Free your Ears… and Your Ass Will Follow*

– The rise and fall of a music dotcom in the 90s –

 

Atrecordings.com started in 1998 when I joined forces with a friend who had a vision: to build websites for bands and artists (from our neighborhood back in Brussels), and to create an online platform to promote them, tell their story and showcase their music. For free. He had observed that many, especially un-signed artists, didn’t have much of a chance to get an online presence. With the arrival of a third start-up member, an actual business plan was put in place to attract possible investors. The initial plan was uniquely targeted to a ‘niche’ audience of music lovers. The people who like to listen to or search for rare and obscure music from small independent record labels worldwide. Eagerly we literally worked from any location that could provide an Internet connection until we found a small office above a restaurant on the Rue Royale. The dotcom evolved quickly into a music platform for independent artists and labels with as main goal to provide all musical tracks in streaming audio (full Real Audio tracks and albums – not just samples) and to offer downloadable MP3 files of a collection of tracks. MP3.com started earlier that year offering MP3 files mostly of commercial mainstream music, however a lot of the alternative or less commercial music stock was basically not available online.

This was 1998, a time most people were still buying CDs because MP3 files were shrouded in a veil of piracy and distrust. A lot of people thought MP3’s would never catch on. The distribution was impossible to control or track and it would be the end of the music business tout court. The way we listened to music in those days was very different. It was a time of collecting CDs, very similar to how it was all about collecting vinyl a decade before the arrival of the CD. You would have a rack of CDs somewhere in your home exhibiting your acquired collection and music taste to random visitors. It was a very physical thing. Computers had CD-players built in that were used a lot to play music but also to convert CD’s into MP3 files so you could listen to the music without constantly having to swap the CD for a new one. This was also the time when there weren’t a lot of decent MP3 players on the market (if any). The Diamond Rio PMP300 was finally released in 1998 and could hold 8 to 10 hours of play time.

You would have a rack of CDs somewhere in your home that exhibited your music collection to visitors.

Not long after the business plan was released, an initial funding of 1 million US was secured with a follow up of another million during the next year. The dotcom company suddenly became a reality but the user/client base grew at a very slow pace as it was extremely difficult to achieve that critical mass we needed within the artists, bands and labels portfolio. Often labels and artists (as well as the Belgian royalties organization SABAM) needed a lot of convincing that MP3’s were not going to finish off their already threatened businesses, but instead could be controlled and that it was very well possible to keep track of and report all sales made online. Apart from legal issues, there were also tremendous technological and marketing challenges and the absence or unawareness of a ‘lean’ start-up concept made it very difficult to operate with a profit.

When finally the Nasdaq collapsed in the Summer of 2001 the whole dotcom bubble burst overnight, with only a few players surviving the recession. Apple iTunes 1.0 was released in January 2001. They couldn’t have chosen a better time as they moved on with their amazing (and ultra lean) combination of entertainment software & hardware without much barriers to enter the market – Porter’s competitive forces were swiped clean if you will.

For a couple of years Atrecordings.com was an internet music site (Brussels, Belgium 1998-2001) where you could explore, buy, read about and listen to a wealth of great music by some of the finest artists from all over the world. The music you could find covered many styles, ranging from obscure electronic works by Fennesz, Hazard and Scanner, to North African folk music, to cutting-edge Electronica by Amon Tobin, Coldcut and The Herbaliser, to baroque classics by Bach, Haydn and Telemann. All the music on this site was available with informative texts and full-length RealAudio, so you could discover more about an artist before buying your MP3, CD, Vinyl, or Custom CD-R.

Off course ‘flat’ design didn’t exist yet. Even Google didn’t exist. It was all about cramming as much information as possible into a screen the size of a banner ad.

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References:

  1. Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow is the second studio album by American funk band Funkadelic, released in July 1970 by Westbound Records.
  2. https://www.discogs.com/label/31140-atrecordingscom