Thinker Express

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It’s January 2000, and Tony Wilson is regaling me with tales of his brilliant career; how signing Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays to his Mancunian indie label Factory Records was like “winning the pools three times. Twice is a miracle, three and you call in the fraud squad”. The interview is winding up when the Granada TV presenter-turned-mogul gets on to what is, at this point, his latest would-be masterstroke. He has just set up music33.com, an online record shop selling individual songs – as MP3s to download – for 33p a time, because, back then, the public are “fed up with trawling around record shops to find albums which have three good tracks and they’re the singles anyway. People want to buy songs.”

Music33 is long forgotten, but three years later, Apple’s iTunes store revolutionised how we buy and listen to music with exactly the same idea. Could Wilson – who died 13 years ago today – really have been first? Manchester entrepreneur Mark Garner helped fund Music33. “Tony used to say to me: ‘You’re in business to make money. I’m in it to make history.’”

Wilson had discovered the revolutionary MP3 – a tiny encoded sound file born in the early 90s – in 1998 while in Los Angeles and returned to Manchester full of missionary zeal. “He came in and said, ‘I’ve brought you something’ and gave me an early MP3 player, by Creative Labs,” remembers Wilson associate Warren Bramley, who co-wrote Music33’s business plan. “You could get eight songs on, it, it took me a week to get it working and it was very quiet, with a terrible battery. But Tony said, ‘This is the future.’”

Garner, who had been bankrupt and some years previously briefly a tabloid bete noire for running the Red Hot Dutch satellite pornography channel, had recently launched Mintball, a hip website-building company. He ran into Wilson while visiting a friend he calls Pete the Pot. “There was a blue haze in the apartment and Pete said, ‘I hope you don’t mind but there’s a pal of mine here who’s passed out on the floor,’” Garner says. “That was Tony Wilson.” He recalls “a very interesting four days” among various people who were “getting pissed or stoned”, discussing how “the future’s going to be selling everything off the internet”.

Wilson conceived Music33 as an online record store. The price of a song would be split three ways – 11p apiece for the website, for the artist and for their record label. Wilson felt, as he told me in 2000, that “these shits” – the labels – “saying to the artists: ‘You can have so much per cent’ can go screw themselves.”

Manchester-based website developer Steven Bloomfield and designer Tero Tikkanen set up the website and Peter Saville Associates designed a logo. Garner invested £75,000, marvelling at Wilson’s forward thinking. “Some music would come on TV and Tony would go: ‘Imagine if your MP3 player could recognise that track so you could get it.’ And I’d think, ‘You’ve been smoking too much, mate!’ But of course that’s what Shazam does now.”

After the music site Napster launched as an illegal, peer-to-peer service in June 1999, “MP3” was the most searched-for term on the internet after “sex”. In Manchester, Wilson’s fledgling team were building music33 while listening to tracks stolen via the rights-breaching platform. “When we started, it felt like there were two tiers,” says Tom Clarke, then a young Manchester university graduate who Wilson hired as “content manager”, between morning stints handing out Metro newspapers in the city centre. “Napster was a buzz in the colleges in America – there was that wild west feeling.”

The music33 team had to work out how to make people pay for music they were getting for free elsewhere. “And we didn’t want someone to download an MP3 from us and then watch it go everywhere free on Napster.”

Arriving in summer 2000, music33 developed a barmy way of protecting clients’ tracks. Songs purchased came in a PDF; users tapped in a password to play the music. “I’m still trying to understand it even now,” Clarke chuckles. Pre-broadband dial-up internet was so slow that “you’d plug in a modem to download one track, which could take 15 minutes,” says Clarke. Music33 featured a little robot avatar named Howie, who explained how to use the site. Wilson’s plan to get Keith Allen to do its voice never came off.

Bramley remembers Wilson doing an early webcast interview with the record producer Rick Rubin beamed in from LA to Manchester’s 2000 In the City music conference to talk about the MP3 and music’s digital future.

“There were about 20 to 30 people in a room listening to this crackly ISDN line,” Bramley says. “I remember thinking people were missing out. The bar was packed and this room with Rick and Tony talking about the future was nearly empty. People were going, ‘This is shit!’ But it was new.”

Compounding the site’s problems, micro-payments – the means of purchasing on the web for tiny sums, like 33p – didn’t exist then. Credit cards had a £5 minimum spend. “So we used Barclays Square,” Clarke explains. “A payment system where you’d put say £10 in this online ‘wallet’ and could spend in in participating stores. But between the technology and the wallet, it wasn’t user-friendly.”

John Allison, who worked upstairs at Garner’s Mintball, felt surrounded by an array of “dysfunctional characters. Lots of shouting. My hair turned white with stress.”

Music33 became a dysfunctional record shop that offered hardly any music. Twenty years ago, record companies – rich with the profits from artists such as Moby and Dido selling thousands of CDs at £15 a pop – didn’t want some maverick from Manchester telling them that their business model faced extinction. Bramley says the industry felt so untouchable back then that they didn’t see the digital storm approaching. Bloomfield remembers how Wilson would “march into major labels with his MP3 player strapped to his belt, like a six-shooter. But we wanted to give more to the artist, so it was fairer all round.”

But when Wilson asked leading labels for their catalogues for music33, he was shown the door. He had lost his glittering back catalogue in 1992 when Factory went bust because of the infamous “non-contract contract” that stated, “Factory own nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off.” So he was no longer taken as seriously as a business prospect. “I think they saw him as a court jester,” Garner sighs.

Instead, Wilson went to small, mainly regional indies, amassing Mick Hucknall’s dub label Blood and Fire, hip-hop label Grand Central and Manchester dance label Skam, who had Autechre and Boards of Canada. Great artists, but not exactly the Beatles or Madonna. Clarke remembers doing Boards of Canada’s first music33 royalties run – “I think it was for £18.” Manchester label Urbanite got £50. “A cheque signed by Anthony H Wilson,” laughs label co-founder Phil Birchenall. “I wish we’d framed it.”

To take things to a serious level, Wilson needed capital. “I said, Tony, you need to walk in with money in your back pocket,” says Garner. “Let’s get everything working, then tell the majors: we want your catalogue and we’ll pay.” To this end, Garner says, a stock exchange float of his various companies at the peak of the dotcom boom would have funded music33.

“The Friday morning before the float I was in the Savoy hotel, thinking, ‘On Monday, I’ll trouser 26m quid’. Then the waiter came over and said, ‘Call for you, Mr Garner.’ Everything was off – the dotcom boom had imploded. Mintball and my other company Pharmweb went down and we couldn’t get anything for music33. Tech finance had collapsed. No one would go near anything like it for two years, by which time Steve Jobs was on his way.”

Music33 was quietly abandoned. Months later, in October 2001, Apple launched the iPod MP3 player, which held 1,000 songs. The iTunes store followed (in 2003 in the US, 2004 in the UK) with an initial 200,000-song library from top labels sold at 79p per song. It delivered 1m tracks a day within two years. In 2010, iTunes sold its 10 billionth MP3. By then, Michael Winterbottom’s film 24 Hour Party People had affectionately lampooned Wilson as an endearingly hapless maverick, an image the Granada TV presenter-turned-label boss was more than happy to play up to.

Yet his pioneering role in the digital music adventure deserves recognition. For Allison, the spirit of music33 lives on in Bandcamp, not iTunes. “Because they’ve worked out a way for artists to keep their work and still turn a profit. Such business thinking didn’t exist at the time. Wilson was way ahead but there was no structure for his ideas. He was like Nostradamus.”