The Swarm

July 24, 2007

Getty Images is listening through Paper Thin Walls

TDS Editors

Is Getty Images pumping its audio?

Late last month, Getty Images – one of the leading visual image distributors that provides readily licensable photographs, video, artwork, and other creative content to websites and print publications around the world – announced the $42 million acquisition of Pump Audio, an online clearinghouse of pre-cleared music and sounds. According to Billboard, Getty plans to do for music what it has done for photos:

Users can browse through Pump Audio’s catalog of about 700,000 tracks—mostly from independent and unsigned artists—and purchase licenses for as low as $25 for a podcast to $50,000 or more for a nationwide TV spot. But Getty isn’t stopping there. CEO Jonathan Klein said he plans to expand the licensing business to include content from major labels and mainstream acts, and continues to negotiate with several labels and publishers toward that end.

But Getty’s music plans extended beyond Pump Audio’s archives. In a little-noticed SEC filing last May, Getty also revealed the purchase of Paper Thin Walls, an indie-centric music reviews and news website, for $850,000. Getty acquired the site from it’s principle owner, Bruce Livingstone, the founder of iStockPhoto.com and one of Getty’s own executives, and his partner Gerry Hart, a former editor at CMJ, director of sales for World’s Fair, and a founder of the Plug Awards.

So what are Getty’s plans for Paper Thin Walls? On the surface, it seems like an odd purchase. Paper Thin Walls has been publishing music reviews, news links, and MP3 downloads for almost a year, covering rock, metal, and electronica that is underground and esoteric, even by MP3-blog standards. The site is edited by Christopher R. Weingarten, a journalist and musician who was, until just recently, the drummer for indie rock band Parts & Labor, along with former CMJ and Pitchfork staffer Jessica Suarez and Pitchfork contributing writer Brandon Stosuy (who is leaving next month for a full time gig at Stereogum). The site’s reviews and features are penned by a familiar crew of music critics – including Douglas Wolk, Frank Kogan, Michaelangelo Matos, Jesse Jarnow, and many others who are paid anywhere between $50 for a review to $500 for a feature (according to several writers who have contributed to the site). Paper Thin Walls is also a sponsor and provider of web-hosting services for ILX, a popular – if notably cranky – music-head message board. Could Getty be looking to add some critical heft to its newly acquired library of unsigned songs?

According to Weingarten, he has total editorial independence. “I’m here for the site’s aesthetics, to spark conversations, and to be a hub for people to talk and think within Paper Thin Walls. I’m trying to bring people back to reading about songs.”

But more significantly, Paper Thin Walls has recently undergone some major changes. The site unveiled a slick redesign earlier this month, and started beefing up its content to include more regular features, full album streams, guest editor selections, and end-user rankings. But even more interesting are the features available only to registered users: once signed up, people can not only create profiles and comment on the songs and albums featured, but also have the option to create “places,” customizable homepages complete with photos, videos, RSS feeds and music tracks. A video and help section on the site explains:

Just like in real life, your PLACE gives you ultimate control over how your friends and well-wishers see you (and it’s where you spend a lot of time dicking around on the internet). Please use our award-winning (um, award pending) widgets to rate and recommend your fave bands or editorial, write blog entries, upload photos/video, create mixtapes (very soon) and then dress it all up – basically treat the internet like the back of a denim jacket.

More art/business-minded folk will soon be able to sell their own music through their own Places. Before long people will be able to move in together to showcase their circle of friends, stable of artists, group of labels or their entire local music scene. Why would you ever sign to a record label when that would mean leaving your bedroom?

By all appearances, it seems as if Paper Thin Walls is about to make a play in the already crowded music-based social networking arena – the PTW “places” are much like the personalized pages found on Last.fm, Mog, imeem, and a host of other Web 2.0 companies looking to make a dent in MySpace’s music dominance. Ultimately, the basis of the site is for labels and unsigned bands to sell their music.

Gerry Hart explains that PTW will soon launch a set of intuitive online sales tools that will allow both indie labels and unsigned artists to offer their music and associate their various tracks in new ways. They plan to launch a set of label shops late this year or early in 2008, starting with the hip hop label Def Jux, and will make the same tools available to unsigned bands soon after. For the moment, Paper Thin Walls is operating as a stand-alone business. “This is the first consumer initiative that Getty Images has ever launched,” said Hart in a phone interview with The Daily Swarm. “It’s a hugely successful company, but they’ve never sold directly to the public before. Getty’s letting us do our thing.”

But Getty Images’ move into on-line music licensing coupled with Paper Thin Walls’ potential indie music community could put a different spin on the game, especially if the site becomes a quick and easy conduit for musicians and labels into Getty/Pump Audio’s turn-key music licensing system. “Both PTW and Pump Audio are getting a lot of leeway as we get our feet firmly planted in the Getty family,” said Hart. “I am certain we will find a way to work together.”



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