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Yahoo Music wants to top the charts again

The former No. 1 music site taps classic rock as part of its comeback strategy.

By Devin Leonard, senior writer
November 19, 2008: 7:31 AM ET

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Instead of selling songs, Yahoo Music aims to build a diverse community of fans.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) Music isn't necessarily the first place where you'd expect to find hordes of Grateful Dead and Black Sabbath fans.

But David Skye, a new blogger on Yahoo Music, elicited hundreds of passionate comments last month when he listed the top 10 rock and roll bootlegs of all time. His picks were unauthorized live albums by classic acts like The Dead, Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd, all of whom were rocking long before anybody imagined listening to music on a PC.

That is exactly what Yahoo Music chief Michael Spiegelman wants to hear. He is trying to revamp Yahoo's music site, and he's fairly certain classic rock can help. "The youth market is a very important part of the audience we serve, but we also have a lot of people in their 30s, 40s or 50s," he said. "They are passionate about music. But they are not necessarily waiting for the new Rihanna track."

Yahoo Music needs to do more to keep its users - both young and old - from decamping to competing sites. As recently as October 2007, Yahoo Music was the Internet's largest music destination with 22 million monthly users, according to comScore. A year later, Yahoo has lost 18% of that audience and has fallen behind AOL Music (TWX, Fortune 500) and MySpace (NWS, Fortune 500) Music.

Part of the problem is the ongoing turmoil at Yahoo as the company has struggled with a hostile takeover bid by Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and a shareholder revolt led by Carl Icahn. On Monday, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang himself announced that he is stepping down from his post and returning to his old job as a "Chief Yahoo."

There has also been an employee exodus from Yahoo Music. In 2007, Dave Goldberg, then head of Yahoo Music, abruptly departed to join a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Benchmark Capital. His successor, Ian Rogers, jumped ship early this year to run TopSpin Media, a much-buzzed-about startup that helps artists market their music directly to fans.

"I think [Yahoo Music] just lost direction with Dave Goldberg departing," said Ted Cohen, managing partner of TAG Strategic, a digital media consultancy. "Then Ian took over. I think Ian just got tired of raging against the machine to move forward."

Spiegelman, who joined Yahoo Music in 2003, is trying to recover lost ground. He has closed the company's music download service, which was never a strong competitor to iTunes. "We don't necessarily want to be in the business of selling tracks," Spiegelman said. "We want to be connecting you with other users and providing you with perspective."

Instead of selling songs, Yahoo is trying to build a diverse community of music fans. That involves redesigning the site, adding concert information, music blogs and video playlists.

Under Spiegelman, Yahoo Music is also targeting older fans whom he says might be turned off by youth-oriented music destinations like MySpace and iMeem.

That makes perfect sense to David Dorn, senior vice president of new media at Warner Music's (WMG) Rhino Entertainment. Dorn has provided Yahoo Music with exclusive tracks and videos by so-called legacy bands like the Dead and Led Zeppelin.

He has prodded Yahoo to do more outreach to classic rock fans: "There's nothing wrong with the new Katy Perry single," Dorn said. "But there's a big audience there that has to be served."

Along with posting unearthed tracks and video, Spiegelman is also beefing up the editorial content devoted to classic rock on Yahoo Music. New partners include GetBack.com, a music-oriented web site targeted at people in their mid-thirties and older. GetBack is responsible for the much-discussed ten best bootlegs post.

Baby boomers rhapsodized about the choices of GetBack.com's David Skye. Meanwhile, younger music fans protested his failure to include more current hit makers such as rapper Lil' Wayne. But not all of the Yahoo users in this demographic were dissatisfied. "Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, they rock no matter what - and I am 11 yrs old," wrote one pre-teen classic rock fan.

"Where can I download these?" asked another.

Shawn Amos, director of content for GetBack.com, said that is just the kind of varied response he's looking for. "We are discovering a generational fault line that exists on Yahoo, and we've been trying to stir that up," he said.

Indeed, GetBack.com's writers have also blogged about what Miley Cyrus could learn from older female rockers like Pat Benatar and Chrissie Hynde and cheekily noted the stylistic debt that younger bands like Radiohead and Coldplay owe to the graying members of U2.

Will Spiegelman reverse the slide at Yahoo Music with these changes? It's too soon to say. "They've had a checkered history when it comes to music," cautioned Mike McGuire, vice president of media research at research firm Gartner.

But McGuire said the changes at Yahoo Music "make sense." What's more, he said the music site still is still a force to be reckoned with because of its enormous audience.

Spiegelman is quick to note that the Yahoo Music redesign is just beginning. He said Yahoo will add more features early next year.

"They gave us a presentation a few months back," said Jesse Ervin, director of online marketing for EMI Music's catalogue, which includes the Beatles, the Beach Boys and The Band. "It looks exciting. We can change and update our artist pages, just like on MySpace and Facebook."

It's unlikely that Yahoo would have given record companies such access to the site a few years back. But that was when Yahoo Music was No. 1. Now, to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney, it needs a little help from its friends. To top of page

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