The Music Man
What do you do when a maverick like Gawker Media's Nick Denton calls a startup "the future of all media"? Listen up.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- When I first heard about the Hype Machine, an infant Web service that's making noise in the realm of online music, it was breathlessly described to me as "the future of all media."
Normally, I would've dismissed such panting as ... well, a bunch of hype.
But since the heavy breather happened to be Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, I figured that the Hype Machine, at the very least, merited further investigation. So I asked Fred Wilson, venture capitalist extraordinaire and inveterate rock and roller, what he thought.
"The service," he replied, "is the best thing to happen to music since the Rolling Stones!"
Rolling Stone + Napster + blogs
The Hype Machine, I soon discovered, is a one-man band: Its creator and sole proprietor is a 20-year-old Russian immigrant named Anthony Volodkin who's studying computer science at Hunter College.
There's a little bit of Shawn Fanning in him, along with a touch of Jann Wenner. And while the Hype Machine may never be as famous or influential as Napster or Rolling Stone, Volodkin's baby contains elements of both, updated for the age of blogs - which is why it's so damn interesting.
This is an excerpt from "Capturing the Buzz," which appears in the October issue of Business 2.0.
A voracious music fan, Volodkin started the Hype Machine in mid-2005 to bring together hundreds of music blogs and the tracks they're writing about.
On the website's front page is a list of songs, refreshed every hour, being discussed on any of more than 600 blogs that the service is programmed to monitor. Next to each song are links that send you to the blog post, let you listen to the track, and route you to iTunes or Amazon.com so you can buy the cut.
The last of these is especially important, for reasons both obvious and subtle. For one thing, it provides Volodkin with a revenue stream - er, trickle. It also reinforces the image that Volodkin wants to foster for the service as nonpiratical. He points out that he's made it impossible to download tracks from the Hype Machine.
"I've done a bunch of things," he says, "to facilitate the selling" - as opposed to the stealing - "of music."
Silence from studios; buzz from VCs
Yet Volodkin is well aware that, for all his efforts and good intentions, his site occupies a legal gray area: Though it doesn't actually host copyrighted material, it points aggressively to sites that do (and caches some tracks itself). And while the record companies have so far chosen not to train their fire on Volodkin, that could be mainly because his user base is still small: The site gets just 30,000 visits a day, he estimates.
As buzz around the site builds, the VCs are inquiring. The day before our meeting, Volodkin got a call from a guy at Bessemer Venture Partners; the next week Fred Wilson paid him a visit.
For any media-minded investor, the appeal of Volodkin and the Hype Machine is easy enough to see. Since the rise of Napster, the music industry has been in a prolonged state of upheaval - one that is only growing more chaotic.
New tools are being invented (Pandora, Last.fm) for navigating the new digital soundscape. New avenues for promotion (the MP3 blogs) are emerging as star-making vehicles for acts like Arctic Monkeys and Gnarls Barkley. (The summer megahit "Crazy," for example, first showed up on the Hype Machine last October.)
A 'Technorati for music'?
In this context, it's not surprising that the Web is also enabling what Volodkin calls a "new kind of conversation about music."
The old kind, of course, was dominated by magazines such as Rolling Stone. But now those publications seem archaic, antiquated--irrelevant, in a word. And they've left behind a vacuum that the Hype Machine could readily fill. Wilson maintains that the service might become the "Technorati for music."
To me, that seems too modest. With a little imagination and daring, the Hype Machine (or something like it) could evolve into the single indispensable site in the Webified world of music.
John Heilemann, the author or "Pride Before the Fall," writes the monthly Who's Next column for Business 2.0 Magazine. His next book is "The Valley." He lives in Brooklyn.
This is an excerpt from "Capturing the Buzz," which appears in the October issue of Business 2.0.To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.