This is a small chunk of history of rock music on the web. It begins in Santa Cruz.
Michael Goldberg left Rolling Stone magazine sometime in 1993. He did so because over 20 years of experience as an editor and writer in the music business was telling him that the digital world, and specifically the Internet, was about to come along and upturn everything, and Rolling Stone would be left gathering moss. Other online magazines, like Word and Suck had reinvigorated pop culture commentary and created something raw, something new, and something tailor made for a digitally native generation. At the time, prevailing wisdom brought Goldberg to AOL as the best place to launch his new magazine to dozens of waiting readers.
Goldberg began going around interviewing people that were at the intersection of the Internet and music. In mid-1994, his travels brought him to the University of California Santa Cruz to talk to the folks who had created the Internet Music Underground Archive (IUMA), perhaps the most well-versed people on that subject.
IUMA (pictured above) was really just a collection of students at UC Santa Cruz who had decided that uploading music tracks for download to the Internet was something worth doing. One of its founders, Rob Lord, was studying computer science under David Huffman, a pioneer in the field of audiovisual digital encoding (see: Huffman coding). He had all the technical know-how necessary to encode some tracks and put them up on the Internet. So they started asking around for music to put up and did just that.
Like Goldberg, the team behind IUMA placed themselves firmly in the anti-establishment counterculture and saw their site as a way of sticking it to an outmoded and antiquated record industry. They felt that record labels artificially limited the market and left little room for artists that stood outside the mainstream. IUMA cut out the middleman, and anybody could post their music up to the site. Bands could send in their music, and someone on the IUMA team would encode the files, upload them to the Internet, and make them freely available to download and listen to. IUMA flipped the script and put the means of distribution right into the hands of creators.
In the earliest days, they would upload tracks to an FTP drive. Then they tried booting up a Gopher site to make it easier to index and find a list of tracks. A few months in, they discovered the web and everything clicked. As an open, decentralized by design platform, the web mirrored their principles, but it also made it easy for them to create a cohesive, archivable and searchable list of artist’s tracks. They even started spinning up individual artists pages where visitors could find out more about the artists and bands they were listening to. Think of it as an early precursor to what sites like Last.fm and Myspace and PureVolume would eventually become. Eventually, IUMA was picked up by press outlets like CNN, and MTV even ran a feature about them, and submissions from artists all over the world began pouring in.
When Goldberg’s travels brought him to IUMA, they were the first ones to show him the World Wide Web. He loved it. So much, in fact that he scraped his plans to set up shop on AOL and using $5000 of his own cash to get things started, built a website instead. It was the first online magazine devoted solely to rock music. It was called Addicted to Noise (ATN).
ATN blended reviews, editorials, and news together on an edgy, offbeat splash page complete with graphics from the alternative poster artist Frank Kozik. The site was certainly informed by the dead tree media it sought to replace, with a monthly “issue” format and a stable of rotating industry writers, but its voice, style, and approach veered off in a whole new direction.
As was the case for the publications that came before it, and a lot that would come after – all of which positioned themselves as the anti-mainstream – there was a fair bit of snark (some might call it, dare I say, a touch of elitism) in the writing. But writers found that they could do things the print medium simply wouldn’t allow for. They posted regular news updates in between issues. They threw up audio samples with their reviews. They expanded their coverage to include bands that maybe you’ve never heard of but maybe you’d want to.
Goldberg was able to get his site off the ground thanks, in part, to his connections in the music industry. There were plenty of artists that were starting to get restless with the old way of doing things and were looking for a foothold on the out-there world of the web.
So ATN was able to secure some early success. One of their first major profiles was of R.E.M., a band that fit quite well with their alternative vibe. Then there was the time that Neil Young told the New York Times he didn’t want to be interviewed by a “magazine that smells”, and opted to grant an interview with ATN instead. Within a year, the site was bringing hundreds of thousands of readers every month.
Things changed in the mid-90’s. The web experienced a blogging surge thanks to a growing number of accessible and easy to use blogging tools and led mostly by an invigorated community of semi-professional and amateur writers that posted frequently, wrote from the heart, and left their filters at the door. Even ATN, an early poster child for the counterculture, was a bit too polished and professional for the blogging crowd.
One of the first of these blogs to take on alternative music was Turntable, which launched in late 1995, a little over a year after Goldberg got ATN off the ground. Like ATN, Turntable was a mostly self-funded, spit-and-glue type project thrown together by a recent high school graduate and record shop employee from Minneapolis that dreamed of being a music journalist. It’s creator, Matt Schreiber, fit in well with his blogging cohort and soon built up a reputation for loquacious, sometimes brutally honest, sometimes an unequivocal endorsement, album reviews that were posted up each and every day. After about a year, Schreiber renamed the site to Pitchfork (a tongue in cheek reference to Tony Montana’s tattoo in Scarface).
He brought on a small staff of writers like him, bloggers that could look beneath the surface of the record industry and find the gems hidden within. The writers of Pitchfork cultivated a style and tone that echoed the digital nativist attitude of heady, chatty and insular exchanges that catered to an audience outside the mainstream. Pitchfork nestled right in with the slightly ironic and deeply referential style of the web, and its mix of reviews, daily news, audio samples, and streams of comments from the community could only of existed on the web.
Where ATN blended A-list profiles with sometimes lesser-known reviews, Pitchfork offered up reviews that were more offbeat, experimental, and rather infamously scathing. The writing staff that slowly began to flesh out the site took pride in music discovery – surfacing bands that had barely broken into the indie market – and criticizing bands that had, in their opinion, let fame go to their heads. In the same week, the site might be responsible for catapulting a group like Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene to a whole new level of success while simultaneously tanking the recent release of another artist’s album with a caustic review.
That music, and those underexposed bands, were discovered in part because they were listened to. And they were listened to because blogs made a track or two freely available for download as an MP3, as if to say: “Don’t believe me, take a listen.” Before virality had been codified and infinitely replicated, the hottest new band’s tracks would spread through a new crop of music blogs (often called MP3 blogs for this very reason) in the tradition of Pitchfork. It seemed like a new one sprang up every day.
Pitchfork soon begot Stereogum in 2002, a blog with even more emphasis on sharing MP3 samples. A couple of years later, Music (For Robots) launched under the guise of being more underground than the underground, posting tracks that even Pitchfork hadn’t found yet. Webjay popped up that same year, in 2004, as a way to start collecting all of these tracks into more tangibly organized daily playlists. These blogs weaved themselves into a loosely connected network of blogrolls and self-referential inside jokes. They’d post links to one another’s blogs, sometimes with a playful jab at their rival, but always with music discovery as the ultimately goal. They were like a collegial group of outcasts walking the halls of the web passing around a track or two and asking, “but have you heard this?”.
Soon though, MP3 blogs reached a level of over-saturation. A handful became a couple dozen which became far too many to count or keep up with. No niche was left unexplored, no obscure track unplayed. The problem for the average listener soon became discovery of the a proper place for music discovery.
Anthony Volodkin certainly felt like that. Still a sophomore attending college in New York, Volodkin loved music blogs. He’d spend his free time glued to his computer in a feeble to attempt to take it all in. To find the true musical gems of the underground. So he thought he might put his computer science major to good use and try and shift the status quo.
In 2005, Volodkin built and launched Hype Machine, a blog aggregator that sourced MP3 samples and tracks from hundreds of blogs and listed them all out in one place on the site’s homepage. Launched is actually the wrong word. In truth, Volodkin built the site as an experiment and passed the link to his friend Lucas Gonze, founder of Webjay, for some feedback. But rather then give him any, Gonze posted a link up to the site on his experiment. Next thing you know, Hype Machine was live.
In an endless sea of MP3 tracks that cascade the web, Hype Machine offered a quiet alternative. It sourced tracks from over 600 music blogs and compiled them all into a single feed. Over time, this feed has shifted from an engine of pure automation to one of curation and consideration and community input to surface only the best tracks. If you look at the site today, you’ll see tracks organized into editorial buckets and arranged by various filters, but the formula remains the same. Find the best, unknown music on the web and make it easy to find.
Hype Machine gathered steam quick. By mid-2006, the site was getting 30,000 visitors a day. But in a true testament to its underground, counterculture roots is that Volodkin has never taken external funding or venture capital to run the site. For years, it was able to rely on advertising to cover operating costs, and a small staff of around three people to help run it. In an interview in Noisey in 2017, Volodkin summed up his attitude nicely:
Tech investments work best when a company is on its way to significant scale. For a music product, this means building an experience that attracts the largest possible number of people, which often rules out services that prioritize emerging/lesser known artists, as we do. Hype Machine is built to serve listeners actively looking for new music, which is not a venture capital-scale audience. Changing our focus to deliver growth would have been a disservice to our community.
Music blogs today aren’t what they used to be. Some, like Music (For Robots) have closed up shop. Others, like Pitchfork and Stereogum have steadily gravitated towards to the mainstream to accommodate a growing audience.
As for Hype Machine, they ran into a bit of financial trouble last year. Over the past few years, the values of ads have gone way down and advertising wasn’t enough to keep the site running. So they turned to their devoted and loyal audience of music lovers to crowdsource their funding, rather successfully I might add. These days, a few thousand people with small contributions keeps the lights on (you can support it to). Because music discovery may be a massive project, but it reveals itself in the most intimate of ways.