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The Digital Beat: IUMA Rises Again

April 11, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Long before Napster was monopolizing the headlines, a tiny little startup in Santa Cruz called the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA) was pioneering music online. Launched in 1993 by a frustrated rock band, the Ugly Mugs, IUMA was the first to provide exposure and community for grassroots musicians. The idea was simple: circumvent the corporate stronghold in the music industry and let bands upload songs, art, lyrics and whatever else they wanted to share with the world.

For a while it worked. After eight years (an eternity) online, however, IUMA was facing its death knell after being purchased and subsequently shut down by digital music site, EMusic. In late March, though, a European outfit called Vitaminic bailed IUMA, offering a second chance for the veteran service. IUMA deserves to live and prosper; unfortunately, the dream of an Internet-made band might just be a thing of the past.

Today, dozens of artists post their goods on IUMA. It's a system that's more or less been ripped off and fumbled by MP3.com since then. Back in '93, of course, it seemed fairly reasonable to think that a band could find an audience online. It was thought to be analogous to the dawn of music video, even though pioneering surfers had to wait about thirty minutes for a three-minute song to download.

"Transfer rates for data over your telephone line are going to become faster and faster," IUMA co-founder Jeff Patterson told Billboard in 1994. "Soon you will be able to hit 'play' and have the music come right out."

Little did he know. Not only did his prediction came true, fat bandwidth, it turns out, has ironically become IUMA's nemesis. Faster downloads raise expectations for content, after all. At first -- and I can attest to this -- we used to sit around and download just about any kind of music, because it was so cool. Then modems increased speed, and more bands -- known or at least semi-known bands -- started putting up their stuff, and, well, there wasn't much reason to check out the latest track by an upstart band like Shin Fat.

With the failure of IUMA and MP3.com and even Napster, one thing's for sure: The Internet provides an outlet for bands, but it's an unproven marketplace for unknowns. The music industry still provides the one most important element to the scheme: marketing power. If a label puts the time and cash behind an artist, that artist has a reasonable shot at hitting (see Dream). If not, the artist needs a miracle (see Shin Fat).

In light of its second life, IUMA says it'll now focus more things like e-commerce and even wireless distribution. More power to 'em. But if the Internet underground really wants a shot at over-ground success, it's going to take more than a Web site and an email newsletter to do it.

The solution? How about this: a new peer-to-peer system that bundles a new artist's songs when you download something by an established band. So, for example, download a Radiohead single and you'll get a track by a similar, though unknown, band. Is that win/win or what?

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