Justin Sinkovitch Credit: Colleen Durkin

In early 1999, Apple was still four years from launching the iTunes store. But Chicago musician Justin Sinkovich and his partners, programmers Aaron Newton and Scott Bilby, were already envisioning an online record shop based around the MP3 format, with a well-curated selection of indie-leaning music—sort of like a digital Reckless. They’d even lined up a venture capitalist, Nat Goldhaber, a pioneer of cross-platform file sharing who’d founded an Internet marketing and payment system called Cybergold, which allowed advertisers to reward consumer attention with coupons for goods and services. But they were far from the only ones thinking along those lines. “These sharks were starting to come around,” Sinkovich recalls. “People were starting to utilize MP3, so we were like, ‘We gotta do something cool. Now.’ I remember us laughing and just being like, ‘Let’s just make everything free.'”

What started off as a joke turned out to be a stroke of genius. When their venture, christened Epitonic, launched later that year, it wasn’t as the retail operation powered by Cybergold that they’d originally conceived. Instead, their “music exploration service” provided free, legal MP3 downloads from independent labels along with reviews that were better written than those in the average fanzine; income came from ads on the site and affiliate programs with music retailers.

It was a blazingly original idea. At first labels were “very skeptical,” Sinkovich says. “They said, ‘Why should I give you my music for free?’ It was inherently driven in an indie direction because the majors wanted nothing to do with us for the most part. Every once in a while we’d get like, ‘OK, we’ll give you this Buckcherry MP3’.”

Independent labels were quicker to come around to the concept, and the site exploded in popularity with a music-savvy demographic, peaking in 2000 at 500,000 unique visitors a month (RCRD LBL currently claims 400,000 unique visitors a month; Pitchfork says it gets 2 million). Goldhaber had come through with his investment a few months after the launch, and at the end of 1999 CNet, then in the process of building its digital media empire, also invested. Even though nobody was making any money off it, Epitonic was a hot-shit property; Sinkovich says a number of companies expressed interest in buying it outright. “I could have walked away from it very well off. But that’s not why we did this. We’d have to work for somebody else.”

The concept behind Epitonic is familiar now—sites like Pitchfork and RCRD LBL offer a similar blend of editorial content and free samples, with most revenues coming from ad sales . But Epitonic couldn’t turn a profit. Sinkovich and his partners sold to Palm Pictures at the beginning of 2001 (Sinkovich declined to say for how much); the company was looking to round out a multimedia portfolio that included the record label Rykodisc, the video streaming site Sputnik 7, and the company’s titular film business. Sinkovich says the fact that Palm was owned by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell—a famously antiestablishment player in the music business—made the deal more appealing than previous offers. Sinkovich, Newton, and Bilby all went to work for Palm in its Chicago office.

The new owners restructured Epitonic’s spending, cutting staff and moving those who remained to less expensive offices, Sinkovich says, but “it was still not a moneymaking thing. They decided to move on. That’s when I moved on.” He left in 2003 to cofound BetterPropaganda, a website similar to Epitonic that offers free streaming and downloading of MP3s as well as editorial content, with California-based entrepreneur Ken Manning. After about a year there, he took a job at Touch and Go Records as new media manager, ending his association with the site. Around the same time, Epitonic, which Palm had kept running since Sinkovich’s departure, went dormant.

It’s hard to remember now, but before the proliferation of free music on the Web the only reliable way to actually hear the obscure underground band whose name was going around at the time was to go buy their record. Napster already existed, but rarer music could be tough to find there, and it often wasn’t there legally. Epitonic not only let you check out Xiu Xiu or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Oneida risk free, but you got to keep the song. Fans haven’t forgotten their loyalty toward the site that hooked them up with so much free music, so when Sinkovich announced last Monday that Epitonic was relaunching, the Internet indie neighborhoods lit up. Sinkovich has rehosted Epitonic’s final front page on its new servers, and it shows the project’s prescience: one of the highlighted releases is the first, self-released TV on the Radio album.

This development started with Blackwell. This spring he gave the rights to Epitonic to Karsten Becker, a friend of his who was interested in relaunching the site. Becker asked Sinkovich to head up the project, and sold him a majority ownership of the property, which at that point consisted of little more than its name and reputation. Sinkovich, who also runs the File 13 record label, plays in the band Poison Arrows, and is a lecturer at Columbia College in its Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management program, had intended to take a rare break this summer. He ended up working on the relaunch instead.

Sinkovich says of the original Epitonic, “Its technology at this point isn’t groundbreaking at all. The concept isn’t groundbreaking at all.” What it does have going for it is most of the people who originally made it what it was. The major architects of the original site are all on board for the relaunch. “These people have kids,” Sinkovich says. “They have mortgages and rents.” But for the time being they’re working for free, banking their hours for a possible paycheck in the future.

Their main challenge is making Epitonic relevant. “All those concepts were really cool back then,” says Sinkovich, “but now it’s like, ‘Of course.’ You have a place like Pitchfork that has amazing editorial and has media embedded in the site. We’ve been looking at how we can make it different. I don’t want to run a company that’s not interesting. I want to make it challenging and exciting.” He’s been collecting ideas from returning team members as well as industry friends—including some at Pitchfork and RCRD LBL—and workshopping new concepts with his Columbia students. (Sinkovich is planning some collaborations between Epitonic and Columbia’s AEMM program, which already includes a fully functioning record label.)

“We’ve come up with a laundry list,” says Sinkovich. “We’re going to have a phase-one launch of the real site coming up here. There are going to be some new features.” While he’s reluctant to talk about the new stuff in detail, he promises a combination of top-down editorial recommendations (a la the original Epitonic) and user-guided exploration that sounds similar in concept to what Pandora offers—but he promises that it won’t be exactly like either. “I don’t want to directly compete with anybody,” he says. The site is intended to launch in a fairly rudimentary state, but Sinkovich pledges there will be “very extravagant” features rolled out as time and funding allow. There’s no date set yet for the relaunch, but he’s aiming for the end of the year.

Sinkovich is confident the new venture could attract big investors, but he’s not eager to go down that path again. “Look what happened last time,” he says with a laugh. For now Epitonic’s main source of funding is donations made through Kickstarter. Backers can give any amount over a dollar, and there are several levels of perks for larger sums, topping out with a yearlong (unpaid) gig as an editor on the site for a $1,000 donation. In its first 24 hours the Epitonic Kickstarter account brought in $1,390 of its $4,650 goal, though it’s slowed considerably since (at press time it was up to $1,695, from 28 backers).

Sinkovich is aware of the difficulties affecting every corner of the music industry and acknowledges that the brand may have missed the prime years of the MP3 site concept. This time he plans to make money not only through traditional methods like ads but also other revenue streams, which he wouldn’t elaborate on. He does note that on the upside, the market for indie rock has exploded since Epitonic’s heyday, and iPods and smartphones have put MP3 players in the pockets of a massive number of people. When the original site launched, the first iPod was still two years off.

“As part of my role at Epitonic I got a Diamond Rio MP3 player,” Sinkovich recalls. “I think it held like 60 meg. I still have it. Maybe it’ll be worth money someday.”