Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for MP3.
In a universe filled with overvalued Internet stocks,
may be the most staggering story of all. The Web-music start-up offers songs no one wants through a technology it doesn't own. Its market: anyone bored enough to rummage through the offerings of more than 30,000 artists in the hope of finding the next
But wait, there's more. MP3.com's top executives include Thomas Spiegel, who ran a California savings-and-loan into the ground a decade ago, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion, according to regulators. Spiegel, obsessed with personal security, built two antiterrorist bomb shelters at his S&L's headquarters. A 1990
Los Angeles Times
story reported that he had as many as 19 private security officers protecting him, some armed with automatic weapons.
MP3.com hired Spiegel in July. He's in charge of "strategic business opportunities."
For all this, investors have rewarded MP3.com with a valuation of more than $3.5 billion. Even for an Internet stock, that valuation is generous, at roughly 50 times MP3's projected 2000 revenue. (Yes, that's revenue, not profit. Like most Internet companies, MP3 isn't expected to be profitable for the foreseeable future.) By way of comparison, the average Internet stock trades at about 20 times next year's expected revenue, according to
Day of Reckoning
But the day of reckoning may be approaching for MP3.com, which faces increasing attacks from both traditional record companies and other Internet music sites. The announcement last Tuesday that
will open a true Internet music label,
Jimmy and Doug's Farm Club
, is only the first shot in the coming battle among traditional record companies to retake the Internet. (Since Seagram's announcement, MP3.com stock has fallen to just over 50 from 60.
wrote about Seagram's announcement.) Meanwhile, MP3.com must fight for consumer attention with newer Web start-ups like
, which features news and songs from established artists at its
"Most consumers of music want music that they already know they like," says Dave Goldberg, Launch's chief executive. "What is MP3 doing? They're basically making unsigned artists available to consumers. That's pretty easy to replicate. The bigger question is, do consumers care?"
To be sure, Goldberg has his own bias, since he's staked his company's future on working closely with major labels. But independent industry analysts agree with his assessment.
"I do not see anything that MP3.com has or has built up that protects it from more recognizable music from people we know and trust," says Mark Hardie, a senior analyst covering entertainment for
, the technology consulting firm, which as a policy won't disclose whether it has consulted for companies mentioned in this story.
With its huge variety of bands, MP3.com is a "flea market" of music, Hardie says. "But a flea market is not where most people shop on an regular basis. ... In discussions around the music industry, I think there is very little support for MP3's model as the future of the music business." Three other independent analysts echoed that sentiment but asked not to be identified.
Indeed, very few of the people who visit MP3.com buy music from the site. In October, for example, about 470,000 people visited the MP3.com site on any given day, according to the company's figures, but the company sold only 18,300 CDs for the entire month -- or just 600 a day. In other words, barely one person in a thousand found music worth buying at MP3.com. In addition, while the number of unique visitors to MP3.com continues to increase, the number of pages each person views per visit has fallen from 6.7 in July to 5.6 in October. That drop is more proof that MP3.com is having a tough time keeping visitors interested in its offerings.
So what's MP3.com's long-term plan? The company's not saying. After repeated requests for an interview for this story, MP3.com responded that only Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Robertson could speak for the company and that Robertson didn't have time to comment.
The sell-side analysts who follow MP3.com, all of whom work for investment banks that underwrote the company's July offering, also didn't return requests for comment. But their research reports downplay the importance of MP3.com's music sales to its overall revenue growth.
Credit Suisse First Boston
estimates that only 7% of MP3's revenue next year will come from sales on its site, with the rest coming from advertising, both online and at the music tours that MP3.com is sponsoring. That revenue split makes clear that despite its talk of revolutionizing the record business, MP3.com isn't really selling music to consumers. It's selling eyeballs to advertisers. Unfortunately, without good music, eyeballs may soon be hard to come by.
Ace in the Hole
Still, MP3 does have one big ace up its sleeve: a rich agreement from
, a private French investment company that controls the luxury conglomerate
LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton
. Arnault will spend $150 million over the next three years on advertising, marketing and promotional services from MP3.com.
In addition, the agreement is set up so that MP3.com will get $5 million this year, $40 million in 2000, $70 million in 2001 and $35 million in the first half of 2002. That structure means MP3.com, which had only $6.5 million in revenue in the first nine months of this year, is guaranteed to see its revenue soar for the next two years. In fact, based on analyst estimates, it appears that the Arnault agreement will represent about half of MP3.com's total revenue over the next two years.
Arnault, which has set up a $550 million investment fund called
to invest in the Internet, also agreed to buy about 3.3 million shares of MP3 stock at 28 when the stock went public in July, a $92 million investment that so far is solidly in the black. Tuesday the stock TKTK.
Groupe Arnault doesn't publicly discuss its investments or Internet strategy, but one person at the company says it views MP3.com as "a unique marketing opportunity that could work not only for the companies under the LVMH umbrella but also for some of the companies that Groupe Arnault has invested in. ... We do believe in the concept and the overall approach that MP3.com is taking."
They don't have much company. And long before the Arnault agreement expires in 2002, the music may stop for MP3.