Muxtape: Knifed in an alley by the RIAA

Justin Ouellette, a former staffer at Vimeo, had a real hit on his hands with Muxtape, until the record labels got wind of it and shut it down. Now, Ouellette is taking another stab at it with a service aimed at independent artists. There were plenty of people (yes, we’re looking at you, Valleywag) who scoffed at Ouellette’s attempt to create an interesting music-sharing app, saying he should have known that it would step on the toes of the music industry. But then, name a music service that is actually enjoyable to use and doesn’t handcuff its customers six ways from Sunday that hasn’t stepped on the toes of the record industry (other than iTunes).

Oullette has a long post at the Muxtape site about what happened to him as he tried to arrange licensing deals with the four major music labels. From the sounds of it, pounding nails into his eyeballs would have been a lot more fun — and probably would have accomplished as much. Discussions with the labels started out with “We are hours from shutting you down” and wound up getting hopelessly bogged down in demands. Then came the shocker: despite the fact that Muxtape was trying to play by the rules, the RIAA filed a complaint with Amazon over files that Muxtape hosted there on its S3 server system, and Amazon shut off the services access to the files.

I wish I could say that any of this came as a surprise. I was talking with a friend earlier today who spent three years trying to get a Web music service off the ground — one that would really help artists connect with their fans, and help fans connect with each other. But it got wrapped up in so much music-industry red tape that it became clear there was no business model. The labels required a ridiculously complicated process, and wanted money at every step: every time a song was encoded, every time one was copied to another medium, plus egregious per-song royalties.

It’s not a new story — not by a long shot. At every step, the music industry has done its best to kill innovation through over-pricing and over-regulation. Justin says he believes the industry will catch up someday because it “pretty much has to.” I hope he’s right, but every time something like Muxtape happens I get a little more pessimistic.

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