IUMA co-founder Jon Luini will speak at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) technology conference and music festival taking place Sept. 26-29 in San Jose.
“Before you may have sucked locally. Now you can suck globally.”
— Unofficial tagline of the Internet Underground Music Archive
The Internet is killing music, because the Internet is stealing music. That’s conventional wisdom. Jon Luini, the founder of the first-ever music downloading service in 1993, isn’t buying it.
According to Luini, we were all stealing music before the concept of “stealing music” even existed. Before BitTorrent, before Napster, before any of it—there was the Great and Powerful Cassette Tape. And rather than killing music, it opened a generation’s ears for a first time—including his own.
“When I was a kid, every weekend I would take my bike, go down to the record store, look through stuff, figure out what I could afford, buy it and bring it back home. And my friends would be doing the same thing,” he recalls. “It’s like, ‘You bought this one, I bought that one. All right, we’re gonna tape, and we’ll swap the cassettes. My friend bought the first Metallica album in the small little record shop in Walnut Creek, and I got a tape of that, and that’s what first turned me on to music.”
Luini, who will lead a panel discussion about Internet music at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) technology conference and music festival, taking place Sept. 26-29 at 12 locations in downtown San Jose, grew up to become a full-fledged Internet geek in the earliest days of the Internet—the late 80s and early 90s. Santa Cruz is where he discovered the Internet, after moving here in 1986 and landing his first tech job at the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) software company.
Luini went on to launch the Internet Underground Music Archive in 1993 along with co-founders Rob Lord and Jeff Patterson, who were both about 20 years old at the time. (At 25, Luini was the elder, experienced statesman of the group.) With artists in the driver’s seat when it came to distributing their music, IUMA's model was a far cry from the rampant piracy commonplace on the next generation of online music downloading sites. Its purpose, rather, was to give unsigned artists a place to share their music and connect with fans, which Luini says is the biggest challenge for any band that is not pop. The site took off, and within just a few months of launching was featured on CNN. After that, Luini says he recalls a new news piece nearly every week.
An early screen-grab of the site’s homepage from 1995 shows an unmistakably mid-90’s photo and illustration collage-style design, reminiscent of the album art for Green Day’s Insomniac. An image of a retro 1950s woman with a salon hairdryer on her head welcomes visitors to “The Internet’s Pad for Hi-Fi Living.” The site’s categories for Record Labels, Bands, Publications and “What’s Brewin’” are paired with images of a washing machine, stereo cabinet, toaster and coffee pot, respectively. The images are all suspended in a navy blue night sky with twinkling stars.
Today, Luini is 45 and looks every bit the part of a present-day Santa Cruz tech entrepreneur. He has the rectangular eyeglasses with industrial slate grey frames. He has the clean and intentional five o’clock shadow. He wears jeans, an O’Neil baseball cap and a zip-up hooded jacket. Before our interview at the Cruzio building in downtown Santa Cruz, he spends a couple moments tying up loose ends on his iPhone. Currently, Luini works as a digital strategy consultant and producer for artists and startups through his company Chime Interactive. He also co-organizes TEDxSantaCruz and serves on the Bay Area board of nonprofit Little Kids Rock.
In the throes of planning his panel for C2SV, Luini hopes to facilitate a thoughtful and nuanced discussion about the online music movement—where it has been, where it is now and what direction it should go in. “Rather than just having a bunch of people talking about their products, I want to have real conversations about the issues and the people and the experience of how we interact with music,” he says.
A complex thinker, Luini’s thoughts on these issues cascade over one another in a kind of ever-unfolding origami sculpture. He can see all sides of an argument, and is unafraid to explore forgotten corners and taboo points of view.
“Jon has this ability to get to the heart of the issue at hand, and then he can synthesize information from a lot of different areas to bring it together to draw a much bigger picture about what’s going on,” says his wife, Sheila Schat, a consultant for non-profits. “It’s a pretty unique skill. It’s something I love about him. I can always float ideas past him.”
The Ethical One
As befits a man who earned the nickname “the ethical one” at IUMA, Luini’s career trajectory has not followed the sort of reckless, rip-off-the-rear-view-mirror-and-gun-it path favored by so many Internet entrepreneurs both then and now. Instead, he chose to focus more on how best to serve artists and use the tools of the Internet to connect people.
In 1994, at the same time as IUMA, Luini launched Addicted to Noise, the first online magazine to include audio samples alongside album reviews. When he left IUMA in the late ’90s, he went on to launch MediaCast, a web casting company that he says achieved a similar “leveling of the playing field” for users as did IUMA. After that, he began working with artists to create digital contracts—something he says is still missing from the picture today:“The system is very broken in many ways, but one thing you can say [about traditional recording companies] is they actually funded the recording artists’ music. Whereas an iTunes is taking their percentages, but they’re really just a storefront. I don’t see a lot of, ‘Oh yeah man I signed a deal with iTunes and they paid for me to go into the studio and record this album,’” he says.
Regarding his contemporaries who arguably dropped the ball on the whole “ethics” thing, Luini is not nearly as cynical as one would expect him to be. He says he doesn’t think Napster was evil. Careless? Maybe. But he can empathize.
“Once things really started taking off [for Napster] it really is like you’re driving a car and somebody just reached over and put a brick on the gas pedal. I mean, how do you control that? You steer just a little bit off, and you’re off the cliff,” he says.
Luini is more forgiving than his former colleague, IUMA co-founder Rob Lord, who declined to be interviewed for this story save for a brief email exchange in which he declared, “Napster was a disaster for Internet music IMHO.” Lord went on to work at Winamp as well as several startups, which he says have netted him over $100 million in sales to AOL, Yahoo! and the like.
At worst, Luini says Napster and other music sharing sites were more focused on themselves and what they could accomplish than on the artists whose products were actually fueling their success.
“It 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?
“Just because something’s possible with technology doesn’t mean that you have that right, and I think there is a responsibility there to understand what you’re doing and how it’s affecting the band,” he says. “The fact that the band has been removed from the equation entirely is what feels so broken about the current state of sharing of music. That was the thing about IUMA that was very different,” he continues. “We were very much about the artists and about the artist/fan relationship and that connection.”
“IUMA was not ever a cultural taste maker or anything like that,” Luini says. “We just wanted to help those bands connect with the fans they had never been able to reach before. One of the goals 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.”
And while he empathizes with the challenges that can come with the rapid-fire growth companies like Napster experienced, he is more than a little skeptical of what has become of our culture’s relationship to art.
“There are a lot of people out there that feel very strongly that art should be free,” Luini acknowledges. “But those people often are not musicians or they’re not artists.”
What has happened in the last several years of the Internet’s growth, he says, is that the fan relationship has been somehow co-opted by big tech companies themselves, bypassing art and experiences, the products that technology companies supposedly provide us—the stuff that we know deep down is most important.
“People idolized Napster as a brand of some sort,” says Luini. And that practice has carried through to today. “Look at the way people idolize Apple gear. It’s fetishized. It’s so deeply ingrained that it’s not even really discussed. People go, ‘Oh yeah I’m gonna go camp out for the new iPhone.’ That’s not an unusual thing to hear people say. But take a step back and think what people used to camp out for? Concert tickets.”
As if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, Luini twists the dagger: “You go to the concert and you’re getting the connection with this music which affects you so emotionally. That experience has now been transferred to this device.”
Though it may be a sexy device, he says, it is not the thing. “A phone is valuable because of the people you talk to,” he says. “So the optimist in me thinks that we’re all searching for something which connects us together and our options to do that are just not necessarily the right ones.”
Throughout his career, Luini has been motivated by the same thing: a desire to use whatever tools are available to connect people to one another and to art. And while this has proved fulfilling to him, he acknowledges what he sacrificed by sticking true to his values.
“I think I have probably hamstrung myself in ways that, if I had been more willing to give up certain things, I could have made a ton of money.”
And he knows enough about the industry to know it can get ugly when you start giving up those “certain things.”
“Mark Zuckerberg can say that he wants to connect people and do things for good the same way Google can, but at the end of the day you know that a large driving part of that is, ‘All right how are our ads doing?’ Inevitably any company that is big is going to be driven by other forces other than what’s good for people necessarily,” Luini says.
But when asked point blank if the online music industry got completely derailed at some point, Luini won’t bite.
“Certainly there was a moment in the ’90s where I felt that sense of, ‘well yeah, we thought this was gonna be different, but it’s really been co-opted by the dominant corporate forces like every other medium,” he admits. “But at the same time, it brought so much power into people’s hands and so much art to so many people that never would have encountered it otherwise.”
Through nuanced conversation, Luini believes some of the damage done by the online music industry can be corrected. There was a missed opportunity, he thinks, to educate a public as it was transitioning out of its proverbial Walnut Creek record store days and onto the Internet.
“Before the Internet, when you went out and bought a record there was an assumption of, ‘I paid money, I have this thing, therefore I own this music. I can make a copy and give it to a friend and that’s OK.’ When you remove the physical album and now you have this digital item, the mentality just sort of carried along with it, but there was no discussion about that. There was never a moment when the industry and artists said, ‘You don’t own that music, you just own a license for it.’ So this is where there really needs to be education.”
And if that doesn’t work? He has faith that, at some point, progress will find a positive direction to move in.
“I think that the Internet in general has failed to live up to its potential,” he says, “But that’s OK, you know, if it gets really bad, then there’ll just be a new Internet that comes up and we can learn from our mistakes and give it another go…The only way you get out of difficult situations is to innovate around them.”
The C2SV Technology Conference takes place at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center from Thursday, Sept. 26 to Saturday, Sept. 28. Tickets for the tech conference and accompanying music festival may be purchased at C2SV.com/tickets.