This internet music service started the revolution 30 years ago
At the beginning, there was just one demo tape.
Thirty years ago, Santa Cruz-based indie rock band The Ugly Mugs was looking to grow its fan base. “We were trying to publish a tape, get it out there into people’s hands so they could hear it,” recalls former band member Jeff Patterson, who had moved to the California beach town to study computer science. Rob Lord, a fellow student and like-minded music geek, told Patterson about cutting-edge music compression technology that would make it possible to transmit songs digitally, and Patterson realized that this could help The Ugly Mugs reach an even bigger audience than homemade tapes catching dust on record store shelves.
The duo started to experiment with compressing music in the nascent MP2 format in late 1993. In November, they launched an FTP server full of recordings from The Ugly Mugs and other local indie bands, dubbing it the Internet Underground Music Archive, or IUMA for short.
IUMA launched just months after the first web browser came out and didn’t get its own website until early 1994. But even with its obscure FTP address and technology that few people could use at the time, IUMA quickly became an online music pioneer, foreshadowing tectonic shifts that would disrupt a multibillion-dollar industry and ultimately give birth to services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Nobody could have anticipated at the time how exactly those changes would play out, but Patterson and Lord both clearly remember realizing that things wouldn’t stay the same when they put together the first version of IUMA in late 1993. “We knew there was a seed of the future here,” Lord says.
“Our whole notion was that at some point, the internet will reach every house,” Patterson says. “It’ll be connected to your stereo systems.”
That early enthusiasm was key to getting other musicians on board. “We started telling bands: We can get you an audience of 10 million people. Everyone on the internet can hear your music now,” Patterson says. “From the very beginning, we really thought this was going to be huge.”
Looking back, Patterson says that the duo may have been a bit overly excited. Instead of attracting millions of listeners, IUMA was only frequented by dozens of early adopters over its first few months since using it required both a broadband connection and knowledge of how to play the site’s MP2 files.
“It created more of a buzz than an actual audience,” recalls Patterson. But the duo got some early glimpses of what a global computer network could do for bands and music fans alike, with fans from Turkey and other countries writing about discovering new music on their service. “We were seeing all these people from other countries now having access to indie music from the U.S.,” Patterson says. “That was a huge thing.”
IUMA’s growth went into overdrive when CNN ran a segment about the site in March 1994, and the nascent Netscape browser included it as one of its default bookmarks. “We were receiving more and more CDs,” recalls Lord. Without any notable revenue, the site relied largely on volunteers to digitize and upload those discs. “We were on a burrito budget, as we liked to say,” Lord says. “Everyone who volunteered to encode got a burrito at the end of the day.”
Some of those unpaid helpers stuck around and eventually became employees. “We had people who just came in to volunteer, and all of a sudden they were working there,” Patterson says. “I don’t remember interviewing anybody.”
Soon after its launch, IUMA also caught the attention of the record industry. Executives wanted to know what Lord and Patterson were working on and invited them to meetings in Los Angeles, which eventually resulted in some early partnerships. IUMA powered some of the first major-label-affiliated band sites, and distributed short clips from Madonna, Prince, and others. “They wanted to experiment,” Lord says. “That was long before the labels even had digital [executives]. It was a novelty for the industry.”
Those early music industry partnerships helped pay the bills for the first few years, as did donations from bands. But eventually, the service got eclipsed by more business-savvy competitors like MP3.com. Lord left the site in 1995; Patterson stayed on until 2001. At that time, half of the United States was online, and the music industry was waging a full-on war against Napster and its successors.
Looking back, Lord says that IUMA was an early signal of things to come, including the iTunes music store, and eventually Spotify and today’s streaming world. “I don’t think anyone had any question after seeing IUMA that the music industry would be transformed,” he says. “We didn’t know what it was going to be, but we knew it wasn’t going to be what it had been.”
Patterson agrees. “We were the spark to get things started,” he argues. “We [got] people talking and thinking about some of the issues [around online music], and getting the label involved in it, and helping people see that there’s more to the internet than just, you know, geeks and techies.”
IUMA itself didn’t survive to become part of music’s online future. After multiple ownership changes, the site suddenly disappeared from the web in 2006—only to reappear six years later, when digital archivists uploaded 680,000 songs from IUMA’s catalog to the Internet Archive in an effort to preserve online music’s early history.
Among that collection are some early Ugly Mugs songs. Ironically, even being the first guinea pig for the pioneering music service didn’t help the band become a breakout success.
“We definitely didn’t have commercial appeal,” admits Patterson. “You could also say we weren’t very good, maybe.”