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Revolutionizing Digital Music

Rod Underhill

1975 BA in Philosophy


Though Rod Underhill graduated from Northern Arizona University in 1975 with a degree in philosophy, he has accomplished more than most philosophers ever dream of. As a co-founder of mp3.com, Underhill helped ignite the digital music revolution that changed the music-buying business model forever. Building on his success, Underhill became a best-selling author, co-writing 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 destroy the traditional music-buying model. 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?"

So 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 help facilitate online matchmaking. This technique, he says, would be ideal for increasing music purchases on social networking sites.

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 content. 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 3 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 wide 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 a variety of people 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 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."

Going forward, Underhill remains committed to saving the industries that the digital revolution has begun to render irrelevant. 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 classroom.

"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."