Best Of '99: Downloadable Tom Petty Single Pulled From 'MP3.com' Site

Request to remove song met by positive reaction from traditionally oppositional website people.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, March 11.]

After a highly successful two-day posting on the popular MP3.com website, the new single from rocker Tom Petty, "Free Girl Now," has been pulled. Yet the decision to do so has not exactly met with a firestorm of opposition from digital-music supporters.

Rather, the people at the "MP3.com" site that hosted the free single seem content with what little time the site had to offer the song.

When "Free Girl Now" was pulled after two days — and 156,992 downloads — MP3.com didn't decry the removal. In fact, the envelope-pushing website, which has gained a reputation for touting MP3s with revolutionary fervor, lauded Petty and all those around him for their brief endorsement of MP3s.

"What we saw was the rank and file and the status quo trying to change their approach," said Robin D. Richards, president of MP3.com, Inc., a company that has portrayed the record industry as the archenemy of those who love the controversial digital-music format. "And I think we had to applaud that, and in this particular manner, abide by their wishes to bring it down, because it took big guts to do what they did."

People who follow the burgeoning MP3 industry were probably not surprised when "Free Girl Now" — which was posted last week in the downloadable MP3 format — was eventually removed from the Internet, apparently at the request of Petty's record label.

Instead, it was Richards' reaction that has come as the greatest shock to the industry.

His sentiment stands in sharp contrast to MP3.com's stance three months ago, when Capitol Records yanked a new song from new-wave rocker Billy Idol from the "MP3.com" site. In an online essay, the site portrayed Capitol as a Scrooge, taking away Idol's Christmas gift to fans.

"They see this as a crack in the dam," said MP3.com's CEO, Michael Robertson, at the time. "If every artist did this, that would legitimize MP3, and they're doomed."

In the past 18 months, MP3s — shorthand for Motion Picture Experts Group, audio layer 3 — have become the format of choice for music fans on the Net. But because they can be easily copied and contain no mechanism for protecting artists' and labels' copyrights, the traditional music-industry has largely opposed the format, saying it encourages online piracy.

The use of the format by a popular artist such as Petty — famous for

"Breakdown" (RealAudio

excerpt), "Free Fallin' " (RealAudio

excerpt) and a wealth of other songs — was seen as a powerful endorsement of the near-CD-quality format.

Richards stopped short of saying who specifically ordered the "Free Girl Now" MP3 to be taken down, asserting that the decision came from Petty's "management team," including manager Tony Dimitriades, the singer's label, Warner Bros. and his agent. Richards did say MP3.com's sole contact for that team was Dimitriades.

Warner Bros. spokesperson Bob Merlis said the company had no comment on the matter. However, Billboard Bulletin quoted Jim Wagner, Warner Bros. senior vice president of sales, advertising and marketing, as saying, "We think it's a bad precedent." The remark reportedly was made during a panel at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention in Las Vegas.

Dimitriades could not be reached for comment.

MP3.com's warm response to the situation, in spite of the decision to remove the song, is indicative of a change in attitude as the record industry moves ever closer to embracing some form of online-music direct-distribution, said Lorraine Comstock, director of marketing for Diamond Multimedia — makers of the Rio portable MP3 player.

"People in the MP3 community, as well as in the record industry, see some light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "People are more willing to work cooperatively with each other."

Both Richards and MP3.com publicist Hal Bringman said they did not declare that the Petty single would be a limited release when it was announced March 1, because they did not know precisely how limited it would be.

"We knew we had the label's permission, but that they weren't going to give just a carte blanche," Bringman said.

The day after the single was placed on "MP3.com," a disclaimer was added to it, saying that it would only be available until 9 p.m. (PST) on March 3. It was Petty's management team that ordered the disclaimer be posted, Richards said.

Had the single been available for a full week, Richards said, he believes MP3.com would have had what he calls the first MP3 "gold" single — 500,000 downloads. He still said that the overwhelming response to the song's truncated run will ensure that more artists of Petty's caliber are placing singles on the site in the near future.

"We anticipated that this would be a limited release," he said. "We appreciated the foresight and the strength of the whole Tom Petty team to step out into new ground, and to take advantage of the Net and direct marketing that's never been done."