(Written for Static Line Issue #43.)
When the merits and problems of a website are still being debated well over a year after its formal closure, you know it left an impact. Indeed, when it comes to Trax In Space, this may be the one aspect of the site that both its supporters and detractors can agree on.
Founded in 1992 by the CyberLegion Artist's Network, Trax In Space soon became the solo project of Saurin "Mysterium" Shah, a teenaged Texan tracker with big plans. From humble beginnings -- 250 megs of songs personally reviewed by Mysterium -- TiS eventually added other reviewers in 1997 and soon swelled into the largest tracker music archive in the history of the tracking scene before its collapse in 2001. With its commercial aspects and Mysterium's goal of profitability, TiS forced us all to question how many concessions to capitalism our non-commercial music scene could make -- if any -- without "selling out."
In February of 2003, Mysterium agreed to sit down and chat with me for his first major public exposure since the collapse of TiS. Our conversation covered the rise and fall of TiS, the lessons he learned, and his advice for the scene's future. He also gave me an unparalleled inside look at TiS, providing details that most former business owners would never dream of revealing.
NOVUS: In 1997, did you have any idea just how big TiS was going to become?
MYSTERIUM: No, but I did have grand plans -- even then. It all really starts with my take on music, and me personally as a musician. The reason I began the TiS project at all was because, back then, very few of the established artist groups would take me. I thought I was not bad, but in reality I was a terrible musician. But I wanted a place for people like me to go and to be accepted and most important of all, to be in a place where they could become better as musicians.
NOVUS: At its peak, how many songs and members did TiS have?
MYSTERIUM: Approximately 45,000 musicians and over 200,000 songs.
NOVUS: That's... um... way past 250 megs. :)
MYSTERIUM: Way past. At our peak we had six dual-processor, server class DELL machines running this. In fact, the database machine had up to 4 processors and had the XEON CPUs. Our storage capacity, after considering the multiple-RAIDS that we had, was past 300 GB.
NOVUS: How quickly did TiS grow? When you added more reviewers in 1997, did the numbers start to explode, or was it a slower growth over time?
MYSTERIUM: TiS's growth started off slow, but I would say around 1998 it just exploded. You see in 1998, I had achieved a threshold needed of visibility in the scene. Still not huge, but enough where each new artist put me on an exponential growth curve.
NOVUS: Kind of like critical mass, then?
MYSTERIUM: Yes, exactly. There is no doubt that we were the largest scene site ever. In fact, we were listed in the top 10 music sites in the world by several of the real industry watchers.
NOVUS: Quite an achievement. :)
MYSTERIUM: I did not do it alone, but thanks.
NOVUS: I want to come back and talk about some of the day-to-day operations of TiS in a little bit, but for now I'm going to jump ahead to the end of the story.
MYSTERIUM: Ok, go ahead and jump ahead, I'll follow. :)
NOVUS: A lot of people already know that TiS collapsed, although very few people, if anyone, know the hows or whys. So, in your words, and take this in what ever direction you want to... just what the heck HAPPENED anyway?
MYSTERIUM: Alright, it was another critical mass situation. But you have to understand the build up, so I'll give you the punch line, but you'll have to ask me about the steps leading up to it.
NOVUS: Okay, I'll follow. :)
MYSTERIUM: Essentially, with six-servers and the serious amount of traffic we received (we were about half the traffic sometimes for the ISP we used), it was expensive. It actually mimics the dot-com busts. Too much cash going out, not enough coming in to support the operations.
NOVUS: I've gotten the feeling not a lot of people ever realized HOW expensive bandwidth can be.
MYSTERIUM: Or how much six servers can be. We also had our own dedicated T-1 and spilled over into the T-3 node of our ISP. Plus none of us had outside jobs. It took 5 people working 10 hours a day to run TiS.
NOVUS: So, TiS basically was your full-time job, for you and several others.
MYSTERIUM: Yes. It was our dream jobs in fact. We had a love affair with TiS, the music, and everything about it and its patrons.
NOVUS: And yet you had to meet reality, which meant you had to make TiS profitable. That meant taking it in a commercial direction, which is probably where the bulk of the criticism of TiS was aimed.
MYSTERIUM: Yes, but the criticism never bothered me (okay, maybe sometimes). But yes, the reality. We expanded too fast. I was a novice when it came to the real-world of business.
NOVUS: If you don't mind my asking, how much did it cost to keep TiS up and running per month?
MYSTERIUM: Well, we had other divisions, but TiS itself... I would say approximately $25,000 per month. I mean, we had to buy insurance, health-benefits (what if one of us became sick), our pay (though believe me it was not too much), etc. I had a responsibility to all the other TiS people to make sure that I took care of them.
NOVUS: Did TiS ever break even or make a profit, even for just a short time?
MYSTERIUM: It never did. But being realistic, it takes an average business 5 years to just break even. We really got going in 2000, so we still had time.
NOVUS: A lot of small-business owners never realize how long it can take to get profitable. TiS had several different "profit centers:" paid memberships, CD sales, t-shirts and hats, advertising... which one of those worked out the best revenue-wise?
MYSTERIUM: The best had to be the Advertising and the Paid Memberships. The Paid Memberships were my best bet, but I understood our users and knew that it had to survive for 3 more years before it would take off. I also had the scene working against me in a way. Many people were pie-eyed utopians. They wanted a commerical-free scene with the benefits of a commercial industry. And since many sceners were still in college or younger and never had a real job and had to support a family or themselves, the real world had not met them yet. About 90% of my paid memberships were from people 28 yrs and older. And I will let you in on another secret, no one knows.
NOVUS: Go ahead.
MYSTERIUM: TuCows wanted to buy my site in 1999. They offered me my own Ferrarri with all the insurance paid plus a ridiculous salary.
NOVUS: Goodness! So, what happened there?
MYSTERIUM: For the scene and to make sure that it did not become "commericial," I said no. I could have been a wealthy young man, but the music and artists meant more to me.
NOVUS: Wow... that would've been nice to throw at the critics who said TiS was already too commercial. I wish I'd known that at the time. :)
MYSTERIUM: Well, I did not tell people, because I wanted people to genuinely appreciate the site for what it was and not because of me. Though the site was me, and I was the site; I could not differentiate for many years. Let's just say that the salary and bonus had *many* zeroes.
NOVUS: Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, would you have taken that deal if it had meant TiS would last longer?
MYSTERIUM: No, that part I would not have changed. I knew AOL was courting TuCows, and TiS was meant to fight the likes of Time-Warner.
NOVUS: Those are two scenarios that make trackers everywhere shudder: either AOL-Time Warner or Microsoft getting involved in the scene. ;)
MYSTERIUM: It was never about the money, but I should have paid closer attention to that aspect. Now, did you also know that ModPlug and Digital Music Magazine were a part of TiS?
NOVUS: I knew about DMM, but MODPlug, that's news to me, and that actually gets into one of my later questions. :)
MYSTERIUM: Well lets just say that on the back-end, I was trying to unite the scene -- and there was a reason behind it. But Kim (ModPlug) was free to run ModPlug that way he sought fit; I did not want TiS to influence it at all.
NOVUS: I did an availability check on the domain name traxinspace.com yesterday, and noticed you're still the owner, with Kim "Mister-X" Kraft of MODPlug Central listed as the Tech Admin. Is this leftover from when TiS was still active?
MYSTERIUM: Yes, when I closed TiS (which you can ask me about later), Kim still wanted to run ModPlug, so I gave him the traffic. Kim is a great guy and a real asset to the scene.
NOVUS: So that's why www.traxinspace.com was pointing to his StudioKraft side project for a while?
MYSTERIUM: Yes. Kim still wanted to do this full-time, so studiokraft was his way of paying the bills. I now work for Counsumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS; http://www.moneymanagement.org), a non-profit that helps people out of debt. Ironic, isn't it?
NOVUS: Heh, I work indirectly for a credit counseling service myself. :)
MYSTERIUM: I tell you what, this is a tongue-in-cheek analogy, but we seriously felt like the "USA" and the rest of the scene was the United Nations.
NOVUS: Being a red-blooded American and suspicious of the UN, I think I get that. ;)
MYSTERIUM: LOL... I guess only the american readers would get that, hehehe. Basically, we had criticism from everywhere because we were so successful (in terms of visibility, traffic, and artists).
NOVUS: What was it that made you look around and finally decide to pull the plug on TiS?
MYSTERIUM: A few reasons. One, I needed a job; living off of nothing and being in major debt was not a life goal I wanted to continue. Secondly, I needed a break from everything. There was a whole other part to TiS that its about time I told. Thirdly, I wanted a change and a chance to sit back and rethink my goals, and I think I finally know what I want to do. You are going to have a huge article. LOL
NOVUS: That's fine, Static Line set a length-record last month, and I intend to break that single-handedly. ;)
NOVUS: Besides there's always the magic of the Delete key. ;)
MYSTERIUM: That's true.
NOVUS: So, on the second point, what's the whole other part to TiS that you need to tell?
MYSTERIUM: Well if I had $25,000 outgoing a month just for TiS, and we also had DMM and ModPlug, how did we pay for it?
NOVUS: Ah, I knew I'd left a question dangling somewhere. I would assume loans?
MYSTERIUM: In 1999, I got my parents, their friends, and the owner of the ISP to give me $1 million to get started. Too much for a kid just out of college.
NOVUS: That sound you just heard was my jaw hitting the desk.
MYSTERIUM: But I had some senior help from two men who were supposed to be very experienced businessmen.
NOVUS: "Supposed" to be?
MYSTERIUM: Well, one of them I think is alright, but the other... hmmm.
NOVUS: I've met guys like that... radio is infested with 'em. ;)
MYSTERIUM: While I handled the sites, the others were supposed to raise more money and manage it. In a few months, all of the money was gone, some of it still not fully accounted for. We don't know where it went. I had a blind-eye to the financial side, because 1) I was too engrossed with the site, and 2) I trusted them blindly. I was young, just out of college, why wouldn't everyone do their job properly when i did mine well? Naive. We knew that the sites could not survive off of just $1 million; we needed more so that we could reach the critical point of profitability. Now that being said, not all the business we made were wise. We could have been much more spend-thrifty than we were.
NOVUS: So, it's 1999, your investment capital is gone, and the site needs thousands a month to operate. Where did the rest of the money come from?
MYSTERIUM: Well in November 1999, I raised the money. In August 2000, the money was spent. For the next few months, we all worked off our own good graces while the ISP gave us the bandwidth for free.
NOVUS: Okay, so it almost lasted a year. What then?
MYSTERIUM: I then found out that bills were under my name -- lots of bills. I was already in debt. It was time for a job. And time to rethink everything. Not only did the sceners not support TiS as much as I had hoped (though I could have done things better I think), but I had made a mistake in picking the people to watch the money. A mistake which cost me dearly, because my dad lost a huge part of his savings (he gave it to me to show me he believed in me) and his friends took out their anger on me and my parents. I almost went into depression, but thank goodness I did not.
NOVUS: I've been there, and believe me, that's not an easy hole to climb out of.
MYSTERIUM: I took at as a war scar and decided to take it easy and replan life. So we have the site getting bigger and bigger and getting real industry coverage: front page of Computer Music Journal, in Keyboard Magazine, Houston Press, and more... and even on ABC News. They interviewed me. On top of this, TiS costs too much and is not getting money, and the money behind the scenes is being spent like water. I did not give up until November 2000, when everything reached a breaking point for me personally. It was too much to have to defend myself to a group of utopic sceners (of course just some, not all) and deal with the real financial problems facing me and my closest friends -- those who worked on TiS and ModPlug. They were like my family and I felt as if I had failed them.
NOVUS: So, November 2000 was when you stopped active work on the site?
MYSTERIUM: Yes. Then I put it on auto for a few months.
NOVUS: And when was the plug pulled entirely then?
MYSTERIUM: You could say September or so of 2001. I don't remember exactly when. Just one day the site went down and I let it stay down.
NOVUS: I've been told you at least had some free bandwidth towards the end, due to your domain-name registrar screwing up and improperly selling off the name traxinspace.com.
MYSTERIUM: No, that's not exactly right; the ISP had put in some money into TiS and they wanted and hoped that it would turn around. The domain name fiasco was crazy. Someone in Singapore or Hong Kong was waiting to buy it... until I pressed their Australian parent with a legal fight, and then they relinqueshed.
NOVUS: And that's when you got the domain back.
NOVUS: What would you say was the most unfair criticism that TiS faced while it was still up-and-running?
MYSTERIUM: Basically 1) Why were we so big. 2) Why were we trying to make money, didn't we know the scene was not about that. Those were the two biggest. The first one is a no-brainer, my answer -- why not?
NOVUS: Nobody ever complained about how big Hornet was. ;)
MYSTERIUM: That's true. The second one should become easier to answer now. But they did complain about TiS -- even compared it to Microsoft. There were "fake" sites mocking TiS like the Microshaft and other sites. I was actually quite flattered and bookmarked those pages.
NOVUS: You know you're important when people feel strongly enough about you to parody you. ;)
MYSTERIUM: Yes, exactly, it was a badge of honor to have parody sites. :) You see, to help musicians become better evolves naturally to allowing people with talent and the will to succeed as a musician for their livelihood. Many people in the scene did not like that; they did not want others to succeed as musicians, which I still can't figure out why they would think like that. It's almost communist -- everyone should be subject to being failures in the public world of music as much as they are. For someone to succeed and do it for a living is just wrong. But behind closed doors, they would make music for games and commericials and so on.
NOVUS: There's the USA comparison again. ;)
MYSTERIUM: Yes, another USA comparison, but I can't help it. I embrace those ideals and it was very evident in TiS.
NOVUS: I butted heads with quite a few people in your defense over the money issue, but even I had no true idea how much the site was costing you to run.
MYSTERIUM: Thanks, I needed friends everywhere I could get them. :) It's not easy being a pioneer; I just hope I have broken the ice and made it easier for those who try next. TiS was a channel for those just beginning to become better through their peers and then to take their talent and showcase it to the world. The size and visibility meant that the world watched. The TiS Charts mattered -- they really did matter, and I know it has helped some artists.
NOVUS: So, to take the question in the other direction, what was the most accurate criticism of TiS?
MYSTERIUM: The most accurate was that it WAS too big (not WHY was it too big), because it grew too fast.
NOVUS: So, the growth rate, rather than the size itself.
MYSTERIUM: Yes, the growth rate was an accurate criticism. And that sceners would not accept TiS. That was true, but again I felt that as the sceners grew older and if they had a serious forum for their music, then as they matured as people and musicians, they would not leave TiS. The paid memberships clearly showed that I was right about that.
NOVUS: A common area of criticism was the quality of the reviews, and this was the topic where I was quite critical of TiS. What did you think of your reviewing staff overall?
MYSTERIUM: Thats true, too. Thanks for reminding me. :)
NOVUS: No prob. :)
MYSTERIUM: I thought that the reviewing staff overall was representative of the peers. The paid memberships were supposed to help those serious about music get the best reviewers. After all, it was peer reviews. The critics have only themselves to look at. We gave as much guidelines as we could. In the end, it's not us writing the reviews and bringing with us our personal experiences that make each reviewer different.
NOVUS: I always saw TiS's growth as the culprit behind that: with so many songs flowing in, the only way to possibly review them all was to throw a huge team of reviewers at it. But such a huge team makes quality-control nigh impossible.
MYSTERIUM: Yes, though we tried and tried and tried. It's almost impossible. I had ideas about placing some limits and such that would have helped. In fact, I know some of my ideas would have worked. But I ran out of time.
NOVUS: Any advice for anyone else who wants to run a scene mega-site someday?
MYSTERIUM: Yes. Watch the growth rate, be very careful. Plan out how you will spend money (whether it's your own or someone else's). Be realistic -- music may be artistic and ethereal, but there is a reality also. And don't give up or listen to the criticism; trudge ahead with what you truly believe in and make your visions happen.
NOVUS: When TiS went down, a lot of good music went down with it. Is there any hope at all of recovering any of those songs?
MYSTERIUM: I had hoped to recover them, but there were too many issues and we could not unfortunately. The servers were too big and no longer belonged to us since we could not pay the lease. And they were located very far from us. All that combined made it very difficult to recover the songs. I wish I could have though.
NOVUS: Have you ever seen the e-mail that your right-hand man Ronald "Roncli" Clifford sent to me before TiS collapsed?
MYSTERIUM: Nope, RonCli and I did not talk about TiS too much afterward. It was a mutual understanding that we needed a break -- both of us. You could send me his email or paraphrase it if you can. You have piqued my interest.
NOVUS: You can read it here: [dead link removed due to UT's message board crash] -- He gave me permission to take it public.
MYSTERIUM: No prob.
NOVUS: I was going to ask what you thought of it, and at the time, I thought there was a rift between the two of you based on what he said.
MYSTERIUM: He did not know the entire story.
NOVUS: I'd always wondered that.
MYSTERIUM: I did not tell him, because it was still going on at the time and he had already sacrificed enough. I wanted him to have an easier break from it all than I had to endure.
NOVUS: A lot of what he said makes a lot more sense now in the context of this interview. Do you and Ron still keep in touch?
MYSTERIUM: Oh yeah! He works at CCCS also. In fact, his cube is across from mine. :) I helped him get the job there, and he is very successful there.
NOVUS: Wow, that worked out then. :)
MYSTERIUM: I have no problems with anyone except the "senior staff."
NOVUS: The "senior staff" being the aforementioned "experienced businessmen"?
MYSTERIUM: Yes, that's correct.
NOVUS: So, do you still have any leftover TiS merchandise that never got sold?
MYSTERIUM: Yes. Some, I kept some for keepsakes and the rest I don't know where it is. I live in a one-bedroom apartment, so I could not take too much.
NOVUS: Darn, I was gonna ask for a t-shirt. ;)
MYSTERIUM: Yeah, I don't know where any of that stuff is now. If I had more room I would have taken it all.
NOVUS: Would you ever consider letting someone else, like Kim Kraft or Ronald Clifford, pick up the TiS banner and try to resurrect it?
MYSTERIUM: Maybe. Someone asked me recently and I said no, because one day I may want to do it again -- in a few years. I have seriously been wanting to get back into the music industry and make change. With my experience (TiS) and now work success coupled with a good education, I think I may want to become a music industry analyst. I could help the scene so much like that by bringing to light the strong sites and leaders. The battle is not over for me yet. I'm just on R&R.
NOVUS: Well, don't get too sidetracked away from that... to quote Dave Matthews, "Don't lose the dreams inside your head / They'll only be there 'til you're dead." Would you ever consider being an admin for one of the scene's existing sites?
MYSTERIUM: Maybe, or even an editor for a scene magazine (or contributing writer). I think that being an orator is just as important as running a site.
NOVUS: Well, I know Coplan's looking for writers for Static Line... ;)
MYSTERIUM: Well if I hear from Coplan, then there might be another writer for Static Line. :)
NOVUS: I'll pass that along. :)
MYSTERIUM: No problem. I would like to say that I hope that this sheds some light for the scene -- not for a personal benefit, but for those people who come next.
NOVUS: Well, if this marks your return to the scene, I imagine we'll hear quite a bit more from you in the future.
MYSTERIUM: LOL... Maybe so, maybe so. Two years off is just about right. I am putting my life on track -- going for an MBA at a top ten school and then armed with that, I plan on helping the sceners more. It's in my blood. It's like the NBA commercials -- I love this stuff.
NOVUS: There's a slogan... "I love this scene!"
MYSTERIUM: Exactly. :) I love this scene.
NOVUS: Imagine... TV commercials with Necros and Skaven, and the Second Reality demo running in the background. ;)
MYSTERIUM: Exactly, that would be something to see.
NOVUS: Well, I now have a mammoth task ahead of me, copying-and-pasting this all. I really should've thought this through and expanded the log-file settings in mIRC. ;)
MYSTERIUM: I have the log I think, let me see... Yes, I can e-mail it to you.
NOVUS: Excellent! So, on behalf of myself, Coplan, and Static Line's readers, thank you for taking the time for this. It's hard to pick this up from reading, but we've been chatting for almost 2 hours now.
MYSTERIUM: You're right, two hours. My wife is telling me too now that I am wasting her day. :)))
NOVUS: Sorry if your wife is mad. Just blame me. :)
MYSTERIUM: I already did blame you. :)
NOVUS: Heh. ;)
MYSTERIUM: Thanks for giving me a forum to tell my story. I want people to understand.
NOVUS: This should help with that. Take care!