Is Myspace Destined to Fail (Again)? 

Thursday, May 1 2014
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Committed users can find a plethora of smart functions on the site: social networking; Spotify-like streaming music, a realm to find new music (similar to Pandora), and original music writing and videos. But figuring it all out seems to require a master's degree, and the site changes its focus frequently.

More than a year after the relaunch, traffic to Myspace is abysmal, falling to 5.4 million unique U.S. desktop visitors in March.

The new Myspace has nothing to do with the old MySpace — new people, new design, new everything. And against the odds, it has remade itself as cool. But it suffers from an existential question: What is it? If its brain trust can't answer that question — and soon — it's hard to imagine the site is long for this world.

"Welcome back to Myspace," Tim Vanderhook's Myspace profile says. "Get comfy, throw on a track, connect with your friends, and chill."

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When he's not being all, you know, down with the millennials, Vanderhook tends to favor corporate tech buzzwords. Based in Newport Beach, he's 33, balding and intensely focused. His older brother, Chris, the chief operating officer, is based in Yorba Linda; the brothers have the same titles for Irvine Internet ad company Specific Media, which they founded along with a third brother, Russell, who also is based in Newport Beach and isn't as involved with Myspace. Russell Vanderhook's profile pictures show him at raves, on the ski slopes and surrounded by babes at the Playboy Mansion.

Through the company's spokeswoman, the Vanderhook brothers declined an interview request, as did the spokeswoman herself.

All three brothers are married, and nowadays tend to work out of their Irvine offices. The origin of their empire is online advertising, which the three began to sell in 1999 while still living with their parents in Yorba Linda and operating on a dial-up modem.

Even as Specific Media — now folded into the Vanderhooks' parent company, Interactive Media Holdings — has flown largely under the radar, it has grown to be one of the 10 biggest online ad companies in the United States. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported that it had been infused with $100 million in private equity. Today it has more than 500 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Thanks to that background, many people assumed that the Vanderhooks were interested in MySpace for its wealth of proprietary data; even at the time of the sale, the site was still being visited by tens of millions of people every month, each freely sharing information about their hobbies and favorite artists.

In an interview with Ad Age at the time, however, Tim Vanderhook swore this was not the case, saying the brothers were focused instead on building a "digital media company" à la Yahoo or Google — an ambitious attempt to get into the content business, and certainly more glamorous than selling "pop-under" ads. It was the siren call that has seduced many a mogul: They wanted to be publishers.

Myspace had content to spare, including a digital music collection that now contains more than 50 million songs. But the Vanderhooks didn't want to simply be a jukebox — they wanted famous artists and musicians to use the site themselves, just like in the old days.

That's where Timberlake, as a minority investor and partner, came in. Though "the closest he's got to being in the social media business was playing early Facebook backer Sean Parker in the movie The Social Network," as one analyst put it, Timberlake was tasked with driving the site's creative direction and bringing celebrities aboard. The idea was that, as in MySpace's original incarnation, the plebes would follow.

Joining Timberlake on the creative side were Eric and Keith Tilford, advertising wunderkind brothers and music video directors, who worked on branding. (Said to clash with the Vanderhooks about a number of issues, the Tilfords are no longer with the company.) Timberlake also brought on relatively unknown singer Kenna, whom no less an authority than Malcolm Gladwell determined in Blink would be more famous if his music, a mixture of rock and hip-hop influences, was easier to categorize. Nonetheless, Kenna was hired as Myspace's "chief vision officer," and he brought in Vice magazine's Joseph Patel, working out of Myspace's spacious New York office, to oversee the site's original content.

"For me, the goal was to change the conversation. People had a perception of what Myspace was," says Patel, who spearheaded the site's move into original music writing and videos. "We started from scratch. We didn't even have a camera."

The Vanderhooks have been watchful owners. Patel says, "They read and watch everything we put out."

He adds, "They don't understand it all, because they're not plugged in like that. Once they put the right people in place, they've been pretty hands-off. They come in sometimes with crazy ideas; some are good and some are bad. I'm blunt: I let them know."

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