IQ Interactive Special Report – Shock Troops/The Media: Listen Up

Tim Quirk of Listen.com just may have found the perfect job.
It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it,” is the phrase that springs to mind with regard to Tim Quirk, managing editor of Listen.com, a directory of legally downloadable music on the Internet. Quirk is constantly on the lookout for new music to tickle listeners’ fancy. He, along with Listen.com’s 50 reviewers, spends most of his working day plugged into headphones at Listen.com’s San Francisco headquarters, scouting out and reviewing songs that will then be listed in the site’s 18 top-level channels and 800-odd subcategories.
The affable Quirk is thoroughly aware of his good luck. “I never had a real job in my life before I came here,” he says bemusedly. Since 1987, Quirk has been a vocalist with Too Much Joy, which he describes as a “happy little punk/pop band.” The group, which is still together and performing, has so far recorded five albums, including Green Eggs & Crack. Around 1992, Quirk segued into freelance rock criticism, writing for such publications as Sassy and The San Francisco Chronicle.
“In 1999, I told my wife, ‘If I could find the perfect job, I would certainly take it.”’ Three days later, the universe called him on it: Quirk got a press release from Listen.com, which had just launched. “I clicked on the jobs link and saw they were hiring.” He applied and was hired almost immediately.
Most of Quirk’s staff either have their own bands, own their own indie record labels, or have some other hands-on music experience. “It almost is a mark against you if you actually have experience writing about music,” says Quirk. “I don’t know how I managed to get in.” The reason, he says, is that it’s critical for the reviewers to know their stuff. “You can’t bullshit on the Net,” he explains. “The people who are fanatically into it will call you on every single thing you do.”
Unlike sites like Napster or MP3.com, Listen.com has focused solely on legally downloadable music from the start. Quirk emphasizes that, “Listen.com is a directory but a directory that has been built by human hands. Every song has been listened to, analyzed, classified and categorized by a human being.” The site is basically a directory along the lines of Yahoo!, leading the listener to music on sites such as MP3.com, eMusic, VH1.com and RollingStone.com “among 1,100 others,” Quirk claims. Listen.com has links to more than a half-million tracks, about 60 percent of which are free; it has information on close to 150,000 artists. The company reviews and updates existing links daily.
Using Listen.com is easy: When a user hits the site, the 18 top-level categories–including alternative/punk, country, classical and spoken word–are immediately visible. Drilling deeper into the channels, users can access short descriptions of each band or artist and links to sites where songs are available (sometimes for a fee), and links to music by similar artists. The site also offers features such as “Listen Picks,” a CD compilation of some of the staff’s favorite downloadable songs, as well as a tour date search to help fans keep abreast of their favorite artists’ appearances.
Like many music sites on the Web, Listen.com, while a commercial entity, has not lost its edge. An internal ad on the site says, “Meet the Listen.com editors! Marvel at their arrogance!” Perhaps because of this, the company is flourishing. Key investors include Sony Music and four other major record labels.
“The Listen.com database and content are syndicated to some of the most highly trafficked sites on the Net,” Quirk says. These sites include Yahoo!, AOL’s Spinner and WinAmp, RealNetworks, Alta Vista, Snap, ZDNet and Excite@Home. And the company has business partnerships with major music sites such as MP3.com, eMusic, Liquid Audio and Riffage.com. The revenue model is based on advertising and sponsorships and referral fees paid by partner music sites.
Quirk’s plans for Listen.com’s future include homepages for the various music genres. The first areas to be covered will be alternative punk, rap/hip-hop, electronica, country and jazz. “We’ll have one new piece in each section each week–news, analysis, perhaps a record preview,” says Quirk. Another plan is to expand the site’s current capacity for feedback. Presently, it’s possible for users to write their own reviews and post them in a given artist or group’s area. Quirk plans to put up bulletin boards to facilitate and expand discussions.
Quirk says of the music that comes in for review, “About 98 percent of it is crap, but it’s crap in a different way from the stuff from mainstream recording studios you’re exposed to as a freelancer. Even if it’s terrible–like the young Christian ska bands and a cappella Toto songs–it’s sincere. Working here has made me excited about music again.”–Janis Mara