MySpace is the web site we all love to hate, and the list of reasons to hate it seems endless — from Rupert Murdoch to spam to sex predators to poorly formatted profiles that crash your web browser. And yet, for all its stigmas, the social networking site has spawned hundreds of imitators, each purporting humble origins and noble intentions. One of the latest is a music-sharing site called UrSession.com, which touts itself as a digital marketplace where fans get to be tastemakers. Conceived by entertainment-lawyer-turned-Internet-impresario Narb Avedissian and System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian, the site really got going with the addition of Oakland-born radio personalities Sway and King Tech. Now UrSession flaunts itself as the anti-MySpace: a hip, insider alternative to the corporate juggernaut.
Sway and Tech both went on KMEL within weeks of the site's inception and offered a perfect pitch for any rapper posting demos on MySpace and waiting to be discovered. The former MC and DJ have a long history of selling their street cred to the masses. They met in high school, formed a rap duo later known as Flynamic Force, and cut their teeth break dancing for tourists at Pier 39. After landing The Wake Up Show on KMEL, they got signed with Interscope. The Wake Up Show gave them a platform to break rap artists like Eminem and Chino XL when they were just on the cusp of mainstream popularity. Sway and Tech became known both as tastemakers and middlemen who make dreams come true for street-level artists. In 2000, the duo migrated to New York after Sway landed a position as a franchise VJ for MTV, where he worked on music video shows like Total Request Live along with the lifestyle show My Block. UrSession.com, pronounced "Your Session," is simply the latest incarnation of the Sway and Tech phenomenon, even though it's actually the brainchild of a Hollywood lawyer.
The concept is for unknown artists to get signed much in the way that Sway and Tech did — without an A&R budget. Anyone who joins UrSession constructs their own profile page with a customizable background and music player, plus a pithy bio similar to the ones on MySpace and Facebook. Besides pimping their own videos and audio clips, UrSession members also get to "vote" on other members merely by clicking a button. So as soon as you sign on as a member, you're instantly bombarded with scripted salutations and friend requests from artists you've never heard of — for instance, Berkeley grunge duo Jelly Bone, who write on their profile "Thanks to drugs, we can see colors again" — all of whom want to be part of your online community.
The general thrust is similar to MySpace, but since the prize is a potential digital record deal and the chance for radio or TV placement, the self-promotion is a lot more aggressive. Once a profile garners 50,000 votes, Avedissian said the UrSession team will start evaluating it for the site's digital record label. "We're gonna develop a digital market on the site, where everything from music to ringtones will be available for the public to buy," he said. "There are a variety of ways to make money. If they're signed to our label, we will try to place an artist's music on a TV show, for example, or get them sponsorships." He added that members will also earn a percentage of the ad revenue they generate on their pages.
Despite the emphasis on street cred, UrSession didn't exactly start in a garage. Avedissian said he came up with the idea out of frustration with the dearth of outlets for discovering independent music. He sought Odadjian as a "muse" after deciding to leave the business litigation world for a career in online networking. The two had been friends since sixth grade, when they both attended a really small parochial school in East Hollywood. Odadjian had the brilliant idea of recruiting Tech. If he was looking for someone with a shrewd business sense and connections to the hip-hop world, he could not have chosen better.
Part of the secret behind MySpace was that it provided businesses with an easy portal into the mind-set of teenage consumers. They could tailor ads to what TV shows people listed and what music played on their profiles. Given all its hipster credentials, UrSession.com has the potential to garner an even more specific group of consumers. Its founding fathers may have a genuine desire to create what Avedissian calls "the first-ever fan driven marketplace for music," but if they start seeing green, who can blame them? UrSession now owns exclusive rights to all the Wake Up Show content and has its own digital "marketplace" for fans to sell everything from audio clips to ringtones.
Still, despite the obvious parallels, Avedissian tries to fend off the MySpace analogies. "I'll tell you the one thing that was very important to me: Sway and Tech and Shavo come with a lot of integrity. They've never sold out, they've never been super commercial. We don't want to turn this into a ridiculous place for spammers. ... I think the problem other social networking sites are having is that it's such a big mess." Avedissian constantly emphasizes the populist appeal of UrSession: "You and I can decide what they want to hear of, instead of a couple of suits telling us what we should hear more of."
Sway, in turn, compares UrSession to an online arts district: "If you're an aspiring artist and you live in New York City, you want to go to lower Manhattan, to the East Side, with all those little grungy clubs so you can be in that environment where people love to play." Theoretically, then, UrSession is to MySpace what the East Village is to Times Square. It has the veneer of being hip, underground, and alternative, even if it's actually the product of some savvy marketers.
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