By Rod Bastanmehr
Bob Dylan once crooned, “The times they are a-changin’.”
But on Sept. 25, change was nowhere to be found. It was conglomerate business as usual with the shutdown of Muxtape, the popular Web site that allowed user-uploaded playlists to be streamed at no charge.
The musical share space that had thrived for months was suddenly done for and the reasoning behind the site’s closure remains foggy.
“I love music,” Justin Ouellette, the site’s creator, said. “I believe that for people who love music, the desire to share it is innate and crucial for music itself. We do this because music makes us feel and we want someone else to feel it too.”-
This feeling inspired Ouellette’s vision of a Web site that would allow for unbound musical discovery. The site, created in March 2008, was effectively a lovechild of 1980s nostalgia and the modernity of the Internet. Muxtape would be a gateway into the future of music but maintain the comfort of the homemade mixtape era.
Ouellette was inspired to create this type of music-sharing site by a weekly radio show he had once hosted, in which playlists for each show were listed, corresponding to a cassette recording for the week, for listeners to examine and follow along.
Ouellette remembers viewing these playlists as cohesive blocks of music, not a collection of individual musical entities.
“Like a mixtape, each playlist was a curated group that was greater than the sum of its parts,” he said. “Unlike a mixtape, it wasn’t constrained by any physical boundaries of dissemination.”
Ouellette saw that the simple design of the radio show’s site could be the basis for something much larger. Five years later, with the Internet putting technology at everyone’s fingertips, Ouellette began toying with the idea of a user-uploaded music site based on the radio show’s template.
“The natural conclusion was [to create] a centralized service, which suddenly unfolded whole other dimensions of possibility for serendipitous music discovery,” Ouellette said. “What seemed before like the hollow shell of a mixtape now seemed like its evolution. I knew I had to try building it.”
Three weeks of long nights later, Muxtape was born to immediate success.
“Eight thousand, six hundred and eighty-five users registered in the first 24 hours,” Ouellette said, “and 97,748 in the first month with a healthy growth rate. Lots of press. Rampant speculation. Tech rags either lauded it or declared it an instant failure. Everyone was excited. I was thrilled.”
Then, less than six months later, the site came crashing down at he hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). While users had been enjoying all that Muxtape had to offer, they were blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes battle for the site’s soul.
“I had no idea,” said Daphnie Wyman, a former member of the Web site, whose own playlist became a target of the RIAA’s rampage. “It felt like we were doing no wrong. This was music that was ours and we were sharing it how we saw fit … this came out of nowhere.”
Unlike other sites and programs, such as Napster, songs uploaded onto Muxtape were not available for free download. Instead, they streamed from user playlists and each song featured a link alongside it giving listeners the option to buy the song.
“When you look at a site like YouTube, technically the same thing is going on,” said Jonathan Landis, another former Muxtape member. “You can essentially listen to any song you want for free.”
The RIAA maintains that music sharing on Muxtape was illegal, regardless of what happens on sites like YouTube.
“For the past several months, we have communicated concerns to Muxtape on behalf of our members,” said an RIAA spokesperson who wished to remain anonymous. “Muxtape has not yet obtained authorization from our member companies to host or stream copies of their sound recordings.”
Still, no specific person has been blamed. In accordance with industry and legal standards, the only individuals who might be held responsible or liable for infringement are those users who have actually ripped off the artists — but none of the “ripped off” artists ever filed any actual complaints against the site, Ouellete said.
Ultimately, Muxtape may simply represent another casualty in the ever-growing war between music fans and music labels. As times keep on “a-changin’,” Ouellette sees no choice for the labels other than to adapt.
“The industry will catch up some day,” he said. “It pretty much has to.”