online music

Blast from the past: IUMA cofounder on the state of online music

August 22, 2013: 1:38 PM ET

Jon Luini, a founder of the Internet's first music distributor, isn't a fan of either the record labels or the free-for-all of file-sharing.

130822132419-jon-luini-620xaFORTUNE -- Before Napster -- and even before the web -- there was IUMA, the Internet Underground Music Archive. Given everything that's happened since IUMA was ascendent in the mid- to late-'90s, what's most striking is how relatively conservative the service was. IUMA was dedicated to helping unsigned musicians get their work distributed. And while it certainly opposed the iron grip the music labels had on the industry back then, it didn't get on board with the "everything should be free" movement that had sprung up and ultimately wrecked both the music labels and IUMA.

"There are a lot of people out there that feel very strongly that art should be free," cofounder Jon Luini tells Santa Cruz Weekly in an interview. "But those people often are not musicians, or they're not artists."

Luini will lead a panel discussion next month at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley tech conference and music festival. He plans to use the forum in part to reinforce his nuanced take on the music business and where it's going. Basically: Label dominance was no good, but neither is the free-for-all that has followed. Back in the day, he was dubbed "the ethical one," because he always sought out the most equitable solutions, particularly for musicians.

MORE: Music DIY goes digital

The rise of -peer-to-peer downloading, he told the Weekly, "was all about what we can do. It became this excitement, almost like a feeding frenzy of like, look at what we can do -- we can put this out, and it's gonna go to millions of people. But there wasn't a lot of thought about, like, What should we do? And whose work is this built on the back of? And shouldn't they be part of the conversation?" The mission of IUMA, he said was "to create this new middle class of musician where more could quit their day jobs and make great art through using the Internet to reach fans across the globe."

That's happening to some degree, but huge complications and challenges remain. For example, how much of a cut should musicians get from services like Pandora (P) and Spotify? For many musicians, even many deserving ones, there is no clear path to this "middle class" lifestyle. This is not only because of the chaotic state of the business, but because of what seems like an inexorable dive in the market value of music.

IUMA, which launched in 1993 distributing music via Gopher and FTP, was sold to Emusic in 1998. By 2001, services like Napster had taken their toll, and the site was closed off to musicians. In 2006, it and all its files were taken offline. Luckily, though, most of the files have been preserved at the Internet Archive. Since leaving IUMA in the late '90s, Luini, still based in Santa Cruz, has had his fingers in a whole bunch of different web-media pies.

Fortune will be on hand for the CCSV conference, which will take place at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center from Thursday, September 26 through Saturday, September 28.

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