. This alone is a significant draw for many musicians, who are frustrated by MySpace's four-song limit. Others are attracted to the site's simple, uncluttered user interface; it's easy to browse and use, with a folksy-minimal Web 2.0 look and feel. And Virb's novelty and simplicity have so far kept the cottage industry of social networking designers and marketers at bay, meaning fewer ads, better-looking profiles, less spam and higher-quality connections.

Steve Schieberl, a Seattle producer who makes electronic music as Let's Go Outside, recently abandoned his MySpace profile—and his 1,300 "friends"—and moved all of his music over to Virb. "MySpace's gross amount of ad space and lack of aesthetics, reliability and functionality have ruined its potential," he says. "A few alternatives have sprung up here and there, but none were worth making the switch until Virb came along. It's a less cluttered network, with far-superior streaming media players and an elegant look."

London-based DJ Tom Baker is also a recent Virb convert. "It looks much better, you can upload lots of content, and there are no amateur porn stars and rednecks constantly 'dropping by to show some love,'" he says. He hasn't yet given up on MySpace, however. "It's just so well-established now."

Other artists continue to swear by MySpace as a marketing tool. Bob Hansen, of the Seattle house act Jacob London, reports that they still get plenty of remix offers and international bookings through the site, and San Francisco-based producer Dmitri C.O.A. does a healthy business there, producing beats for aspiring rappers and getting graphic-design jobs through his MySpace connections. And the sheer size of MySpace means that any reasonably established artist needs to have a presence, since so many of their fans' social lives revolve around the site.

But the growing appeal of sites like Virb suggests a broader trend in the social-networking world: While the first wave of successful sites tried to be all things to all people, users are increasingly turning to smaller, more specialized communities that suit their interests and reflect their personal style. Facebook is rapidly displacing MySpace as the place to maintain social connections, while more adults are putting LinkedIn at the center of their professional lives.

Sites like Virb fit in a different niche, as both an outlet for amateur and semi-professional creative types and a smaller, more exclusive-feeling community of like-minded hipsters. It seems that the only remaining appeal of the one-size-fits-all approach of sites like MySpace is the convenience of maintaining a single presence for one's diverse interests. Or, as Hansen puts it, "I'd like to have just one place where I can meet artsy types, make business connections and skeez on 16-year-old girls, but it's just not happening."

 
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