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by Mike McGuirk

December 8, 2011

Oldest Blurb Slave Ever: Ten Or Twelve Years With Rhapsody

by Mike McGuirk  |  December 8, 2011

Gentle reader, please understand that they asked me to write this. Frankly, I think it's kind of weird. I live in a world of paranoia and would never be so presumptuous as to think anyone would be interested in my opinion about this, but Rhapsody turned 10 years old on December 5th, and as the guy who's been here the longest (along with country guru Linda Ryan, who started a month after me), the powers that be saw fit to have me write something about my time here, since it's been, at the very least, somewhat interesting. Or because our stories are intertwined--just like Colonel Kurtz and Captain Willard, you can't tell my story without telling Rhapsody's. God knows I've drunk-punched my share of mirrors.

No, maybe it's just that I've been lucky, because my job rules. And so does Rhapsody. Screw these late-in-the-game interlopers. We were here before everybody. Really, everybody. I know, because I was there.

I didn't go to college or anything, and was a line cook for 11 years before a girl essentially airlifted me to San Francisco from Somerville, MA, where I was doing stupid stuff like quoting Cypress Hill every five seconds and wearing a hat with a pot leaf on it. Okay, the hat part isn't entirely true, but I was definitely way too validated by the songs on Black Sunday. Anyway, I ended up in SF in 1998, just when the Internet was exploding for the first time and there were startups everywhere. My friend Chris worked at one called Listen.com, a music site dedicated to helping users wade through the ocean of (mostly crappy) music on MP3.com, riffage.com, liquidmusic.com--there were tons more, but I can't remember them.

Since I had always been a record geek and they were looking for writers, Chris told me to apply. He also gave me some inside info: they were looking for someone familiar with new country (which my girlfriend liked exclusively, so I heard A LOT of it) and Christian rock. (I had been a super-Catholic as a teenager--my sister used to speak in tongues at prayer meetings, no lie. And yes, that's weird.) But I knew way more about Christian music than any of the hipsters they were hiring, so I got the job. There were 16 other writers: punk experts (snarky), indie rockers (sweater-clad), metal people (nerdy), hip-hop guys (die-hards), jazz people (constantly fighting over what did and did not qualify as "post-bop"), an electronica girl who never spoke and always wore a thong, and one dude who once came up to me with a Ziploc bag and asked me for my drug- and alcohol-free urine so he could keep his wife from divorcing him. They had all the bases covered.

We had this quota. Thirty blurbs a day. Our job was to write a description of whatever band we chose from a queue provided by nine web surfers. These kids' job was literally to find music all day long. There was no business even discussed. Napster didn't exist yet. These rich dudes were basically taking thousand-dollar bills and lighting them on fire. My third day, the CEO announced they had just finished their last round of financing, and they had $500 million dollars. Five hundred million! That's half a billion dollars! That weekend, they took all the writers to Santa Cruz, put us up in villas and fed us lobsters on the beach so we could all get to know each other. Talk about insane. I had been asked if I was retarded by this truly miserable woman who was the chef at my last job literally 48 hours earlier, either for not icing some blanched asparagus quick enough or for being alive, it wasn't clear which.

Not long after all this, Napster came along and changed everything. Listen.com fired the vast majority of the employees (10 writers, all the surfers) and started scrambling for some kind of business plan. Rhapsody came out of this desperation: the idea of a "celestial jukebox." The seven writers left were each assigned a genre (I was given rock/pop), and we constructed much of what Rhapsody is now, editorial-wise, in this first year, 2001. This means we assigned 10 zillion styles and similar artists, and constructed radio stations while reviewing catalog albums and new releases. We wrote more artist bios. It was kind of like raking water. I covered rock, pop, country, New Age, comedy and Christian music. Album reviews had a 324-character count back then (it's 600 now), so I got really good at writing three sentences. I came to this realization one day when I was told to cover Cher's entire catalog and, when blurbing the 2002 album Living Proof, after 55 greatest-hits collections, God gave me the inspiration for this: "Cher's latest incarnation, as an electronic, club-bound apparition...." I don't care what anyone says, that's funny! I'm proud of that.

They even let me go to part-time and do something resembling work from overseas, specifically during the three years I spent in Thailand, where I really did live out the first 20 minutes of Apocalypse Now! on a nightly basis. Fun, fun, fun. This isn't the ideal space to fully explain the 10 jillion conflicts that were my life there or my motivations, by which I mean I didn't go to many temples. Suffice it to say there was a lot of P-A-R-T-Y-I-N-G with (and getting beaten in pool by) super-hot and wonderful Thai girls. But I had my reasons.

This might give you an idea of how awesome it was: When I first got there, I was waiting for a check for $5,000 from the Listen.com stock I'd sold. In the meantime, I had no money, so I spent my days floating around in this pool in my building's front yard. It was blazing hot, and the pool was one of these really old, enormous, deep ones with a massive diving board and a slide. There were giant leafy banana trees and stone monuments all around it. I was floating around wishing I had dough, wishing I had 10 million dollars. I was like, "Wouldn't it be awesome to have 10 million dollars? What would I be doing right now if I had tons of money?" But then I realized that if I had money, I'd totally be floating around in my pool in the tropics.

It was idyllic. When the money did come, I went hog wild. At one point, I did my job from Koh Samui, a straight-up tropical isle. It was like a Corona commercial. As for life in Bangkok, the revelation that they sold Xanax everywhere and that it was practically free was the catalyst for some awesome times I think I remember. Like when I found myself firing an AK-47 off the side of a boat in Pattaya with the words "I NEED LOVE" tattooed across my back. (That actually sounds better than what really happened. It was a 9-millimeter, and we were on an island. But we did take a boat there.) I also fed elephants on the street, learned Thai and breakfasted on fried chicken that was cooked in a mobile kitchen approximately 100 feet from my apartment. It was wild. Basically, some crappy mall-metal band called Autopilot Fail put out a record in the U.S., and money from it trickled all the way down to me, 10,000 miles away, buying drinks for girls at candle-lit illegal street bars. Granted, this all did end with a major wipeout (broken teeth, black eyes, living with my old man at age 38 after I was extracted by my brother and friend Aileen), but I can't even begin to tell you the things I learned, not the least of which is that Thai girls can really throw a punch.

So, Rhapsody has been good to me. Since going to part time and becoming a contractor, I'm not so much a genre editor as a "utility infielder," as they put it. This means when William Shatner puts out more awful music, it usually gets assigned to me. But I also get to write about anything I want, from super-heavy stuff (written from Bangkok) and a guide to awesome Japanese rock to musings on Mahogany Rush and my tendency to listen to Whitney Houston (and cry) when wasted. (People really dug that article. Lots of nice comments.) As an unforeseen benefit of being forced to write about (and assign similar artists to) literally hundreds of bands across a broad range of styles, I have been exposed to a truly ridiculous amount of music, and retained enough of it to give me encyclopedic knowledge. I'm not bragging--this is simply the case. I don't even cover electronica, but I know what tech-step is. That's the thing: All the writers here are crammed with all this overlapping knowledge, and Rhapsody itself is jam-packed with a crazy amount of info. That doesn't even address the stuff the wizards in engineering have done: We had artist-based radio years before Pandora even existed. And whatever it is that Spotify does, we had it before them. They just have more brand recognition. We've got everything they have. We're just not Swedish.

I don't have to tell you all this. If you've read this far, you're likely a Rhapsody user and know it already. It's just too bad not everyone else does, too. Rhapsody has this kind of corporate persona (thanks Real Networks!) that isn't fair. We're all too record geek-y to be corporate. Hell, Chuck Eddy writes for us! Wendy Lee Nentwig, our reigning Christian-music expert, helped a dude build a spaceship! Our president, Jon Irwin, swims with sharks!

To wrap it up, I don't know how I ended up here for 12 years, and it's amazing that Rhapsody is 10 years old. The fact is, it's strange that I've been here so long: The only thing I've done longer is smoke cigarettes. Whatever. I'll tell you one thing: It's good Rhapsody came along, because first of all, God only knows what I'd be doing for work these days, but also, the whole group here has created something truly unique and fantastic. At least that's what everybody says in their goodbye email when they quit and go work for Google.

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