Owen Van Natta's Infamous Tenure At Project Playlist

One of the many unsavory aspects of the hiring of Owen Van Natta as the new CEO of MySpace: the rewriting of recent history around Van Natta’s involvement in Project Playlist. The communications group at News Corp. (MySpace’s parent company) is busy spinning Van Natta’s departure as a simple transition from one job to another, but that’s far from the truth. Nor does their story take into account the sad state of the company that he ran for just a few months before leaving for greener pastures.

Here’s how News Corp spins this: This is a natural changing of the guard as a CEO of a small startup takes a bigger job. There was an orderly transition, and Project Playlist has a new CEO with great experience. Nothing to see here, please move along.

Here’s the real story: Van Natta joined Project Playlist in November 2008, just about five months ago. He told investors and employees he was in for the long haul. And he hired an executive team under him that came with his promise that he’d lead the company to a win. Bob Pittman invested in the company, he told recruits, which is true. But he also let rumors that the company raised $20 million in new funding fly. In fact the company raised much less than that. And Van Natta also underplayed the problems with labels, suggesting that deals were imminent and the litigation was going to be settled. And now that Van Natta has abandoned the company, they’ve had to scramble to find someone to run the company. That’s why John Sykes, who was already a board member, was forced to step in.

In fact, we’ve heard, Van Natta’s playing down of the music label litigation led directly to the downfall of the company. The labels complained to MySpace and Facebook and threatened to sue them as well if they didn’t ban Playlist from their social networks. Both companies backed down quickly, and Playlist lost their main channels of distribution. MySpace banned them on December 19, Facebook followed on December 23. If Van Natta had made fewer bold statements, sources close to the labels say, those threats against MySpace and Facebook may have never been made.

Project Playlist traffic has plummeted since Van Natta took over the company. In October 2008, the month before he joined, 704,000 people visited the site from the U.S, according to Comscore. In March 2009 it had fallen to just 234,000. Page views also fell dramatically, from 9.6 million in October to just 6 million in March. Here are the traffic charts (unique visitors on top, page views below):

If Van Natta hadn’t ruffled so many feathers at the labels with his promises that litigation was nearing settlement, it’s likely the pressure on MySpace and Facebook would never have materialized, say sources, and traffic would have continued to climb.

At this point Van Natta likely wants everyone to simply forget about his infamous tenure at Project Playlist and focus on his more recent jobs at Facebook and Amazon. He doesn’t list the company on his LinkedIn profile at all (although he’s had five months to update it).