Internet Underground Music: Young, Wired, and Hot
"That large sucking sound you hear is the future," says 24-year old Rob Lord, who is discussing the road ahead for recorded music. Lord is president of IUMA, the Internet Underground Music Archive, which he founded along with his friend Jeff Patterson in late 1993. "It's sucking up anything that can be digitized -- text, software, shareware, and images. Music is next. Someday soon a Sting or a Madonna is going to decide they don't need their record company. They're going to record an album, put it on the Net, and sell it there." IUMA's Santa Cruz, California headquarters are in a rustic, carefully crafted maze of lofts, shops, and studios not far from Highway 1. The refurbished complex bustles with artists and artisans, but in most respects IUMA doesn't share much with the old school handiwork of its neighbors. If you're wired -- and you should be -- you know that IUMA is a popular music-driven electronic flea market on the Internet's World Wide Web. If you're not, or if you just haven't explored the IUMA site, dial http://www.iuma.com/ and you'll find dazzling graphics, free access to the music of more than 600 bands, and the presence of a number of labels, most of them small outfits such as San Francisco's Heyday Records. The IUMA site also features six on-line magazines, led by Addicted to Noise, the innovative creation of Rolling Stone writer Michael Goldberg, as well as one from the radio industry tout sheet Gavin Report. "The music business as it exists today is obsolete," Lord continues. His observation would be prosaic -- no one likes the corporate end of the music industry -- except in this case he isn't speaking about music, but science. His point is that CD-quality music can now be up- and downloaded using technology that's widely available. This understanding, and the implications it has for the manufacture and distribution of music, lies at the core of IUMA. "My take on record labels is that they don't do much," Lord says. "They sign a band, get a producer, and put the two together in a studio. Then they manufacture thousands of CDs, ship them to stores, and if [the CDs] don't sell, they truck them back and destroy them. They're more like banks, looking for a return on an investment. The technology exists right now to put music out on the Web. So why not do it and cut out the middleman? That's all the big music labels are." The music press has rhapsodized about IUMA since the site's birth, if for no other reason than that a challenge to the music industry makes great copy. More important to IUMA at this point are the corporate interests frantically looking for ways to cash in on the Net's economic potential. At this point, several corporate sponsors -- including Nakamichi and Sun Microsystems -- have bought or traded for space on IUMA. And they are just the beginning.IUMA, recently nominated for Al Gore's National Information Infrastructure Award, was once an imaginative project led by a pair of computer-savvy UCSC students. Today it's that and more: IUMA has graduated and gone into business.Atomic IUMA IUMA's digital underground would be known as the hippest thing in Santa Cruz, except that to most of the world it's located in the untethered beyond of the electronic frontier. But visit IUMA's headquarters -- walk up a flight of stairs, turn right, and go through the front door of a 20-by-50-foot office -- and the small, bustling company takes atomic shape. Posters dot the walls. Someone sprawls on a couch beneath a partially erased dry-wipe board. There are no windows and lots of visible concrete. In the rear several figures hunch in front of workstations surrounded by a clutter of low-rent, chest-high space dividers stacked with CDs, books, and manuals. Programming hieroglyphics fill several computer screens. Everyone is young. IUMA isn't the future of rock and roll, but it's got a clear, technologically sound vision of where the business of music is going and how it will get there.Decompression chamberThe project dates back to the day that Lord discovered MPEG, an audio decoder that facilitates a 10-to-1 compression of CD quality audio, permitting the relatively efficient transfer of information-heavy files while retaining high sound quality. "It was shareware for Windows, and I gave it a few tests," Lord explains. "I was really impressed."Patterson, meanwhile, was trying to figure out ways to promote his band, a local outfit called the Ugly Mugs. When Lord told him about MPEG, he decided to upload a Mugs song to the Internet and make it available to anyone willing to download and listen to it. One thing led to another, and Lord and Patterson decided to start an archive for musicians to store and make available music and band information. "Everything fell into place once we got going," he continues. "Anyone who could go on-line had access to the music, [permitting] a business model or a paradigm where all music can be found and heard. It's an open system -- to use a geek term -- for music. It levels the playing field." As word of IUMA spread, tapes began to arrive: the Whistle Pigs; Deth Specula; Brother Free; Plasma Boy; the Cherry Blossoms and Kiss Kiss Platinum from Japan; and so on -- bands playing in as many styles, from as many points on the map, as the Net allows. "We'd download them whenever we could. And if a band stuck a few dollars in the envelope, we'd do it on the spot." IUMA was profiled in a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles and won a 1994 Web Site of the Year Award from O'Riley and Associates, publishers of Internet books. Labels and more bands came aboard. The real change, however, was in the on-line world IUMA existed in: While IUMA was building its base, the Internet mushroomed from high-tech secret to the most exciting, challenging opportunity in recent history. That, more than the graduation or experience of its founders, shaped IUMA's foray into the business world.Shoppers network The Net is, among many things, a vast mall with 20 million potential shoppers. An army of corporate interests, tech wizards, speculators, and goofball kids have charged into the marketplace for fear of being shut out of the sweepstakes. At this point, however, Web prospecting is a tenuous proposition. "These interests don't even know how they're going to get their money back," Lord says. "They just know that someone else will make it if they're not in that position." Lord and his coworkers know a good thing when they see it. They also have their own roadblocks, as the fledgling company works to shed vestiges of undergraduate life and tailor a commercial venture with an ethical foundation. "At first we found it difficult to shift from a group of inspired volunteers in a clubhouse into a professionally run business," Lord says. "We wanted to move toward business goals, not philosophical goals, and it was scary. We had to be formalized and structurized so that we could nail whatever needed to be nailed -- but we had to question, Does this fit in with our philosophical goal? But you can be a for-profit company and be really altruistic. I don't think that we're fundamentally different now [from how] we were at the start." At this point the IUMA site offers plenty of on-line diversion, as well as a selection of music best described as the good, the bad, and the ugly. Still, it's a very long way to the 1 to 2 percent share of the $9 billion music industry that Lord predicted (in the 8/18/94 issue of the Santa Cruz weekly Good Times) IUMA would someday reap. Asked about it again, Lord points to the "middle class of musicians" that is the cornerstone of IUMA's existence. "They don't work full-time, because they make some money making music," he says. "But they need avenues to publicize themselves and to get their music heard. [Checking out the Net] can be a standard way of finding an artist. That whole [open-system] paradigm is what we're looking at to support the people who would be fans and the people who would be musicians. The idea of making any musician easily available by pressing a command and schlepping 10 gigabytes of audio to another server makes a lot of sense." There is, Lord believes, a vast multitude of young people with broad-ranging and very specific musical tastes that aren't well served by major-label music. "The concept of teenagers with a cultural identity of their own was only invented in the '50s," he says. "And then it was pretty simple. Now there's tremendous differentiation of teenagers. Take rave music, for example: there's jungle, tribal, trance, and ambient. Do you know how much the fans of each of these sub-sub-subgenres want to know about the latest? Damn, do they want to know."Theory and practice Basing themselves on an ability to attract this middle class while remaining limber and responsive to changing tastes and needs, IUMA's challenge to the major labels lies more in the realm of theory than practice -- at least until Sting gives them a call. The fledgling company's practical work involves nurturing and capturing a market ignored by the music giants who move, in Lord's words, "in million-dollar footsteps." As their market grows, the thinking is that corporate advertisers will want to reach IUMA's users. Web sites keep track of visitors by measuring "hits," the number of requests users make to the system. IUMA's reports of six-figure hit levels each day are dazzling until you realize that there's more -- or less, in this case -- going on than those numbers indicate. "We get about 250,000 hits on our system a day," Lord explains. "I figure that one user could probably do about 100 hits per visit, so lop off two zeros and you're talking about 2,000 or 3,000 people each day. A few months ago we put out a registered-user form on our site. And since then we've gotten 40,000 registered users." The users and the hit lists offer a precise demographic breakdown of the visitors IUMA attracts -- valuable proof of its draw. Artists and labels on the site also vouch for IUMA as an effective tool. At Heyday Records' headquarters, Christine Ostrander warms to the opportunity of plugging IUMA. "Being on IUMA," she says, "is a really great service for a business like ours. Our on-line slot looks great, and we reach people that wouldn't ordinarily find out about us." The next day Ostrander leaves me a voice-mail message detailing her point. "I just had a really cool instance directly related to my IUMA site. I got a mail order from someone who had downloaded Steve Yerkey's page and sent me a check ordering the CD. They'd heard it on the radio in Waupaca, Wisc., and couldn't find it [in any stores]. So this enabled me to call retailers there and tell them to reorder because it's being played on the radio." Although Lord is reluctant to discuss the particulars of IUMA's current financial situation, a handful of corporate sponsors and whatever revenue the on-line publications generate seem unlikely to pay the overhead and salaries of a growing staff. Their Web consulting -- they design Web sites for corporate clients -- is no doubt lucrative. And IUMA would seem to be a likely candidate for investors betting on the company's future prospects. As decisively as IUMA can level the playing field for musicians, the Net provides a spectacularly democratic equal footing for all commercial enterprises. "What we're really doing," Lord explains, "is taking advantage of the low entry point -- the low cost of distribution and promotion on the Web. No matter how hard a corporation works, no matter how dynamic they make their display, they are just one more site on the Web. On the Web, small companies can look big, and big companies can look small and really stupid. And that's the truth. Anybody can put up a Web page, but the presentation, quality, and content of it really determine how people respond to it. We look absolutely huge on the Web." Lord, like so many high-tech pioneers, has an abiding faith in the permanence of the indie anarchy that dominates the digital world. Wrong or right, it's a notion that shares a lot with the dashed dreams of small capitalists from eras past. "Capitalism was not meant to be a monopoly," Lord says when discussing the future of corporate America and the Net -- and one can only hope his faith in the status quo is as sound as the science driving the technology. "It's not clear to me how they plan to regulate anything. With the current version of Netscape, if I want to make a server, I can password-protect it. I put whatever the hell I want there, give access to whatever I want, and it's completely bulletproof. Trying to change people by [government] regulation is always going to have the same effect. It's even more difficult, because everyone is so empowered [on the Net]."Order in your underwear The IUMA crew, along with a crowd of friends and fellow travelers, was in the house at a local hip cafe for a coming-out party to celebrate their freshly designed Web site. It was a full-bloom display of youth, imagination, and energy, with everyone feasting on finger food, beer, and the future. Disarmingly smooth, and articulate enough to talk bark off a tree, Lord worked the crowd, shaking hands and delivering good will. Brandee Selck smiled and chatted with friends. Last year at this time Selck was a fine-arts major at University of California at Santa Cruz who hooked up with IUMA to help them with graphic design. She was recently installed as IUMA's CEO. When the time came to demonstrate the new look, IUMA's sponsor-development director, Brent Smith, managed to capture its past and future by introducing a system that, as he put it, "will allow you to order music in your underwear." There was no mistaking which end of the IUMA time line produced the top-end Silicon Graphics workstation used for the unveiling: one image gave way to the next in the wink of an eye. Sound bites were downloaded and played back in less time than it took to order a drink. And, as Lord has observed, the home page looked big. The graphics look big in other settings, too. But depending on what kind of equipment you have, they can take a lot longer to get to. Sting could sign on with IUMA tomorrow, but if music fans have to wait two hours for his latest song to download, chances are a lot of them will head over to the Wherehouse instead. The future is fast arriving, and IUMA is, like the Net itself, a technologically sound idea brimming with potential that will be realized on some tomorrow. Lord addresses the present and the future when discussing the practicality of doing business in a not-yet-wired world. "About one-third of our registrants have .edu addresses, which means they're students," he says. "At UCSC there are about five computer labs, each with between 20 and 100 computers in them. And they're all pretty current computers. Anybody can pop up Netscape and be cruising at top speed." "Still," he continues, "it's really clear that we're in the prologue of the computer revolution. There are some sorts of high-end technology that permit you to take better advantage of it, but the standard for the computer industry is that everything doubles every two years. That's been consistent for the past 10 years with no sign of stopping."In two years everyone will be wired, and digicash is going to be no problem. And you can send anything that can be digitized back and forth. If IUMA doesn't do it, it'll happen anyway. And even your PowerPC would be fine, because the key question is bandwidth -- how much information comes through the pipeline. You'll have a cable modem hooked up to your home, and you'll be getting like 2.4 megabits per second. "You'll have your own T1 line, or at least ISDN connection, to the Net, which can deliver 128 kilobits per second. Telephone lines will be used for everything -- the phone company already has the billing in place. New machines will be totally media savvy, with a built-in DSP [digital signal processor] chip, which at once is doing your telephone answering-machine duties, your ISDN modem, and video decoding."Surf music Lord says the obvious: "Our opportunities are going to come whether IUMA lives or dies. I mean, we're surfin'. We're having a fabulous time, and we've already made it through a couple of time windows. We're up to this level where IUMA is a real thing that will continue to have its own life. If somebody wants to go after all the skills in this place -- well, we'll keep people, because they're really excited about what this company does and the value of it. In the meantime, this is out of control. It's fun."