November 17, 2003
Remember that scene in Revenge of the Nerds when the Tri-Lam geeks stun the crowd with some high-tech musical wizardry? Well, life appears to be imitating art now that the techie haven CNET (Nasdaq: CNET ) will be taking over Vivendi's (NYSE: V ) MP3.com.
It may seem odd at first. CNET's turf includes gadget reviews, tech news, comparison shopping and downloads. It's more about Wi-Fi than Hi-Fi. It's more about open source than open chords. But when you think about it, the technology companies have already started to take over the music industry. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and the software specialists at Roxio (Nasdaq: ROXI ) may very well be the beleaguered sector's last hope by championing the cause of high-margin digital distribution. So why not CNET?
"I'm holding out hope a community-driven company with deep pockets like Apple, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , or even Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) ultimately wrestles the MP3.com dowry from Vivendi," I wrote in my Saving MP3.com column over the summer. "Any company willing to flesh out the site's bare-bones infrastructure into the proper potential represented by 250,000 bands along with their friends, fans, and families is welcome to apply. But if another conglomerate with blinders and dim specs has karma-killing intentions like simply trashing the possibilities in favor of redirecting the fading traffic, think it over."
CNET's intentions aren't clear just yet. Its balance sheet isn't as forgiving as that of the heavies on my initial wish list. Still, Vivendi will be wiping its servers clean of more than 1 million MP3s from mostly unsigned artists in two weeks. Whether this is CNET trying to distance itself from any potential litigation of MP3.com's past improprieties before starting anew the way Roxio did with Napster -- or whether it plans to just load up the domain with MP3 player primers and product reviews -- CNET is now inheriting the indie artist mother lode.
It has the chance to improve on a model that started out strong until radical cost-cutting moves resulted in alienating the artist community while deteriorating the listening experience for an audience that it failed to market to.
MP3.com's symphony was unfinished. Here's hoping that the brainy netizens of CNET know how to carry a tune.
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