Confessions of a Dot Com Boomer

There’s an old axiom for folks working on their first novel – write what you know. It was something I took to heart when working on Black’s Beach Shuffle, the first Rolly Waters mystery.

A lot of elements in the book were based on my musical career. My band played regularly at Patrick’s Pub in the Gaslamp neighborhood of San Diego. The back patio really did smell of old crabs from the restaurant dumpster next door. And one of our drummers really did get mugged after a gig.

But the key plot and characters came from my time working for a company called MP3.com. In the late nineties I had a front row seat to the great dot com boom (And, a few years later, the great dot com bust).

Free lunches! Stock options! 80-hour work weeks! The corporate environment was unlike any I’d experienced before or since. It was simultaneously the most exciting and most harrowing job I’ve ever held. When the company went public I became a millionaire (on paper at least, for a couple of months).

The MP3.com homepage circa August 2001 (from the Internet Archive)

At 41 years, I was one of the oldest employees working at the company. There were a lot of smart young people I couldn’t compete with for 24-hour energy, but I did have a measure of adult composure going for me that they didn’t. I could separate the wheat from the chaff (there was a lot of chaff). I was put in charge of the multimedia department, a great group of people who churned out interactive CD-ROMS (when those were a thing) like there was no tomorrow. Some of the projects I’m proud of:

  • Design and programming of the first “just-in-time” CD which allowed musicians to sell their own CDs at little to no cost to them. No inventory!
  • Managing the design and production of promotional CD-ROMs, which provided about 80% of the company’s earned income at the time.
Our multimedia team cranked out a lot of these things.
  • Conceptualizing and coordinating the Digital Music Landscape presentation as part of the company’s efforts to educate Congress during the 2000 Senate hearings on The Future of Digital Music.
One of these is now stored somewhere deep in the Congressional Archives

It was fun. For a while. But all good things must come to an end. The company rolled out a new feature that brought down the wrath of the corporate music titans. Before Spotify, before Pandora or iTunes there was My.MP3.com, the first online personalized music streaming service. It was, perhaps, too soon for its time. It was also illegal. All five of the major record companies sued. Four of them settled out of court. One of them, Universal Music, took their case to trial. The result? Not only did MP3.com lose the trial, it was charged with the biggest copyright violation in history. Oops.

Then the wheels of late-stage 20th Century capitalism began to turn. A furtive deal was made. Universal, the same company that would reap millions from the judgement, purchased MP3.com instead. The executive officers were out. Months later Universal was itself purchased by Vivendi, a French water company (yes, you read that correctly). Such was the craziness of corporate acquisition culture in the early 2000s (remember AOL buying Time-Warner?).

Once the big corporations moved in, the excitement moved on. I was exiled to the wasteland of general project manager, documenting the failure to launch of a dozen once innovative projects in which the larger corporate entity had no interest. The company’s culture of innovation was replaced by the torpor of corporate conservatism. In short, my fun job became dull.

As an antidote to my creative unhappiness I started to write, taking a half-hour at lunch to jot down ideas and scraps of narrative in my trusty composition notebook. Before long I had the beginnings of a novel about an aging musician getting mixed up with a fast-rising Internet startup. It gave me the motivation to move on. I left MP3.com (just ahead of the layoffs we all knew were coming) and went into teaching. It took a few years to finish that first novel, but I was able to capture some of the craziness of my experience at MP3.com. The story is emotionally true, even if the characters and events are fictional (insert disclaimer here).

Write what you know, indeed.

Where Rolly Waters was born

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