In 2009, Apple’s iTunes online store alone has sold 5 billion downloaded songs and is adding 5 million more download sales every day, alongside 50,000 daily film rentals. Other sites and online music distributors count for a further 30-50% of the market, according to market studies.
Music downloads and file sharing are now an everyday activity. But 15 years ago, I worked with colleagues at a London high-tech PR agency to launch the very first online music site as part of a campaign for longstanding client Silicon Graphics, alongside the UK music distributor Southern Studios. Things were very different back then.
After three weeks of the site being live, all parties were delighted with 1,000 people a day visiting the site and 20 or so of those downloading content via dial-up phone lines. Each three minute audio file took around one hour to download.
Music videos were available too but, as journalists present at the packed launch in our Trafalgar Square offices watching Bon Jovi reminded us, a three minute video clip would take over 13 hours to download and cost around £30 in call charges.
Internet Underground Music Archive
The Internet Underground Music Archive was founded in 1993 by three US students – Rob Lord, Jeff Patterson and Jon Luini – and was run from the University of California at Santa Cruz. It provided indie bands with an outlet to distribute music samples to an online audience and, by 1994, its early success had led to deals with mainstream labels such as Warner Brothers and Geffen Records.
In December 1994, a European version of the site was launched, hosted by John Loder’s Southern Studios, which had already gained ‘legendary’ status (according to the Guardian obituary, after John died in 2005).
At the centre of the philosophy of the site was the promotion of lesser know bands and ability to distribute their music on the same terms as established artists with record deals.
John Loder summed up the aims at the time:
“Indie bands will get the same exposure as, say, Madonna, and be available on a more even basis.”
The launch is an interesting case study for two reasons. Firstly, the subsequent rate of adoption on online media in general, and music in particular, reinforces the extraordinary rate of change in communications technology. Secondly, the reaction of the media, as analysed by the resulting press coverage, suggests that journalists are not always open to the possibilities of new technologies.
The London Evening Standard adopted a mocking tone – and called the future developments entirely wrongly and also called my client, UK marketing director Steve Webb, to account:
“Something called the Internet Underground Music Archive arrived in London this week – from California, of course.
Hold it right there, Mr Steve Webb of Silicon Graphics. I think you have inadvertently nailed the problem with all this net stuff. It is a hobbyist’s paradise rapidly disappearing up its own SCSI socket.
“Remember the hi-fi buffs of yesteryear? Then came along the music centre, out sent the wiring and in came a lifestyle that did not need any DIY. That’s what we’re all waiting for on the Net. ” London Evening Standard, 30 December 1994
Another distinguished technology writer used his report to explain “why the Internet’s global village of sound and pictures is further away than our wallets can even dream about.” He went on to write:
“Time to put my neck on the line. My guess is it will take just six months before Internet fever peaks and the media tires of gee whizz stories about how millions of people around the world are hooking up to the world wide web of electronic information, sounds and pictures.” Hi-Fi Choice, March 1995
Not all the coverage was negative and one positive piece of coverage included the IUMA story alongside a discussion on internet radio:
“The first radio station in cyberspace is using the same sort of technology was another broadcasting initiative, the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA). Both use a combination of multicasting and traditional file retrieval methods.” The Guardian, 9 March 1995
IUMA was bought by a US business EMusic in 1998 at the height of the mergers and acquisitions activity in California that formed the “dot com boom.” The site was closed to new submissions and finally shut down in 2006 after pioneering the compression and streaming of media content using different formats such as MP2 and MP3, and clearing the way for a branded distributor in the form of Apple’s iTunes, to own around 80% of the market.
Gareth Thompson is a public relations consultant and senior lecturer in public relations at London Metropolitan Business School. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org