myspace_life_cycle__pd_finalThe Web does not love second acts. Inexperienced startups with a crazy idea can become overnight stars, but companies that found and then lost success are simply written off as irrelevant. Entrepreneurs can see their credentials strengthened by noble failures, but once a brand is labeled a failure, it’s all but over. There have only been two successful Web turnarounds so far, and they both took several years to accomplish.

So it’s not surprising to see the attempt to turn around Myspace greeted with a scathing skepticism. Reviews of the new site have headlines like “Just Die Already” and recommend it only to necrophiles. Others blasted the new Myspace after it “shit the bed” by preventing old users from importing their connections (although I had no problem importing mine). Myspace has even been invoked as a symbol of what’s wrong with America.

To nearly everyone, the new Myspace is still MySpace. Capital S or no, Myspace remains a joke. More than AOL or Yahoo, the company has a tough climb ahead. I think it has a fighting chance though. Whenever I say that – whether to industry veterans or those who grew up with the old MySpace – they get that expression people have when they’re about to laugh out loud, only they don’t want to be rude.

Go ahead and laugh. The original MySpace was a blindly improvised site lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. It crassly sold out to the kind of media giant it should properly have challenged. It had little idea how to make money from ads on social media. It handed design over to the users themselves, before realizing too late most users weren’t good at design.

To many, bringing back MySpace would be as misguided as reviving “Seinfeld” as a new series — except the original “Seinfeld” was good. Even when the company sold again to Specific Media for a mere $35 million, it wasn’t clear why the assets were worth even that much. There was the traffic of 20 million or so users, but not the quality of traffic advertisers would pay a premium for. Above all, Myspace still seemed irrelevant in the age of Facebook.

There are two reasons why I think Myspace has a small but fighting chance for a comeback, and neither of them are Justin Timberlake. Timberlake is a valuable advisor who has shrewdly navigated the music industry and knows how to engage with fans. But no matter how ubiquitous he’s become, his marketing appeal can’t erase the stain that is the Myspace brand.

Rather, what Myspace has going for it is Specific Media, a little known company that has stealthily become the second-largest ad network. That puts it ahead of AOL and Yahoo and behind only Google Ad Network. Founded in 1999 by the Vanderhook brothers, Specific has close relationships with brands like Ford and Kraft and reaches 170 million U.S. consumers each month.

Myspace has no ads on its site yet, but Specific offers a potentially significant monetizing advantage over other social music sites. Although the Vanderhooks will have to show they know the online-music industry — a different beast from ad networks — they can help Myspace do something its predecessor failed at, competing with Facebook for advertisers.

More importantly, Myspace has finally embraced the business model it should have adopted 10 years ago. The original founders wanted to make a Facebook-like, all-in-one social network. But its early users clearly saw the site as a place to connect with favorite bands and fellow fans, and for musicians to build and engage with audiences. MySpace’s first, perhaps most grievous error was to ignore what its early users wanted.

Online music has changed dramatically in the past decade, but in many respects it is still broken for consumers. The entire experience is even more fragmented: Uploading and maintaining music in the cloud is a costly hassle, so many people stick with iTunes, which gets worse each year. Subscription services like Rdio and Spotify work better for consumers (if not for artists), but most people still use Twitter or Facebook to follow bands and find recommendations from friends. Soundcloud and YouTube are better for hosting and sharing songs. Songza is better for finding curated playlists. Bandsintown is better for concert info. And for arranging to meet friends at shows, nothing beats good old text messages.

With the model that the original MySpace could have followed – a social network built around music the way LinkedIn is built around work – that opportunity is still open. Facebook comes close, but using it as a music site means dealing with all the other noise that has become part of Facebook. And besides, a social network focused purely on music could offer fans a simpler and more coherent way to enjoy music while offering bands a more intimate way to connect with them.

That is MySpace’s opportunity. The beta site available now is a mixed start. The redesign has won praise, but it’s still clunky with things like search. It’s nice to stream free (for now) music that Spotify charges for, although few people seem aware of this. Recent moves like partnering with concerts app Thrillcall are encouraging, but that Myspace still lacks a mobile app is bizarre. It’s impossible to be relevant in music or social networking today without one.

There are a lot of other things Myspace will have to do to reach its potential and ensure a robust turnaround. Social networks die when the costs of being an active user outweighs the benefits. Conversely, they grow when they offer benefits no one else has. The word I hear most often in describing Myspace is irrelevant. So a true turnaround will only start when Myspace can offer unique benefits that resonate with users.

To get there, the first and simplest move would be to drop the name Myspace. Whatever assets from the old company still hold value, the name isn’t one of them. Fixing the Myspace brand is a battle the company can’t afford to fight. The Vanderhooks may like to compare Myspace to turned-around brands like Ford or Apple, but the missteps of the earlier company have so damaged the brand that Altria might be a better role model.

As many of Myspace’s critics have pointed out, the current site lacks any unique, compelling features. Some bold moves would be needed to change this in a noticeable way. Buying a music distributor like CD Baby or Tunecore, for example, and adding its technology into a social-media platform could simplify marketing needs for bands that want to sell songs directly to fans.

Another option would be buying an established site, like Soundcloud or Bandcamp, where musicians are already releasing music for current and potential fans. These sites, frequented by music critics and hard-core music lovers, are much more influential than Myspace has been in years. And their brand names would carry a much stronger cachet than musty old Myspace.

Longer term, Myspace could take a page from successful Web startups by identifying emerging online behaviors and building an intuitive interface to make them easier. One example is the rise of crowdfunding for new works of independent artists, such as Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign. Her popular “Art of Asking” talk resonated because it revealed an untapped economy inside the music industry that the major labels and the ticket barons have all but smothered.

Partnering with Kickstarter to let musicians connect their fan bases to crowdfunding campaigns is a logical step for a social-music site. Selling tickets directly, as Louis C.K. did for a comedy tour last year, would bypass the ridiculous convenience fees charged by the Ticketmaster monopoly. Other features, like live hangouts with select fans or Reddit-like Ask Me Anything sessions, could strengthen bonds with audiences.

Some music artists are already engaging in this kind of direct outreach. Most others aren’t. It requires an entrepreneurial attitude that runs counter to the idea of the musician as passive creator. But bands don’t just create and perform music anymore, they are the hubs of micro-communities. And they need someone to help them manage those communities. If a site like Myspace were to attract a critical mass of independent artists who take control their own marketing and distribution, their collective voice could challenge the aging business models of incumbent labels and ticket sellers.

There is another option for Myspace. It could continue to slap onto its site features that are available elsewhere, and insert a bunch of ads hoping to collect enough revenue for a profit. That is, it could copy Facebook’s playbook. That would work fine for a while by helping Specific place more ads. But it’s not what anyone would call a comeback.

A true comeback would involve a much harder, riskier road. It would mean triggering another wave of disruption onto the old business models of the complacent incumbents. As much as any industry, music is the one that feeds our souls. Yet over the decades it has gone from a means of distributing artists’ creative works to one that exploits them ruthlessly. If anyone can deliver a better business model that consumers and artists alike will respond to, here is an opportunity of a lifetime. Or even a second act.

[Comic by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]