Nine Months And It’s Over Without A Word

Well, my internship at MP3.com has finally ended. Yes folks, its over.

I came to MP3.com nine months ago after having read this great review by Tim O’Reilly. Tim was really impressed with the shop — it was well laid-out, there was great communication, the office was structured like a community, there was leisure and there was work, and everything was written in Perl with MySQL, everything was custom and scalable, and MP3.com’s aim was to be as powerful as possible, adding 10 to 15 little features a day to their system. Beautiful, scalable, open, expressive, and, most importantly, groundbreaking.

Yes, groundbreaking. MP3.com was not working with the simple goal of getting rich (although that was a major motivating factor). No, they wanted to Change The World ™. I mean literally, change the way the world worked with respect to music. Put music everywhere. Lay the pipes and the groundwork so that they could be the water company of music. (Ironic, but more on that later). Yes, MP3.com was to be the pipeworks of music, delivering it on-demand to every part of the networked world. They were visionaries.

They were democratizing music. Allowing anyone to be promoted online, to set up a free site back when it was hard to get free sites, to host their songs and look at play stats and ask for contributions or charge for tracks. Their most wonderful gift was the My.MP3 service, a groundbreaking idea for music delivery. Their thought: buy a copy of every CD, rip it to mp3 format, and put it online. Let anyone, anywhere in the world put the CD they’ve bought into their CD-ROM drive, “beam-it” in seconds to the server, and then instantly be able to stream that music from anywhere to anywhere. This is when broadband was kicking off and spreading, this is when ripping MP3s was still difficult for the consumer. And this was a great service.

Ah, but I wasn’t at MP3.com then. I got there later.

MP3.com was floating on the internet bubble, but their business plan was viable. Like others they had squandered money like it grew on the trees of San Diego. But in the process they had built an infrastructure: one of the best Perl shops around. Case in point, and this isn’t common knowledge: PressPlay, the first of the RIAA’s DRM-encumbered music services, was written by MP3.com engineering staff in two weeks as a proof-of-concept to a few record labels. It was never even meant to be used. And yet it worked so well that tens of thousands of people used it, for a time, until MP3.com marketing dumped it to move on to better things.

Ah yes, marketing. I could have gone to work for the engineers, but I didn’t trust my computer skills yet. I decided to take a middle ground — not the vapid part of the business, and not the hard-core part: I was going to work for Product Development.

Product development — thinking up all those cool things that they think up there. Figuring out how they will work and tie together. Making plans and requirements documents and then getting back a finished product. I was promised that through one summer I would see a project from concept to completion. I was going to help bring about change.

And then I got there.

You see, in mid-2000 MP3.com launched their My.MP3 service, and one week later the RIAA sued them for $67 billion. Yes, billion. And the visionary founder of MP3.com responded:

“The RIAA’s action tells all of these thousands of consumers that they are not entitled to take their music into the digital age,” Robertson said. “Our service is nothing more than a virtual CD player. It is a new and innovative technology that lets people listen to their music. We have every intention of fighting [the RIAA's] efforts to dictate the way people can use their music.”

New, and innovative, and thus a threat, and thus fodder for the RIAA, and thus subject to a lawsuit that destroyed the company, collapsed it in upon itself. In one move the RIAA had taken the most innovative music company in the world and utterly demolished it. And not long after, Vivendi, the French water company, bought MP3.com’s tattered remains.

When I got to the company Robertson, with all of his vision, had left. The engineering office I toured was teeming with new recruits as MP3.com’s engineering arm was in the process of becoming the one-stop web shop for all of Vivendi/Universal. And the original building, the one in which MP3.com was born, was a wasteland.

The remnants of the dot-com age were still there. Awesome metal cubicle dividers and fish netting, beautiful murals, recording studios, an arcade and lunch room, nice conference areas, Aeron chairs. Beanbags. Lots of beanbags. I sat on a beanbag one day while using my laptop to surf the net wirelessly. The other employees looked at me like I was insane. You can’t sit on beanbags and surf the web when your job is at stake.

The skelatal marketing crew (and product development seemed to basically be the same thing as marketing) was constantly working, typing, meeting. Lots of meetings. More meetings then work, really. And, as a consequence, no one could give me something to do.

They couldn’t even give me a computer.

Eventually I went downstairs and built one myself from spare parts, then had to finagle a monitor out of the equipment guys, then had to get a keyboard and mouse. They didn’t want to give me one of the expensive optical mice — the finance people didn’t like it when they gave those out to anyone but artists.

So I came to work each day, sat at my cube, surfed the net for a while, hoping someone would notice me. Checked out the bulletin boards and saw occasional postings from the engineers. Admired the backend architecture they had built, an easy and functional intranet that I sat around poking through while I waited for something to do.

Eventually I would ask someone for something to do, and would be redirected to someone else or told to come back later. Everyone was always working furiously or rushing off to meetings. Eventually I got a job under Andrew, who wrote the reviews among other things, and I got to write a few reviews. I got a free CD player. My reviews were too long for them, too in-depth, and too negative. They asked me to clean them up.

And then one day Andrew was laid off. And he was gone, his cubicle entry.

Once again I had nothing to do.

Eventually I stopped showing up. No one noticed. For all I know, my cubicle and the computer I built are still sitting there.

And now we get to why I am writing this entry finally, nine months after I began my internship. It is because I found out today that it is over. Over, kaput, kaplooey, ended, done, smack, dab, finished. I am out of MP3.com<

Well, not out. I’m sure my ID card still works, and I could go inside any time i wanted.

But I’m out of their online world, and thats all that was making my internship continue. No longer to I receive the inevitable weekly emails cancelling the communications meeting — the time when random people can comment on whats going on with the direction of the company. I don’t think they’ve had one in the entire time I was there.

No longer can I check the stats and see how many people are visiting MP3.com, and how much they pay their artists, and how much it costs to run the various things. No longer can I see the crazy spreadsheets comparing the BBC to MP3.com in terms of features and other such marketing nonsense.

No longer am I dsilverman@mp3.com

And it isn’t because anyone cut me off. It isn’t because they realized I’m not there anymore. It isn’t because someone finally cared enough to do something. It is simply because every few months the system sends you a reminder to change your password, and I got one in November, and I never got around to changing it, and now I’m locked out of the system.

Their intranet is called Gotham. I am in it, along with the picture, same as on my ID card, my cubicle is hilighted with a dot on the map of the second floor of SD1. My position is “Non-Employee,” their term for contractors and interns. My information is still listed. My account is still there.

Twenty years from now all of the staff will have been laid off or fired or will have left or been replaced, and I still will be in Gotham, in that empty and dreary and dark database. The last remaining survivor of that once-wonderful notion that was MP3.com. I survived because I got sick of it, I got up and left, I left before my passion could be destroyed by the wreck of a company I once loved.

My profile sits in Gotham, a testamant to what might have been, but now cannot be.

It is lonely in here.