The music man

MTVi's Nicholas Butterworth says he wants the audience to do the programming.

By Janelle Brown

Published November 29, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It's safe to say that Nicholas Butterworth has been thinking about online music since before the existence of the World Wide Web. In 1994, Butterworth was managing a tiny bulletin board service (BBS) called SonicNet, which served as a community and news service for music lovers, musicians and early adopters of the Net. Even then, he says, he saw that "this was a medium that could empower lots of people to communicate their perspective."

Today, Butterworth, 32, is still at the helm, but SonicNet is a very different kind of beast. In the past five years, SonicNet has acquired music news services, databases and Internet radio stations; in turn, it has been acquired first by TCI Music and, earlier this year, by MTV. Butterworth currently serves as president and CEO of MTVi -- MTV's Internet division -- overseeing not only SonicNet, but, and the convergence of MTV's Internet brands with its cable shows. Youthful, opinionated and exuberant, Butterworth has spent his career as an advocate for youth interests. He began his career as executive director of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit organization that, with the aid of MTV, encouraged young voters to get involved in the 1992 elections. Today he thinks more about how to encourage kids to open their minds to new kinds of music -- and, of course, to buy that music online from one of MTV's sites.

Salon Technology spoke with Butterworth about current and future changes to the music industry, thanks to the Net, from convergence programming to digital downloads. Will the youth of the future be demanding its MTVi?

Why did you move from political activism with Rock the Vote to a music BBS like SonicNet?

I didn't found SonicNet but I was friends with the founder and I didn't want to be in politics for my whole career. In 1994, I got obsessed with AOL and had my first moment of realization that the online medium was something really incredible that would empower people and grow.

When I saw SonicNet, which at that time was just a few months old and was a BBS with four modems and a 486 box, I thought, gee, we're going to create the next national music brand and build a competitor to MTV.

Rather big thinking for a little BBS, wasn't it?

I thought this was the only way you could create a nationally recognized music brand, because the economics wouldn't support a new national cable network or a music magazine. But I also thought that consumers really needed control over their music choices and they wanted access to much more diverse programming than they could get.

Remember, this was 1994. There had been a lot of consolidation in the radio industry, with fewer formats available on the FM dial. MTV had been very successful with lifestyle programming, but as a result was dedicating fewer hours per day to music video programming. So consumers were getting fewer choices on broadcast media; at the same time the music itself was becoming much more fragmented with electronica and hip-hop and all kinds of rock coming in the aftermath of grunge.

There was this combination of real demand for control of information, and an opportunity to give artists a way to communicate directly to fans, and fans to access artists directly. I thought that it was possible, if you were smart about it, to build a brand that could migrate from platform to platform as technology changed and bandwidth expanded.

Have you ever been a musician?

I played bass in a band in college and then for two years after college -- basically, I lived in New York and played music. The band was called Dung Beetle. We basically played noise rock, very performance-oriented.

How did being a musician affect how you envisioned the potential of the Net?

If you're a musician, you're really into music -- so you have a voracious appetite to know about music, talk about music, hear other people's music. I fundamentally believe that if we make it easy for people to discover new music, they'll listen to more of it.

It's obvious that the Web is an incredibly great medium for artists to do self-promotion. If you're in a band like I was, we didn't really care about getting signed to a major label; it wasn't what we were interested in. But we did want to communicate with an audience of fans who shared our view -- all the time that we spent making fliers, inviting people to shows and making demo tapes, clearly today I'd use the Net to do that.

We're working on programs now at MTVi to help all kinds of artists to do that -- even stars and career artists. It's the best medium for them to stay connected with their fans.

What shifts do you see in the record industry thanks to the Net?

I'm not a complete radical who believes that this means the death of the record labels -- they play an important role and will be around for a long time. But I do think there will be a fundamental shift. I don't think it'll be possible over the next 50 years for record labels to believe that they own the artist, the way they have for the last 50 years.

This is already happening, but it hasn't become universal yet. Some of the younger talent that gets signed still needs access to the distribution power and marketing muscle, and the dollars that major labels have. So people are still signing lifetime deals.

The real change is not at the artist level but at the unelected court of the music industry -- the lawyers, agents and managers, people who make the deals. That level of the industry is beginning to realize that artists don't have to give away everything forever.

What will MTVi be in the future?

We don't believe that any single Web site can be the ultimate destination for everyone online -- music's too diverse. We think that music consumers want more than one site; they want a brand that's a gateway and point of reference, but then use that to explore and discover other sites online, artists or specialist sites -- punk or folk or blues. We provide them with three sites: VH1, and SonicNet.

When MTV first came on the air on cable, teenagers and young people said, "OK, this is my channel." It was really a voice that spoke for an audience that hadn't had a voice until then. Now we can go even a step farther and make that more tangible: We are trying to go beyond any other television network in developing meaningful convergence programming.

By convergence programming, do you mean broadband?

No -- I mean using the PC as a gateway to let our viewers interact with what's on the cable TV channel right now, rather than waiting for the boxes to converge.

An example is the show "WebRIOT," where viewers can play along live with an interactive trivia game show broadcast over MTV. Another example is "Rock Collector," which we are debuting on VH1. It's like "Antiques Roadshow," but with rock memorabilia -- people bring their rock artifacts for experts to authenticate and evaluate. There's a live online auction of all the products being sold on TV -- we take the results of the auction and feed it back to TV. It's a way for people to actually participate in the program through the computer, not just re-purpose content from TV for the Web.

Obviously, as the TV gets more integrated we can go farther and farther.

Sounds like a more advanced version of the early MTV Yak project -- which let MTV viewers send in e-mail commenting on videos currently airing, and then broadcast those e-mails on the screen.

I thought MTV Yak was interesting -- letting the audience get on the channel directly through the computer. We also own a music video network called The Box, probably the most advanced interactive cable network that exists today: 100 percent of the programming is determined by the viewers.

Without getting too hokey about it, I actually think that a lot of what I believe about this is influenced by stuff I did as a kid on a TV show called "Zoom." "Zoom" was a show completely based on material sent in by our viewers -- it was incredibly great. In the TV industry you spend millions of dollars and countless hours trying to understand your audience so that you program to them. Let the audience program to itself, and you're going to do even better. Letting people participate in a meaningful way is something that makes things enjoyable and interesting.

On the other hand, I've heard the argument that letting people program content for themselves is actually a bad idea -- that people will be exposed to fewer new things because they program only the things that they already understand.

I've been working with music video-on-demand for two years, thanks to Streamland [a personalized music video channel] on SonicNet. I don't think that pure on-demand media will replace continuously programmed media across the board. But the ability to customize and personalize your media experience adds enormous value.

What we found with Streamland is that there's a strong novelty effect to being able to pick and choose your own music videos, but over time people would rather watch a continuous stream of videos most of the time, as long as they are able to impact it to a meaningful degree.

With our online radio project, we've also found that people don't want to have to choose each song every time they listen to the radio. The ability to say "I want mostly jazz, but every once in a while I want a little bit of hip hop," is actually highly meaningful to people.

I hear SonicNet is going to move into digital downloads and selling music online -- do you think digital music will replace record stores and CDs?

I still enjoy going to record stores, a lot of people do, but I think online is a pretty good way to buy things. We definitely believe that over time, online purchasing is going to increase, and we believe in the digital download future -- it's a great way for record companies and artists to promote their music and distribute it to consumers without the cost of putting out bits of plastic and shipping them around the country.

But covers and packaging are definitely interesting to consumers -- and I don't believe digital download replaces physical music product 100 percent. It just becomes a new and significant piece of the music experience. The potential, with the right kind of support from the labels, is that digital downloads will increase music consumption instead of just cutting into CD sales. If you make it easier for them to listen to more music, then they will.

Music consumption is flat in this country -- the record labels have an enormous vested interest in experimenting with new models that may drive consumption higher.

Right now the record industry is scared that music is being distributed free online and pirated. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the record label-driven initiative that proposes to copyright-protect all digital music, is intended to halt that -- but what impact will it have on consumers and business models?

SDMI represents a shift in the perspective of the record labels from viewing the Net as a threat to viewing it as an opportunity. I look at the U.K. market and think it's what the U.S. market might look like in the future -- a lot of compilations, and a very short lifecycle for different forms. You might have a drum and bass track come out as a white label record release and cost 10 pounds; 4 months later it's a track on a full length CD and the same track costs 2 pounds; 6 months later it's on a three-CD best-of compilation for the year. There's going to be a time value for music that will be an interesting economic phenomenon for people to play with.

If you're a new artist and you have nothing vested in the old model you'll be particularly open to experimentation with this. Or if you're a well-established artist and you aren't selling new product as much as your catalog, you also have a lot of opportunity to experiment.

Maybe I'm Pollyanna, but I think a lot of people could benefit from this. It's not a zero-sum game.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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