Digital Music Revolutionary
Rod Underhill graduated from Northern Arizona University
in 1975 with a degree in philosophy, and his accomplishments exemplify the
value of a liberal arts education. As co-founder of MP3.com,
Underhill helped ignite the digital music revolution that changed the music
business. Building on his success, Underhill became a best-selling author as
co-writer of The Complete Idiot's Guide to MP3.
Now, however, Underhill has moved on to a new
quest—to save the music industry. The reason, says Underhill, is simple; when
he helped unleash the most popular digital music format in the world, he also
helped undermine traditional methods of buying music, such as in record stores
or other retail outlets.. And that doesn't sit well with him.
"I feel bad that, in a way, I used my skills to
create a Frankenstein," says Underhill. "I'm not the sole person who
created the MP3 craze, but I think MP3.com was the catalyst for the digital
downloading revolution. I've been laboring for several years to figure out what
I can do to help record companies. I'm an inventor of technologies: what
technological solutions can I create to stop people from downloading music?
When I finally figured out that there are no technological solutions, I
thought, what's the next best thing? How can I increase revenues for the music
industry without affecting someone's ability to download free music?"
As a result, he's using innovative technologies to try
and create new revenue streams for the music industry. In 2008, he received a
Webby Award—the digital equivalent of an Oscar—for a paid podcasting technology
he invented. Most recently, he has patented a unique methodology that analyzes
users' music collections to facilitate online dating. This technique, he says,
would be ideal for increasing music purchases on social networking sites.
Beyond the music
Underhill is also thinking bigger than just the music
industry—as high-speed Internet access becomes more and more ubiquitous,
download speeds will increase for all forms of media. His technology, says Underhill, could
also one day be used by the film industry.
"In 1998, when we started MP3.com, it took 45
minutes to download a song. Now, with cable, it takes you seconds," he
says. "Once [high-speed bandwidth] is established across the nation,
people will be able to download a motion picture in three minutes, and then the
motion picture industry will be in a similar situation as the music industry.
This technology I've created also applies to motion pictures."
Even though Underhill's recent work has mostly been
related to technological innovation, he has played a number of roles throughout
his career. Before he co-founded MP3.com, he earned his law degree and was a
practicing attorney. Once MP3.com took off, Underhill found himself in charge of
people from across a wide spectrum of disciplines, including engineers,
lawyers, marketers, and musicians. His ability to successfully manage his many
roles, he says, was directly linked to the strong liberal arts foundation he
received during his undergraduate career.
The value of
"The education that I got at NAU helped guide my
work in fields in which I wasn't normally trained," he says. "The
philosophy of liberal arts is to have a global education. However, you can't learn
everything in four years, so basically the university gave me a taste of a
variety of disciplines, and trained me to be open to additional disciplines.
That's what has led to my success."
Underhill remains committed to saving the industries unsettled
by the digital revolution. As he does so, Underhill says he will continue to be
guided by some of the lessons he took away from his time in the university
"To be a successful person, you need to
understand that there are things you don't know, and then you need to
understand how to find those answers," he says. "The first step is
knowing when you have to reach out of your discipline, and the second step is
to never let your education stop. You have to broaden your horizons to be able
to be a successful person."