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MOG for the masses

YouTube's vast user base has turned it into an encyclopedic electronic library of music videos, ranging from glossy MTV fare to grainy live clips shot with a cellphone camera. And now, the music-blogging site MOG is stepping into the role of YouTube's librarian.

Today, nine-month-old MOG comes out of beta with a new and vastly improved version of its site. One of these enhancements is something called MOG TV, a personalizable channel of music videos culled from YouTube. Users can tell MOG TV to show it videos from artists within their own and/or their friends' collections, or have the programming reflect other MOG users' tastes. The software then plucks videos from YouTube that comply with the user's preferences.

YouTube makes this possible by allowing its inventory to be embedded into other folks' websites. The risk for Google, YouTube's parent, is that companies like MOG will create a better way to navigate that inventory, siphoning off users and the advertising revenue that chases them. That could be happening here; MOG TV promises a better lean-back experience than YouTube, although the latter makes it easier to surf through a single artist's repetoire. Whether any of this works for artists and copyright holders is a whole 'nother question, and the answer to that one depends in part on the religious issue of whether free music videos are promotional or cannibalistic. Such major record companies as Warner and Universal have made their peace with YouTube, but it's not clear what happens to those arrangements when YouTube's videos -- and not the surrounding advertisements -- get imported by sites like MOG.

My overall impression of MOG, though, is that it is promotional. It's been a playground for music geeks, enabling people with huge sonic appetites to indulge themselves in other people's enthusiasms. The new version makes MOG much more friendly to the average listener, someone who's more likely to read a concert review than write one. The changes, which include much better ways to sort through users' posts, music samples and videos, make MOG a more inviting place to discover music and people who love it.

Such tools, to me, are a critical ingredient in the future digital-music landscape. As music transforms from a product into a service and the industry sells access to catalogs instead of copies of songs, one of the main challenges for consumers will be sorting through giant stacks of content to find the things they like. It's as if the produce stand on the corner were to be replaced by a supermarket that carried almost every food in creation. MOG's software uses a fairly common technique, called collaborative filtering, to steer people to bands and songs they might like. In essence, it compares your music-consuming behavior against other users' collections, finds those with overlapping tastes, then recommends back to you things that aren't in your collection but other members of the group have. What makes MOG a powerful tool, at least in theory, is that it can look at the music you've collected on your computer and what you've been playing, both on your PC and your iPod. That's a better approach than, say, a site that bases recommendations on what you've bought or searched for.

Whether MOG emerges as a great music-discovery vehicle depends on how well its software performs and how many people become MOGgers. There's a powerful network effect here, just as with YouTube. My guess is that it's still missing one piece -- enabling users to hear the songs and artists that get recommended to them. The site allows users to add MP3s to their blog posts, which readers can stream (not download). But it asks people to upload songs only if they have the right to do so, and they seem to be complying. As a result, users' profile pages and MOG's recommendations are populated mainly with 30-second samples. On the other hand, MOG probably can't make a vast quantity of music available on demand without charging something, given the royalties involved. And 30-second samples, combined with the occasional full-length song or video and blog post, may be enough to prod someone to obtain a single or album elsewhere -- ideally, where they can pay for it.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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