Several weeks before the release of R.E.M.'s last LP, 2004's Around the Sun, the folks over at MySpace did something they'd never tried before.
As part of a partnership with R.E.M.'s label, Warner Bros., the entire album was posted on the band's MySpace page, allowing fans of the Athens, Georgia, alt-rockers to stream the disc long before they had a chance to buy it. Ever since, artists like Nine Inch Nails, Audioslave and Weezer have followed suit, premiering their latest releases on MySpace as yet another promotional tool that could help boost future sales.
According to Tom Anderson, the site's president, one of its founders and the official "face" of the site, most of these bands (with the exception of R.E.M.) went on to experience the biggest sales debuts of their careers. Coincidence? Anderson thinks not.
But the real question is, could MySpace have a similar effect on the 2008 presidential election? "[I] think it's really going to have an impact," Anderson said, referring to past Rock the Vote campaigns, which encouraged young voters to get to the polls and have their voices heard.
With the recent launch of its Impact Channel, a political community designed to empower politicians, nonprofits and civic organizations that want to connect with the site's users, MySpace could end up being a powerful force in the election. All the announced presidential candidates have their own MySpace profiles, giving potential voters more access to them and their respective campaigns.
"We're basically just trying to make a place where everybody that wants to do something good for the world can get their stuff highlighted on MySpace, sort of like the main music page, or the video page, with the focus being activism," Anderson explained about the Impact Channel during a recent interview with MTV News. "All the people running for president next year have already made profiles, so when somebody gets elected, our president is going to have a MySpace page. You can write our president in a few years, which is kind of exciting."
Anderson promised Impact will remain nonpartisan and explained that every candidate's profile will be featured on the channel. "It randomizes it so it's not one candidate over another," he said. "I won't even say who I'm going to vote for. I don't want to make people feel like me, or MySpace, is endorsing anyone."
The site will even hold a virtual election January 1-2 in advance of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, giving candidates the first test of where they stand with young voters.
"Hopefully we'll see some interesting results and get them in before everyone else," Anderson said. "Whether it matches what happens I think is not as important as getting people excited about it and showing on your MySpace profile what you believe in and who you're standing up for."
MySpace will also host a Presidential Town Hall series, to take place on various college campuses from September to December, and users will be able to submit questions for the events via MySpace instant messenger.
"It's sort of a throwback to the old days of politics," Anderson said. "You sort of heard this in the past that [former Democratic presidential candidate] Howard Dean and blogs and everything is going to change the elections, and the Internet is going to have a big impact. I think it has to some degree, but I think something like a MySpace profile is more direct than a candidate's Web page or a blog. ... You can add the profile to your friends list, and you can see what the candidate is all about.
"I think it's a way to engage young people — and even older people who are not thinking about the election and not caring anymore," he added. "They can see it and it will be right in their wheelhouse of what they are used to, and it's just a more efficient way to understand what a candidate is about than watching a little bit of a newscast here and reading this in the paper and trying to sort of piece together what this person stands for. So I think it could really have an impact in energizing and exciting the people that were not paying attention to the election before."
Politicians have accepted MySpace as a valuable marketing tool just as readily as the music industry has. But Anderson said MySpace was never intended as a promotional outlet for major-label music.
"I didn't expect major labels would embrace MySpace, and the original idea for music on the site was the unsigned bands, the independent bands," he said. "So I was quite surprised that major labels would embrace it, and they've done a lot with it."
And of course, that partnership between MySpace and the majors helped Anderson launch his own label, MySpace Records. As a musician for most of his life, he said starting the label was a "labor of love for me, and something I'd always wanted to do." The label has signed an eclectic mix of artists who have made names for themselves through the site, including Mickey Avalon, Hollywood Undead, Sherwood and Kate Voegele.
"It was a no-brainer for me," he said. "I'd be open to [signing] anything that's good — I just want to find good bands. And when people think of MySpace music, they think of emo, they think of rock, but the fact is there's more hip-hop on MySpace than any genre. I just haven't found the right hip-hop band to sign."
Those who've been long-term MySpace users no doubt recognize Anderson, as he's always the first friend of any new user who signs on to the site. And yes, Tom has never changed his MySpace profile picture — and doesn't plan on it.
"I've always kept a low profile and said no to 'Saturday Night Live' and stuff like that," he said. "I'm opening up a little bit more, but I sort of felt like in the beginning, I didn't want the focus to be on me. But I think if I change [my pic] that it will be hard for people to find me and send me a message or whatever. I probably should change it. I think when I do it, I should make a big ceremony out of it — maybe take a vote or something. That picture is six or seven years old, and it's small enough that people don't recognize me. They say, 'It doesn't even look like you,' but that's kind of cool too because I can walk down the street and I don't even get recognized."