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“People Move Into Tribes”: How Myspace Revolutionized Social Media—and the Music Industry

An excerpt from Michael Tedder’s new book, ‘Top Eight: How Myspace Changed Music,’ about the website that changed music—and fandom—forever

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, author (and Ringer contributor) Michael Tedder will release his book Top Eight: How Myspace Changed Music on Chicago Review Press. In this exclusive excerpt, he relives the fall of the CD era and the rise of Napster, which set the stage for music’s social media boom.

In 2000, the compact disc was king. It averaged around $18.52 a pop and very often only had one memorable song on it. (There’s no evidence that Len’s 1999 album You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush is not the single “Steal My Sunshine” 12 times in a row.) The CD was the most popular—and more or less only—way to consume new music. As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon, “Labels insist they simply cannot make a big enough return if fans are buying $3 singles instead of $16 albums. Retailers, though, fume that they’re suffering without singles, which have historically increased foot traffic in stores, especially among younger shoppers.”

The music industry arguably wasn’t giving the customer what they wanted. But it did seem to be doing something right, at least for a time. The year 2000 was when the Orlando song-and-dance boy band ’NSync released their album No Strings Attached. It sold 2.4 million copies in a week and eventually moved 10 million units by the end of the year, while “It’s Gonna Be Me” remains an eternal jam and unkillable meme. That level of success would be all but unimaginable when the decade ended, give or take an Adele. And the reason for that is Napster.

Before Napster, downloading music on the internet was a shadowy operation, the sort of thing that only a select few obsessives were able to figure out. Napster made the search a lot easier for people. Developed by 19-year-old Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning, the file-trading service Napster hit the world like a bomb. That’s the way the music industry and its lawyers viewed it, anyway. And it’s not like the nervous executives were incorrect, given that their ability to sell a million copies of a CD in a week was about to go bye, bye, bye. Napster debuted in 1999 but caught fire in the summer of 2000 with dorm-bound college kids and people whose parents had just gotten high-speed internet. (Or people with the fortitude to spend an entire evening downloading, via dial-up internet, a garish bluegrass cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” that has been mistakenly and frequently attributed to Phish but was actually by a group called the Gourds.)

A few months into the summer of 2000, heavy metal legends Metallica, upset that a demo of their single “I Disappear” had leaked onto the network, filed a lawsuit against Napster and the company’s cofounders, Fanning and Sean Parker. Lawsuits from Dr. Dre and A&M Records followed, and Napster went bankrupt. It would later be sold to a series of companies that would try to monetize it with mixed results. Similar file-sharing applications LimeWire and Kazaa would spring up in Napster’s wake, usually sticking around for a few years until the copyright lawyers had their way.

By the time a new avenue opened up to discover music, a certain type of bored music head was quick to take advantage. The monotony was suffocating, but the internet was about to give you far more options than you could ever possibly listen to.

While the Metallicas and Dr. Dres of the world were livid over Napster, upstarts much lower on the food chain were grateful for the free exposure that file sharing, message boards, and LiveJournal provided, even if they found it a bit confusing at first.

Eddie Reyes was a guitarist and longtime fixture of the Long Island punk and hardcore community who spent the end of the ’90s trying to put together a band that would elevate him beyond his local scene. But he couldn’t help but notice that something was going on when his new group Taking Back Sunday started catching on much quicker than he anticipated.

Chris Carrabba also found himself caught off guard by the internet’s sudden bump in importance. In the late ’90s, he was a South Florida musician who was quietly writing acoustic songs that he knew didn’t fit with the bombastic bands he was fronting at the time. But his friend Amy Fleisher Madden knew he had something that was too pure to remain a secret. While she was still a high school student, she signed him to her record label, Fiddler, and accompanied him on tour for his 2000 debut, The Swiss Army Romance, acting as his unofficial business and spiritual adviser.

Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional): I started going to cities that I’d never been to and people were singing along to every word, and they clearly had lived with the record for some time without me having been there to sell it to them or play the songs for the first time for them. It was kind of befuddling.

Scott Heisel (Alternative Press editor): My freshman year of college, Napster was a thing and everyone was like, “Have you heard Dashboard Confessional?” And everyone’s passing around Dashboard Confessional tracks, and it was lighting up my dorm, because it was something totally new.

Carrabba: Of course, I asked. The thing was that they all had the record and then they’d come and buy the record anyway. That would give me my chance to discuss with them, like, how did they know about it, and why were they buying it if they had it? Well, they wanted to buy it, but they had no way to get it. I was able to find out how, and it was message boards, and it was Napster and LimeWire.

Geoff Rickly (Thursday): We played a pre–record release show; the record wasn’t out yet. It was supposed to be our release show, but they delivered us the records late or something; it was one of those screwups. So we’re playing with Midtown at the Wetlands, and it was packed, and we started playing new songs off Full Collapse, and people were singing along to them. And I just couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on.

Eddie Reyes (Taking Back Sunday): I wasn’t the online-savvy guy in my band. But Lars Ulrich from Metallica was right when he said that this is going to fuck up the music industry and everyone’s going to take your music. We were like, “Fuck you. That’s not punk rock.” And then ... yeah.

Lil Jon: Napster was where everybody just got everything. I don’t think I liked it too much. I could see when I went into a market, I actually ran up on bootleggers and snatched all my shit, like, “Motherfucker, this is me. Give me all this shit, no more.”

Amy Fleisher Madden (Fiddler Records): Chris and I would tour in various capacities. At a certain point, people started coming up to the merch table and being like, “I want to buy this CD because I downloaded the songs on Napster.” It was so cool that kids were buying it and downloading it.

Rickly: I really had no idea. I really couldn’t figure out why there were hundreds of people singing along to songs that weren’t on the old record. Speaking to fans afterward who were like, “We downloaded the record.” And I really was like, “What? What does that mean?”

Courtney Holt (Myspace music president): When I went to Interscope Geffen A&M, I met with Sean and Shawn. I was the one label person who was meeting with these people, not with a lawsuit in hand, but I wanted to understand what these businesses were doing. I was sort of the ambassador, even though I couldn’t ever get the industry to take it seriously. I made a mental note that the world had changed, and that we need to be on the other side of this equation. I called it a consumer-first strategy, as opposed to a business-first strategy. Which isn’t to say that their recklessness wasn’t a fuck you to the industry.

Fleisher Madden: I didn’t have any contempt for Napster. Every major label corporation was like, “We have to shut this down.” But I was like, “This is great. This is free marketing if you really think about it.” I think established artists hated it and younger artists loved it.

Holt: I tended to be a friendly face, but I met with Sean and Shawn at some point very early on, and I knew what they were doing was wrong. But part of what I was trying to figure out is the psychology that was driving them to want to do this. I didn’t look at these as people that were purposely trying to take down music. They were trying to solve a problem that consumers were having that we didn’t know how to solve.

Reyes: It’s a double-edged sword. We were from the old school where we were making flyers at the Kinko’s. But right on the cusp of us becoming bigger, the internet blew up. It got the word out. We can give a lot of credit to the internet, though we stopped selling records. But it doesn’t matter because all those people came to see us play. It’s good, and it hurts.

Holt: So the problem is you had Walmart and Best Buy and the big-box retailers and Target essentially commoditizing music. We were not incentivized to put out singles. So you had basically this inflation that was coming from trying to protect the CD business. The industry was sort of blind to the realities of what was happening. The issue with piracy, it was really just about consumer control and choice more than it was about piracy. I think people want to pay for music. We just weren’t giving them the products they wanted. They didn’t want to have to go to the big-box retailer and pay 18 bucks. They wanted convenience, access, and community.

Mark Richardson (former Pitchfork editor in chief): Modern rock radio was both huge and pretty shitty.

Andrew Nosnitsky (Cocaine Blunts): MTV by that point had gone to shit. I feel like it was in the early 2000s that it truly just became worthless to me. The internet started opening up, and then suddenly that was my primary resource for music information. I feel like probably from the years of 1992 to probably 1999, I would just come home from school and watch TV, whether it was Rap City or MTV. At a certain point it was like, “There’s nothing here anymore.”

Richardson: By the end of the ’90s, I thought alternative rock was pretty awful. Spin kind of built that world, and then once it got to be the mainstream, they latched onto it. And of course, they had tons of great writers at that time, but Spin covers by the late ’90s … I just wasn’t really interested in it as much anymore. I was just too old for rap metal completely. I could recognize that Rage Against the Machine is a good band in some ways, but it’s just not my kind of music.

Holt: The most interesting feature of Napster for me wasn’t the free music. It was the ability to browse someone else’s library. Whenever I’d go on a date with a woman, I’d go into their apartment, I’d look at the records, like, “Who is this person?” And the most telling thing about any individual is what music they listen to. I think if you look at what percentage of the downloaded music was actually played, it’s probably not as much as people were stealing.

Carrabba: So my experience, I guess at the time, was that [the internet] was this great equalizer. I had no distribution, but I had a record, so I discovered quickly that when I started touring, that I would get to new cities I’d never been to, and my record was already there. People had already downloaded it from Napster and were sharing it. There wasn’t a social network at that point, but there was a network nonetheless. It wasn’t a one-stop hub, but it was sort of already in the infancy of what would come to be. And I think it started with Napster and music fans.

Success isn’t always about being first. Investor and engineer Jonathan Abrams launched Friendster, the first major social media platform, in March 2003. Mark J. Pincus, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who provided Abrams with seed money, told The New York Times that Abrams started the service “as a way to surf through his friends’ address books for good-looking girls.”

By October 2003, the company was valued at $53 million, and the media became fascinated by this thing called “a social network.” Friendster was written up by Spin, Time, and Vanity Fair, and Abrams appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Abrams also, The New York Times noted, began “showing up regularly at parties with a strikingly attractive woman on each arm,” so it seems his plan succeeded.

A year after its founding, Abrams was offered $30 million for Friendster by Google. Taking advice from Silicon Valley peers and inspired by myriad stories of self-made technology billionaires, Abrams declined the offer. Had he taken the offer in Google stock, he would have made $1 billion by 2006. Abrams became focused on growth rather than the day-to-day operations of his site. As Friendster grew more popular, its infrastructure buckled, and pages began taking “up to 40 seconds” to load, an eternity in web time, and eventually it became difficult to sign in.

In April 2004, two months after Facebook launched and just a year and change after Friendster started, Friendster’s board of investors replaced Abrams as the company’s CEO. Three other CEOs followed in short order, each with their own ideas of how to right the ship. Abrams left the company in 2005. In 2009, Friendster was purchased by MOL Global, an online payments provider based in Malaysia. It pivoted to being a gaming website and eventually closed in 2015. Four years after starting, Friendster’s failure to launch was being taught at Harvard Business School as an example of what not to do.

The genius director Steven Soderbergh once said that instead of playing it safe and redundantly remaking films that were already a success, Hollywood executives should look for films with strong ideas that didn’t quite work and remake the flops, getting it right this time. Hollywood largely ignored this advice, as recognizable intellectual property became the only matter of importance in the 21st century. But at least someone listened to him.

Even beyond the technical glitches, Friendster wasn’t likely to work long-term. You could only view your friends, or your friends of friends. But once you checked in on everyone, there wasn’t much else to do. A few months after Friendster started, a social media site would come along to show everyone what social media could be. Sometimes, success is about being right on time.

Before he became everybody’s friend, Tom Anderson was a reformed teenage hacker, operating under the name Lord Flathead. In 1985, he triggered an FBI raid after he hacked the security of Chase Manhattan Bank. Being only 14 at the time, he wasn’t arrested.

The “Keith Richards and Mick Jagger meet at a train stop, bond over Chuck Berry, and form the Rolling Stones” legend of Myspace is that Anderson, a student-debt-ridden UCLA film studies student and the former lead singer of a band called Swank (such a ’90s band name), answered a job advertisement for a product tester and copywriter posted by Chris DeWolfe.

Anderson’s job was to test a product for Xdrive, a data-storage company where DeWolfe was head of sales and marketing. Anderson told DeWolfe that he hated the product. DeWolfe was impressed by the honesty, and they became fast friends, starting a direct marketing company together called ResponseBase. In 2002, it was sold to the marketing company eUniverse.

“One of the things that they sold were Razor scooters; they would import them and sell them for a hundred bucks apiece online over the holidays and make a profit,” former Myspace music editor Bich Ngoc Cao remembers of the pair’s early hustle, which involved getting as many of the items on a plane as possible. “It was a very specific model.”

Sean Percival would eventually become Myspace’s vice president of online marketing in 2009 and an in-demand marketing adviser. But before that, he was just a guy who wanted to work at Myspace so badly that he created a company that marketed through Myspace, eventually earning himself a lawsuit for his efforts. He’s been observing Myspace from the beginning, and he remembers DeWolfe and Anderson’s early marketing efforts.

“The whole genesis of Myspace was that they had all these kind of junky products and they needed a lot of ad impressions. They looked at Friendster and they realized the page views per session were higher than any website in the history of websites,” he says. “And every page view means an ad impression. ‘So let’s copy Friendster just to get those ad impressions for our products and our diet pills and our junk,’ and basically build this massive ad network via a social network. Just clone Friendster to get the page views.”

Anderson was a digital native before such a term even existed, and he had intuited that social media was about to be the thing. “I had looked at dating sites and niche communities like BlackPlanet, AsianAve, and MiGente, as well as Friendster,” he told Fortune in 2006, “and I thought, ‘They’re thinking way too small.’”

His FBI dalliances aside, Anderson wasn’t a smash-the-state anarchist punk. He was instead a suburban pop-punk, up for a bit of comfortable rebellion. He didn’t want to tear down the status quo and make the world a more equitable place. He just wanted everyone to have a good time and not be so concerned with the rules. It could also be argued he wasn’t too concerned with appropriating ideas from minority communities.

The problem with Friendster, he observed, was that it was just too closed off and too square. There was no way to easily find fellow Weezer fans so you could defend or deride their latest comeback album. And Friendster had a very unpunk humorlessness, as the company was quick to take down the type of jokey pages users might make for, say, their dog. Myspace would take a more open, laid-back approach. You could look at anyone’s page you wanted, and you could easily search for everyone who listed Rivers Cuomo and Co. on their profile. And if you wanted to make a Myspace page for Sparky? You do you, man. Post away. Post whatever you want. (In response to Myspace’s growing success and apparent cool factor, Friendster had plans to allow users to reach out to potential friends based on their tastes in bands, but the idea never got off the ground.)

Anderson and DeWolfe hit the Viper Room and other Los Angeles clubs, inviting local bands, club owners, and assorted hotties to join their site. The pair hoped that musicians and the nightlife butterflies you could only meet in Hollywood would sell the site for them. They did.

Norman Brannon (Texas Is the Reason): I was sort of a late adopter to Friendster. Mostly because I still considered myself to be a semiprivate person, or at least I thought that artists should be private. And the only reason I joined was because I was getting to a place where my queerness was becoming much more part of my identity. And I wanted to see what kind of queer people were on Friendster.

Heisel: A lot of high school and college kids are getting on Friendster and connecting. The biggest problem with Friendster is that you couldn’t have nonperson profiles. You couldn’t be a band. You had the fans there, but there was nothing to rally around. And that’s one of the problems that Myspace solved, while also creating 10 million other problems; you can give a band a gathering place for their fans.

Bich Ngoc Cao (former Myspace music editor): There are people who said that Chris DeWolfe had the idea for Myspace when he was in college, and this is straight up not true. Tom came up with the idea and pitched it to Chris, and Chris was very resistant to it, from my understanding, and then later was just like, “Yeah, do this little thing.” It was a super corporate company in one regard, because Myspace was not started as a true startup. It was a small mini startup within a large company called eUniverse that later had to change its name to Intermix because Eliot Spitzer* sued them for all kinds of nefarious practices. [In 2005, before he became tabloid fodder, the former New York state attorney general sued Intermix, which owned more than 40 websites, for hiding spyware programs inside downloadable games, among other charges. Said spyware could generate pop-up advertising and redirect web searches.] They sold all kinds of really weird, sketchy stuff. Tom and Chris were employed by them because they purchased a company that those guys had started where they were importing products and selling them online.

Sean Percival (vice president of online marketing for MySpace): Friendster was suffering because they couldn’t keep the site online. It was constantly going down. So every time Friendster went down, people started rushing over to Myspace. It would create a boom. And then eventually people got sick of the downtime. And then they went to Myspace, who, of course, had their own scaling issues, but they managed to hold on a little bit better.

Cao: If you logged into Friendster and went to your profile and you looked at a page, it would say so-and-so is in your network and this is how you’re connected to them. Every time that you loaded a page, it would recalculate those connections. And as people were loading those pages, before we had access to things like cloud servers and better technology, it kept crashing their site. So they had a junky experience.

Percival: A friend of mine talked about social networks in the early days, and he said it doesn’t matter what’s on the social network. All people care about is, Are my homies there? And there was this shift. You were on Friendster and then everyone is on Myspace. And it didn’t matter how ugly the site was, how broken it was; if your friends were there, you wanted to be there. And we see this today, with TikTok and Snapchat, people move into tribes and wherever everyone is, that’s where they want to be.

Disclosure: Courtney Holt previously served as the head of Spotify Studios; Spotify is The Ringer’s parent company.

Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, Stereogum, and Playboy. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. His book, Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music, is available from Chicago Review Press.