by Michael Goldberg
Monday November 5, 2001
The End Of An Era
MTV pulls the plug on SonicNet
The end came quietly. You might have missed it. In fact, even if you saw the six-paragraph news story on page C6 of the October 30 New York Times business section headlined "MTV Networks to Lay Off About 450," you wouldn't necessarily have understood that this was the end of a dream, a dream that became a nightmare. There was no mention of SonicNet in that story.
Seven years ago, on the East and West coasts, two startups came to life. One was my online magazine, Addicted To Noise. The other was a BBS called SonicNet. I can't speak for those there at SonicNet's birth, but I can tell you that with Addicted To Noise, I had hoped to create the best music magazine in the world, and I imagined it becoming a huge global site: music fans from all over the world would get the best music news, reviews, and features. And, as time went on and technology advanced, they'd get video and streaming audio, radio programming and things unimagined.
In 1997, SonicNet and Addicted To Noise merged. To face the growing competition in the online music space and to survive (keeping an online magazine alive with no outside funding was not easy for a former freelance music journalist), I felt that combining forces with SonicNet made sense. I liked the SonicNet site, and more important, I liked SonicNet president Nicholas Butterworth and the other folks then at the company, including the great designer Ofer Cohen and the tech guru John Rockwell. As I got to know others at SonicNet I was impressed by their spirit, spunk and intelligence.
At Addicted To Noise I had brought together a rather amazing group of writers and producers. Brick Thornton's understanding of how to handle multimedia seemed to grow by leaps and bounds; Gil Kaufman was fearless in his pursuit of music news, while Chris Nelson's reviews, news and features just kept getting better. Our head of advertising, David Hyman, was a true wizard at bringing in such major clients as Levi's and The Gap. There were many others, including Jon Luini from ATN's early years (he left shortly after the merger). I don't mean to leave people out, but I don't want to fill this column with names either. A lot of people did a lot of great work at Addicted To Noise.
Of course I am biased, but SonicNet and Addicted To Noise were, for a time, the best music sites. Period. We won Yahoo! and Webby awards year after year. Between '98 and mid-'99 SonicNet's music news was simply better than any of the competition. In 2001 our yearlong investigation of Woodstock '99 won a Scripps Howard award for best online journalism.
But it wasn't about awards, though we dug it when we won them. While Nicholas had to worry about the bottom line, most of us lived in a brave new world where we were breaking new ground constantly, on a quest to make our sites better, to make the online experience of music and music-related editorial and other "content" as good as it could be.
Along the way we were bought by TCI, and became part of a company called TCI Music. We spent millions and millions of TCI dollars pushing the envelope. From what I know of how the money was spent, we got the most bang we could for our dollars.
As we attracted millions of music fans to our sites, we felt our dream was becoming reality. SonicNet (we decided along the way to bring the strongest parts of ATN into SonicNet, including news and album reviews) was the standard the sites offered by the old-line music media (MTV, Rolling Stone) paled beside ours.
Then, in the summer of 1999, TCI Music and MTV Networks struck a deal; SonicNet was sold to MTV, and would become the high-profile "pure dot-com play," as someone once put it, that would allow for a huge IPO that would make Viacom's Sumner Redstone and others even richer than they already were.
When that deal was consummated, anyone not living in fantasyland (I was in some optimistic haze for a while) knew that it was just a matter of time before all the promise of SonicNet and Addicted To Noise was killed. The rulers of the MTV kingdom were going, ultimately, to remake SonicNet in their own image, which is to say that in time they would make it as mediocre as their VH1 and MTV properties.
On April 14, 2000, the stock market crashed. MTV's IPO plans went up in smoke that day. It took another year and a half for the powers that be at Viacom to extinguish SonicNet. A year ago, 25% of the MTVi staff were fired. The West Coast SonicNet office (the office that Hyman and I found, the office that I had built out in a way that I felt would foster creativity), where I ran editorial from May 1997 until June 2000, is being closed, most of the staff let go. I hear that SonicNet's great album reviews section, edited by Billy Altman, is dead; Radio SonicNet is history. (The once great SonicNet Music News of the World died over a year ago.)
Those 450 MTV job cuts are a response to "the new economic times," MTV Networks chief executive Tom Freston (who isn't losing his job) told the New York Times.
I feel badly for all the folks I know and worked with who lost their jobs last week. In time, they'll land on their feet.
The dream some of us held for a thriving commercial music site is now officially dead. In my mind I hold an image of SonicNet circa 1998, when we were all at the top of our game that image is dear to me. It is proof that when talented, creative and smart people are focused on the right things, the sky really is the limit.