How a small company with a big dream beat out heavy hitters like Google and Amazon for the coveted top-level domain extension.
The more than decade-long battle over the .music top-level domain extension (TLD) has finally come to an end. The victor: DotMusic Limited, a company founded by Cypriot entrepreneur Constantine Roussos that won out over such heavy hitters as Google and Amazon.
"If someone told me back then that it would've taken 11 years... I would've said to myself, 'Do what you're doing, dude,'" Roussos tells Billboard. "It'll take you 11 years, but do what you're doing.'"
Unlike .com, .net, .org and other TLDs that currently dominate the web, Roussos is billing .music as a safe online space for artists, record labels and other music-industry brands who in the current ecosystem are often plagued by "cybersquatters" and others who buy up high-profile domain names in bad faith. Either that, or the name is simply so commonplace that the artist or brand in question simply has no shot of getting to it first.
"If I would [ask] you, 'What's Queen's official website?'...It's not Queen.com," says Roussos by way of example. "If I asked you 'What's Kiss's website?' Well hey, Kiss.com is a dating website... And then you look at other ones, like Justin Bieber. JustinBieber.com is owned by some blogger called Justin Bieber."
When applications were first submitted to ICANN (the organization that oversees top-level domains) in 2012, DotMusic Limited wasn't seen as a likely victor in the .music fight. It quickly became an eight-way contest, with behemoths like Google and Amazon competing alongside established domain name registries including Radix and Donuts. But perhaps the fiercest competitor early on was Far Further, an organization staffed by such music industry vets as Loren Balman, John Styll and Keith Thomas. That company initially became the clear front-runner, racking up a heavyweight list of backers including the RIAA, the IFPI and the Recording Academy. Emboldened, Far Further ultimately filed for "community" status, a designation that, if granted, gives the organization in question preferential treatment with ICANN.
But when Far Further failed to meet the "community" threshold, the RIAA, IFPI and others switched their allegiance to DotMusic, which already boasted a broader coalition of independent companies, like CD Baby and Reverb Nation, as well as government-related arts organizations, including IFACCA (International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies).
With the industry's heavy-hitters now lining up behind them, DotMusic began looking like a shoo-in for "community" status. But their bid also hit a snag when, in 2016, a third-party evaluator found that DotMusic fell just short of the required threshold, which is based on a 16-point evaluation system. DotMusic subsequently appealed the decision, a process that was still ongoing when, in a surprising turnaround, they struck a closed-door deal with the other remaining .music suitors (including Google and Amazon) that resulted in the others withdrawing their applications.
In so doing, DotMusic avoided a public auction for the .music TLD -- the next logical step if their appeal had been denied -- a process they surely would have been powerless to win against such big-name competitors.
"If we did go to a public auction with ICANN, I would have [had a] less than 0% [chance of] winning," says Roussos, adding, "This is kind of a shock for everyone, actually."
When the idea for .music first struck him over 10 years ago, Roussos was inspired by the success of Facebook, which had created an online community viewed as trustworthy by originally allowing only college students with legitimate .edu email addresses to sign up. This created reassurance for users of the platform, who could reasonably trust that those they interacted with on Facebook were a part of the college community. Roussos contrasts that with the eventual downfall of Facebook competitor MySpace, which crumbled after the site was overrun with fake profiles of celebrities and other tastemakers thanks to the absence of any clear verification system.
"The only reason that Facebook is what it is today is because of a domain extension," says Roussos. "What [Mark] Zuckerberg did, he wanted trust, he wanted real students and he wanted to get every single student in the United States to be in The Facebook, to create this network effect of a similar culture, similar community... It was based on verification and it was based on trust."
That is, in a nutshell, what Roussos is attempting to do with .music, which he envisions as an online "community" of music industry professionals who exist in a separate online ecosystem free of pirates and scammers. It is what he believes set him apart from his fellow .music applicants, which, despite boasting bigger names and deeper pockets, couldn't compete with the solid coalition of organizations who lined up behind him.
"If you look at all the eight companies [that applied for .music], I'm like a single applicant, everyone else is a portfolio applicant, with more resources, more money, more everything," says Roussos. "So I didn't appear to be the biggest threat, you know? But I believe it was the most sincere application [out of] everyone that was music-focused."
When .music launches sometime next year, domains will become available in three phases. In the first, they will be opened up to all "verified trademark holders" (think Madonna, Drake, Paul McCartney, etc.) culled from a "globally protected marks list" of prominent artists and brands. In the second phase, members of Music Community Member Organizations (MCMOs) like ASCAP and BMI will be invited to apply. In the final phase, music domains will become open to all applicants.
If that third phase sounds like it all but defeats the purpose of .music, Roussos says not to worry. Thanks to a stringent verification process, squatters and imposters will be kept at bay. Additionally, all .music domains will come with the more-secure "https" protocol, offering a built-in security feature that will also help artists' official websites gain traction on search engines like Google and Bing (which are set up to rank https addresses higher in search results). This will have the added benefit of driving more traffic to artists' official websites, where they can sell more directly to fans rather than directing them to sometimes-dubious third-party sites.
"If you do get the traffic going to the artist's website, what does the artist do?" says Roussos. "Obviously they can get their [fans'] email [addresses], they can create a newsletter, they can maybe sell a ticket, merchandising. If they're running ads, they can make some money on ads as opposed to losing them on YouTube or losing them on some other illegitimate website."
True to the vision DotMusic is espousing (their governance structure includes a mixture of major and independent labels, publishers, songwriters and arts organizations), Roussos says that buying a .music domain will be affordable for amateur artists, with a "moderate" price point Roussos estimates will be somewhere in the ballpark of $50 per year. "We don't price discriminate," says Roussos, who understands what it's like to be the underdog.
"I've basically lost every battle along the way," he says. "But [I] won the war."