It Seemed Like Such a Good Idea . . .
Last year the Chicago multimedia Web site Supersphere made light of the increasing instability of the on-line world by emblazoning a promotional T-shirt with the slogan “Another Dying Dot-Com Since 1999.” Now, in the wake of tumbling numbers on the NASDAQ, that punch line has turned out to be prophetic. On March 23, less than two years after the site’s launch, all of Supersphere’s 14 employees were laid off.
Before the ship ran aground, the site had collected an impressive amount of substantive content, including more than 1,500 streaming concert videos–most shot at local clubs–plus streamed DJ sets, independent films, a zine database, interviews with artists and filmmakers, and an assortment of lefty political articles and resource lists, all available to Web surfers at no charge.
The site was the brainchild of Elias “Lou” Manousos and two former employees at Outlook Technologies, the extremely successful Internet company he cofounded in 1995 and still runs today. They brought the skeletal idea to Ed Marszewski–the gadfly behind the long-running culture-and-politics zine Lumpen, whose Web site Outlook had built early on–and he fleshed it out.
“Our intention was to build a live database of stuff that goes on in the underground,” says Manousos, now 26. “The whole point of the site was to spawn a community that would live on its own, that could ultimately pay for itself through licensing of content as well as services related to record labels and the artists.” In other words, he’d hoped to use Supersphere to draw in clients for a sort of consulting arm, which would teach labels and artists how to take advantage of the Internet. In a story I did on the company a year and a half ago, cofounder Jon Evans also told me the site was planning to attract advertisers.
But though Manousos says he’s put “millions of dollars” into Supersphere, the bulk of which went toward employee salaries, neither the advertisers nor the consulting clients were rolling in.
“I was a believer, but as each setback hit the general economy we became more afraid,” says Marszewski, 32. “We were trying to promote and market independent artists, labels, and filmmakers. Granted, it’s a small community, but globally we thought there was enough of an audience to sustain it.” Most home computers and modems still aren’t equipped to use the site to its full potential–although ironically, in its last month of full operation, Supersphere got its highest number of hits ever, about three million.
“Most of the people who worked there developed lots of amazing skills and learned a lot about this bullshit new economy concept,” Marszewski adds. “They’re all doing their own things now, so I’m happy about that. I learned a lot and now I do lots of consulting work.” He estimates that half of the old staff is still contributing to Supersphere for free, either by maintaining the site or generating new content. The site remains up and running, but little new content has been added recently, and old stuff is being repackaged: the front page of the Clubtronic department, which used to be updated weekly, currently features bundles of concerts by all-female bands and bands on Vagrant Records, all of which were taped last year.
Marszewski continues to publish Lumpen on a quarterly basis, and in June he plans to launch a new music- and video-oriented art magazine called Select. He’s also developing a free-form TV show that focuses on independent film and video.
Manousos, who now splits his time between Chicago and San Francisco, says he’s confident about Supersphere’s future, even though he’s not investing heavily in it at the moment. “We’re a mouse in a nuclear war and that’s the way we want to stay,” he says. “Big animals don’t live through nuclear wars. The underground always lives through stuff, and that’s sort of the point. I think in the next six months to a year you’ll start to see stuff become more active again.”
Heard It Through the Grapevine
Chicago educator, record producer, concert promoter, and writer John Corbett has been asked to serve as the artistic director of the 2002 Berlin Jazz Festival, one of the oldest (it began in 1964) and best-respected jazz festivals in the world. Berlin festivals director Joachim Sartorius declined to comment on the pending appointment because negotiations are still under way, but Corbett says the two will meet in Chicago in early June to discuss details of the position and, if everything works out, to ink the deal.
Corbett got wind of the nomination months before anyone from the festival officially contacted him. “My understanding is that it was leaked to or accidentally discovered by some people in the press who circulated it widely,” says Corbett. “It appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio in Berlin. I got E-mails from as far away as Greece congratulating me. Of course that piqued my curiosity…but I waited, because I figured if something was going to happen I would hear. Because the festival is far away from here geographically it seemed implausible to me at first, but of course I fantasized about it when I kept getting these congratulatory remarks. Eventually my curiosity overtook me and I called them, and I think they were planning to call me right then anyway.”
Corbett has boosted his international reputation over the last five years by programming the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, which has a tight stylistic focus and operates on a shoestring. The Berlin festival is a big multivenue event that last year featured artists as diverse as Patricia Barber, Regina Carter, Andy Bey, James Carter, Henry Butler, and John Surman. “The challenge for me,” says Corbett, “is the prospect of working on a full-scale festival with a long history, to make it consistent with its own history but to also bring in what I see going on.”
On March 4 Corey Rusk, the owner of Touch and Go Records, suffered a near-fatal motorcycle crash while racing at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida. When his back tire fishtailed on an oil slick from a previous race, he lost control of his bike and hit the wall, then bounced back into the middle of the track, where he was run over by other riders. His injuries included a broken pelvis, tailbone, and ankle, two broken wrists, severe bruises on one knee and several ribs, and a punctured ureter. Rusk, who has been a motorcycle enthusiast for years and started the Touch and Go Racing Team in 1996, was hospitalized in Florida until late March, when he regained enough strength to be flown back to Chicago. He’s since been in and out of two hospitals here; he is currently recuperating at home and recently started physical therapy.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.