Music Features

The Muxtape Saga

Even though the cassette mix tape has been nearly extinct for years (except in hip-hop and dancehall cultures), its conceptual appeal remains strong. So when a new Web site,, launched in March of this year to duplicate the mixed-tape idea in an online setting, an influx of users quickly began uploading to the site.

“What I liked was the ability to share a link with friends that would allow them to listen to my streaming music from their computer,” wrote Judie Lipsett, a technology editor at Gear Diary, via e-mail. “Muxtape allowed me to discover new music.”

Darren Hoyt, a Web designer and blogger, was one of the first to sign up at the site.

“The mix I made wasn't for anyone,” he wrote in an e-mail, “just a sampling of stuff I like, and thought followers of my blog might like.”

Muxtape quickly became successful, but pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which was monitoring copyrighted materials, and the major labels, who were interested in licensing deals, forced the site to close after only six months.

Muxtape’s story is one example of the complexities of the digital music landscape. Starting a new music Web site is equal parts inspiration, technological know-how, and legalese, and Muxtape, in its short lifespan, experienced all sides of this equation.

Muxtape had about 100,000 registered users and 1.2 million unique visitors within its first month. But the RIAA took notice of the site by the first week, and sent the site’s founder, Justin Ouellette, a notice to take down some copyrighted songs, which he did. Ouellette tried to work out licensing deals with the major labels, including Universal Music and EMI. In the middle of the negotiations, the RIAA requested that he take down an “incredibly long list of songs,” as he wrote on his Web site, in one business day or have his servers shut down and data deleted. He turned to the labels for help in dealing with the RIAA, but “none of the labels were interested in helping me out.” This request was the breaking point for Ouellette. He pulled the plug on Muxtape in September of this year, putting an end to a well-intentioned Internet sensation. He wrote on his site:

“I walked away from the licensing deals. They had become too complex for a site founded on simplicity, too restrictive and hostile to continue to innovate the way I wanted to.”

The cause of the shutdown was not just the licensing deals falling apart, but also trouble with financing and difficulties maintaining the site’s integrity.

“My flexibility was being constricted,” he wrote. “I had been worried about Muxtape getting a fair deal, but my biggest concern all along was maintaining the integrity and experience of the site… giving up any kind of editorial or creative control was something I had a much harder time swallowing.”

Muxtape allowed users to upload music from their personal collection to the site, where they appeared in a simple layout with the artist, song title, and track length printed in black over a colored backdrop using a seventy-minute time limit. Listeners couldn’t download the songs, but could listen to them in the order picked by the maker, just like a cassette, and links were offered to e-tail sites where the music was for sale. The type of music uploaded was as varied as music can be: from Link Wray to Bloc Party, from Jacques Lejeune to Kaki King, with all manner of known and unknown artists in between.

“I made my mix,” said Hoyt, “thinking that some song that moved me might move someone else.”

For others, the site solved a problem of inconvenience.

“I can’t bring my music from home to work,” wrote Patrick Rodgers, a Web designer, “so I wanted some of my favorites to listen to.”

Adam Keys, a software developer, made his mix for aesthetic reasons.

“It was just meant to encapsulate what I think are the interesting aspects of my musical taste,” he said.

All these mixes are no more, as the site has been taken down. But like the game Whack-A-Mole, newer mixed tape sites have gone online in Muxtape’s wake. 8tracks is a site founded by David Porter, a veteran of the Internet radio network, which pays small webcaster royalties to SoundExchange. And Open Tape is another that bills itself as “a free, open-source package that lets you make and host your own mix tapes on the Web.”

“Those sites will keep popping up faster than anyone can bring them down,” wrote Hoyt.

The Muxtape saga – and on the Web, six months is close to eternity – is proof that the merging of digital technologies and music has many kinks still to iron out. In addition, the RIAA will remain a force to be reckoned with.

“There’s undoubtedly more music being shared than we can control or we can go after,” said Liz Kennedy, Deputy Director of Communications at RIAA. “Our antipiracy efforts are comprehensive and always evolving.”

Ouellette, despite expending enormous effort putting the site together and attempting to work out a licensing deal, remained optimistic.

“The industry will catch up some day,” he wrote, “it pretty much has to.”