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In June -- shortly after Ovitz put the fear of God into Scour with a threatened but quickly resolved breach-of-contract suit -- a deal was announced. Ovitz and Burkle bought 51 percent of the company for a neat $4 million, adding Scour to their growing portfolio of hot Internet sites that already included GameSpy, Talk City and CheckOut.com. Ogilvy was hired to handle PR, and the boys left Dan’s two-bedroom digs in Westwood for a suite in a posh office complex on a tree-lined Beverly Hills street. Though not one of them is old enough to rent a car, they now boast “vice-president-type salaries,” as Travis modestly puts it. The parking lot, he says with a sheepish grin, is “like a BMW farm.”
Scour‘s investors are gambling that multimedia on the Web is only beginning to take off. The site now provides access to the thousands of radio stations that broadcast online, and lets you search them by playlist. (Travis explains: “You type in Busta Rhymes, you’re going to get all the radio stations that have that in the playlist, and the ones that float to the top [of the search] are the ones that have Busta Rhymes more often. There might even be a Busta Rhymes station out there!”) And Scour.Net offers easy links to downloadable music and videos. But the selection is still fairly limited.
Scour makes it easy to browse through work by new artists (or work that falls into entirely new categories: The alternative-music section of Scour includes subcategories like “Twee,” “Shoegazer” and “Emo,” as well as the more predictable “Brit Pop,” “Ambient” and “Grunge”). But tracking down a specific song by a specific artist can be touch-and-go. Despite the popularity of digital music compression (Lycos reported this winter that “MP3” was its second most commonly searched term; the first, of course, was “sex”), there‘s a near-infinite amount of recorded music that hasn’t been placed online. The same goes for videos and, even more so, for films and TV.
The Scour boys expect that will change. By forming partnerships with music, movie and TV studios, which Ovitz & Co. will grease, and with other Internet content providers -- such as Rolling Stone‘s online venture and L.A. Tonight, an online guide to local nightlife -- Scour will soon be able to create what they call an “entertainment suite” personalized to the user. “Entertainment suite will be more compelling” than the offerings of ordinary search engines, Travis says, “because you’ll have reviews of some of the content. If you see a Britney Spears music video you might be able to connect to a Britney Spears interview,” or find out when Britney‘s in town and buy tickets to her show, or buy any number of Britney Spears gewgaws. “Those are the cool things the Net enables.”
This, of course, is how Scour makes money -- not only through brokering deals with content providers (including Britney’s record label), but by engaging in the sort of hyperspecialized niche marketing that only the Net can offer. This is also where Travis‘ vision of the future of entertainment gets a tad menacing. In addition to requiring visitors to fill out a questionnaire when they register with Scour, the company will be able to track how each visitor uses the site. “We’re not going to send out your name and everything to everybody out there -- we‘re just going to say we watch you and we watch what you do,” Travis reports.
If the Net can successfully create spaces for free and radical discourse unimaginable a decade ago -- witness the worldwide distribution of Zapatista communiques and, less encouragingly, the ease of communication among neofascist cliques -- it has also birthed this nightmare form of interactivity (“We watch you and we watch what you do”). In a few short years, it has come a long way toward realizing the capitalist wet dream of the perfectly predictable consumer. That would be you, dear reader.
Or maybe not, if you don’t fall into Scour‘s targeted demographic. As major search engines such as Yahoo! and AltaVista make it easier to search exclusively for multimedia material, Scour’s competitive edge will come from its self-conscious targeting of a specific audience, composed largely of people more or less identical to Scour‘s employees: young, largely white, affluent and male, highly computer literate and pop-culturally savvy. It is this edge that lets Scour create, in Dan Rodrigues’ words, “a Web environment that the Yahoos of the world just can‘t create, because they’re trying to cater to everyone.”
Back to Travis: “700,000 people in a month, that‘s a whole city. You can market to those people. If they all like music, you might market speakers to them, cool speakers that they’re looking for. It might be multimedia-type hardware like a big monitor, or it might be software that they‘re interested in, but once you understand the users, you really know the types of products they’re going to use.”
Sometime this fall, Scour will get a new logo and a complete overhaul of its “branding” -- a term that apparently does not first bring to mind the stink of burning flesh for Travis, who beams, “You‘re going to look at that logo, and you’re going to feel the brand and go, ‘Man, that is Scour-user!’” It is hard at times to reconcile such unadulterated corporate glee with the Scour boys‘ constant invocation of terms like “underground” and “grassroots,” which they use to describe both their eyeball-to-eyeball relationship with their customer base and the relaxed atmosphere of Scour’s offices. (Travis recounts frequent Nerf-dart battles to counter stress: “When the president comes in your office and shoots you with a dart, you shoot back.”)