Accustomed as it is to standing helplessly by while technology reconfigures the landscape, the music industry and the sections of the design community which serve it could be forgiven for expecting every significant innovation to come with a sting in the tail.
The evolution of MySpace over the past year could easily have been a case in point: who needs a record deal when you can promote yourself and (soon) sell your music direct from your own, easy-to-find page? Likewise, who needs a professional website when the entire audience is crawling all over MySpace?
But while MySpace sent tremors through the Web design world at first, it has ultimately proven to be something altogether different. Having rapidly emerged as the sixth most popular website in the world, according to Alexa Internet, it seems to have created a vast new niche without making a dent in the Web design business. In fact, most music specialists have quickly opened up a new line in MySpace layouts.
‘At first, when MySpace started coming through, I thought that would be it, all over for us,’ says Steven Oakes, managing director of Manchester Web design consultancy Design Esti. ‘I thought it was going to give bands the ability to create their own Web presence without having to use Web design consultancies anymore, and it seemed like a big negative.’
Instead, Design Esti has picked up MySpace work from existing Web clients such as The Coral, Captain and Humanzi, and acquired MySpace-only work for emerging artists such as The Macabees, Ghostly Man and YoYo.
‘Everyone has a MySpace page now and everyone is still wanting websites,’ says Oakes. ‘What MySpace does is to act as a level between starting a band and graduating to the proper, relatively expensive website of your own. Everybody realises that there are limitations to MySpace, but it is great for making a little bit of a sticky site for people to come back to.’
No one is quite claiming that MySpace represents a major new source of business for designers. An artist page, professionally put together, usually takes about a week to execute, from commission to final record company sign-off, compared with what can be several months for a complex website. The fees for the smaller job are usually in the low hundreds rather than the thousands.
But in a music industry that is notoriously mean with its design budgets, MySpace work represents a welcome bonus. For designers working for major label clients – EMI, SonyBMG, Universal and Warner – MySpace layout and maintenance equates to ‘an extra couple of hundred quid on the monthly retainer’, according to Oakes.
For smaller bands that might not previously have been able to afford professional Web design, MySpace provides the tools to create a custom design of a modest sort, though even here, embryonic acts with serious ambitions are urged to recognise the limitations of their design talents.
‘Most people can’t program HTML and most people aren’t designers, which is why you end up with so many horrible MySpace pages,’ says Andy Way, account director at Bloc Media, which is in the process of designing MySpace domains for a clutch of major-label acts.
So, effectively, MySpace has provided the design industry with an entry-level service for artists on their way up. ‘The people coming to me asking for help with their MySpaces are people who can’t afford to make their own website. Because to make a good website, you have got to spend a lot of money on it,’ says Nat Hunter, managing director of London consultancy Airside. Airside’s music clients include the Pet Shop Boys, Mika and Lemon Jelly, the musical project of consultancy creative director Fred Deakin.
MySpace, as it stands, is not yet a major new outlet for creativity in design, given that pages must be built largely from a handful of stock elements. In fact, for all MySpace’s vaunted potential for liberating unsung talent, the face of the on-line music community is a remarkably generic-looking thing.
‘I think it might be impossible, actually, to do good design on MySpace,’ says Hunter. ‘You have got control over the background image, you have limited kinds of typefaces and you can put photos in, but ultimately it still looks like a MySpace page. In fact, I think the best thing you can do is to pare down what is there, because there is too much for me – it’s shouty, there’s too much going on.’
Nonetheless, there are possibilities for artistic expression. Airside’s work for Mika includes icons of the little characters who populate the singer’s imaginary world. Likewise, the creative on The Coral’s MySpace page is consistent with the design of the band’s Web page.
Numerous third-party sites already offer graphics that can be encoded into MySpace domains, and Hunter believes MySpace parent Fox Interactive Media will inevitably introduce more design variables. Others believe there is fun to be had from the format even now.
‘It depends on what you are doing with it,’ says Way. ‘If you are just doing a banner that is going to sit in the “about me” section, how much fun can you have making that? But if you do something that uses the medium well – if you embed things like the Radio One Musicube or the new Last.fm player in your site – that sort of thing can be quite interesting.’
If it were a country, The Guardian recently wrote, MySpace would be the seventh biggest, ahead of Russia and Bangladesh, with more than 156 million ‘inhabitants’ and counting. For designers, the People’s Republic of MySpace isn’t perhaps the most interesting place to take a holiday, but at least they know it isn’t going to invade.
• At the time of writing, James Blunt had the most popular MySpace page of any British artist, with almost six million page views and 255 000 friends. Gorillaz were in second place among major, signed acts, while Imogen Heap headed the indie list and Sia was the most popular unsigned artist
• News Corp’s Fox Interactive Media division raised eyebrows when it paid $580m (£323m) for MySpace in July 2005. In August last year, Google threw in $900m (£476m) for the right to supply search advertising on MySpace and other Fox sites for three years. Rumours persist that that deal is to be renegotiated in Fox’s favour