The rebirth of online music website Epitonic

March 7, 2011

Produced by Althea Legaspi

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(Getty/File)
Epitonic provides visitors with mp3s of new and old songs.

In the early dial-up internet days, dot-com money was abundant, and MP3 was a relatively new term. Back then the locally-based Website Epitonic was at the epicenter of cool, one of the first sites to offer free downloadable tracks.

The original site shuttered in 2004, but it re-launches Tuesday, and it enters a much changed online world – one crowded with sites offering music for download. For WBEZ, music contributor Althea Legaspi reports on Epitonic’s resurrection.

 

(The Promise Ring “Best Looking Boys”)
It’s hard to recall a time before Google or iTunes. But in 1999, the internet music search frontier was fairly untapped. So, Justin Sinkovich and two friends, with some dotcom financial backing, launched an MP3 site called Epitonic. They originally tried to sell tracks for 99 cents. But Sinkovich says commerce on the internet was still a risky concept for consumers.

Sinkovich recalls, "I remember someone saying, 'You know we should just give all these tracks away for free, and just see what happens.' And so we started talking about how it was really good promotion for the artists. And that was the moment we started to wrap our heads around the idea that you know carefully curating our favorite music, but then giving away a track or two from the album, was a really great model. We kind of laughed about it and said, “OK, we’re free now.' ”

(Pedro the Lion “Never Leave a Job Half Done”)
Sinkovich says it first took some convincing to get labels and artists to give away their tracks.

"And they’d say, 'Why would I want to do that? From what I’m hearing this mp3 technology is going to destroy my business', Sinkovich explains. "And I was lucky to have good relationships where I started with the people who might trust me a little bit. But I would just pace in my dining room, which was my makeshift office, and I’d try to talk them into 'Let’s just try these two tracks and see what happens.'

Sinkovich says it snowballed from there.

(Atombompocketknife “Like a Laser”)
And snowball it did. At Epitonic’s height they had half a million unique visitors monthly. But more importantly the site filled a need.
 
"Myself, my partner Aaron, and my partner Scott, were all from pretty small towns." Sinkovich notes. "Towns that did not have a cool record store…we adopted the term geographically challenged. So if you didn’t have a cool venue, a cool record store, that’s what Epitonic was supposed to be."

(Jawbox “68”)
They curated their content to their tastes, which comprised mostly indie artists, from then underground groups like Jawbox and At The Drive-In. And they garnered some added press for their championing of a then obscure subgenre.

Sinkovich remembers, "We’d have Wired or USA Today or Wall Street Journal, and they would say, ''This company’s really interesting, but for some reason they’re really obsessed with this strange unknown genre of math rock.' "

(Sonic Youth “100%”)
They also garnered early traffic with electronic music. Much of Epitonic’s content was indie labels and artists, but eventually, even reluctant major labels were hopping onboard. Sinkovich soon scored giveaway tracks and an interview with Sonic Youth. But despite the high traffic, WEBBY award, press and fan accolades, like many early dotcommers, Epitonic’s bubble burst. They were acquired in 2001, but by 2004 the original site lay dormant.

Sinkovich says that "over time we became that almost, like that band on that major label that’s really really cool that everyone likes, and you know that they’re losing money for that label. And over time that phone call came that said, 'Hey you guys, you know we love you, everybody loves you, but we gotta focus on things that are more sustainable.' ”

(The Wrens “As I’ve Known”)
Last year Sinkovich bought the rights back for Epitonic. But the Web’s a new game now. Current trends are moving away from downloading to internet “music cloud” services. This allows users to listen to anything, anywhere, on any device without the need to physically store it. Plus, downloading free music is far from unique these days. Still, Sinkovich sees the saturation as an advantage, where carefully crafted curation is a missing factor. The site will roll out in phases. Epitonic’s first phase consists of curated playlists that can be streamed and downloaded in one click.

Epitonic secured several exclusive songs for the premiere. Chicago’s Bloodiest offers one from their forthcoming album on Relapse.

Local indie hip-hop label Closed Sessions and blog Ruby Hornet provided a track by Esso and Scheme. There are also a couple international acts, including a dark and mesmerizing demo from Ireland’s Autumn Owls and the Scottish anti-folk of Withered Hand. The late Curtis Mayfield makes an appearance with their offering of an Impressions reissue.

(Starfucker “Born)
Sinkovich says Epitonic’s a work in progress. Their next phase they plan to add more complicated technology, with user interaction and user-generated-type content. But for now, Sinkovich hopes to gain fans through easy navigation.

Epitonic back in the day was the ultimate source for cutting edge music, easy as that. These days it’s kinda flipped where I don’t have to pace my living room to talk people into giving away music, that music is everywhere.
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