A huge part of online music’s forgotten history went back online this month, thanks to Jason Scott, the man behind Textfiles.com. Scott spent the past week uploading a huge chunk of the original Internet Underground Music Archive, also know as IUMA, to the servers of Archive.org. From his blog:
“Oh, you are in for a treat and a hell of a lot of modern musical history just got saved. This is over 25,000 bands and artists, and over 680,000 tracks of music. That number sounds made up, but I’m not kidding – six hundred and eighty thousand songs are in this collection.”
IUMA was the Internet’s original hosting service for licensed music downloads. Launched in 1993, it not only predated MP3.com as a service where musicians could upload their own songs, but actually came before the MP3 format and most of the web itself. But the site also struggled to pioneer a business model for online music, and eventually shut down in 2006, with hundreds of thoudsands of songs going offline – until now.
The birth of IUMA
IUMA’s story began in the early nineties with a guy called Jeff Patterson, who was playing with a punk band called The Ugly Mugs in Santa Cruz, California. The band was touring local clubs but wanted to reach a wider audience. One day, Patterson and his friend Rob Lord — who later went on to work for the MP3 software maker Nullsoft — stumbled across the MP2 audio format.
That predecessor of today’s MP3 files offered the ability to compress music files to about a tenth of their original size without sounding too bad, and Patterson and Lord started to upload MP2-compressed Ugly Muggs songs to a public FTP server.
Soon, they started to upload songs of roommates and other local bands as well. Then they decided to make the music more accessible, first through a gopher page and then a website. The Internet Undergroud Music Archive was born.
Fame and struggles
IUMA was a pioneer and it captured many people’s imaginations. CNN and Rolling Stone reported on the site, and Rob Lord told a reporter of the San Jose Mercury News that the site wanted to “destroy record labels.”
IUMA initially just asked musicians for donations, then started to charge them hefty fees to distribute their music. The company also briefly ran its own record label, offering bands the ability to sell their CDs through the site. And in 1997 — just before Napster was ready to disrupt the music industry with MP3 file sharing — IUMA decided to partner with Liquid Audio to sell copy-protected downloads. Guess how that turned out.
The site was bought by Emusic a year later, and for a while flourished — only to be hit hard when the bubble burst. Emusic laid off IUMA’s staff in early 2001, and sold it to the European online music venture Vitaminic in March of that year. The company initially promised to use IUMA for its U.S. expansion, but eventually shut it down by 2006.
Saved by John Gilmore
Luckily, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore managed to scrape the site before it went completely dark. Again, from Scott’s blog:
“He grabbed a copy of all he could – which wasn’t all of it, of course, but it was a hell of a lot of it. He stored them on some backup tapes, and as the site went down, disappeared, and faded into the mists of memory, he looked for a chance to have someone get a copy up somewhere. I was that person.”
Uploading all that data apparently took some time, but Scott tweeted late Monday that IUMA is resurrected:
The resulting archive isn’t just a whole lot of interesting music — with many tracks of musicians who later went on to be famous — it’s also an early testament of the power of disruption that the Internet would exert on the music industry.