A Failed Startup and a Magical Guitar

Uvumi Logo

I recently came across this photo from late 2009 (below), right around the time I launched Uvumi.com. Easily my greatest business failure, Uvumi is a platform for musicians to share their work and connect with fans. At the time, we were gunning for something that was along the lines of what MySpace was up to in terms of music discovery and artist exposure but with better technology and a better user experience (we began building this thing in 2008, so don’t laugh too hard at the MySpace reference). While we pioneered a number of cutting edge technologies which were probably ahead of their time to some extent – “seamless” music streaming, allowing users to queue up and listen to music while they browse the site without any interruptions (we were literally the second-ever web service to release this feature); a fully ajaxified platform; ajax file uploads and in-browser photo cropping; a DIY press kit creation tool that outputs PDFs and ZIP media bundles; and a handful of other neat features – I failed to create a business model that would keep us growing after we ran out of cash.

Active development of Uvumi.com ceased near the end of 2010, but the site remains online today, paid for out of my own pocket because I can’t bring myself to shut it down. I patch the occasional bug here and there, but we haven’t built or released any new features or major fixes in the past four years. There is also a part of me that thinks the project could have a second life, given the right ideas, the right team, and of course some fresh capital. Shortly after our official launch, we saw an influx of users when the site went semi-viral among the indie music community. While Uvumi doesn’t currently see a lot of daily traffic, there are still thousands of artists and bands and over 14,000 songs hosted there, of which 90% I’d wager you have probably never heard. Many of those indie acts have become some of my favorite bands and musicians, purely through Uvumi. There’s some seriously good stuff there. To name a few: Grammar Club, Frantic Clam, Woodsboss, and so many more… here’s my list of “favorited” songs.

Photo of an Era

Uvumi.com startup office 2009

What Uvumi.com was to me: loads of DIY technology meshed with indie music

To me, this photo represents what Uvumi.com is all about. Pictured are two primary subjects: a rack full of servers and networking gear and a junky acoustic guitar.

The Tech

While we hosted the actual production website from a data center in California, backup services like slave DNS and secondary MX were hosted at our office. More importantly, though, the rack in this photo contained our development servers, file servers, and code repositories. The little stuffed penguin hanging out atop the cabinet reveals our use of linux, however much of the core internal infrastructure was running on FreeBSD. This server cabinet represented much of what I loved about running a scrappy and innocently ambitious tech startup. I found the cabinet itself on Craigslist, and every server inside was a DIY project of some sort. We were on a tight budget, so I had to piece together working systems from whatever I could afford. That said, it was indeed a complex and busy infrastructure, and back at the data center Uvumi ran on a cluster of roughly a dozen dedicated machines. Needless to say, I learned quite a bit about devops and production web clustering thanks to this project.

The Guitar

In the early 2000s I moved to Eureka, CA, a deceptively beautiful city on the coast of northern California where I landed after dropping out of college. I say “deceptively beautiful” because, while Eureka is a very pretty place – lush and green and surrounded by redwood forests – it has such a seedy underbelly of meth-fueled crime and, at the time, illicit residential pot growing, that I didn’t enjoy living there after a couple of years. But I had decided to go freelance with my tech skills, and Eureka was a place that was far enough away from where I grew up and where I had some friends attending the nearby university who convinced me to make the move. As a bonus Eureka’s primary industry was marijuana-related, which resulted in a lack of skilled IT professionals in the area. This made it pretty easy to make a solid living as the local tech expert servicing local businesses.

Marshall and his ten-dollar magic guitar

Taken sometime in the mid-2000s, me holding the ten-dollar “magic guitar” at my office in Eureka, CA

I have been playing guitar since about 1993, and while I did already have a decent guitar I had crammed into my car upon moving to California, I was on the lookout for something a little more scrappy that I could toss around and for which I would not need to worry about taking special care. One afternoon, I believe in 2002, I was walking through a rough part of town and was approached by a man who I had once met through an acquaintance named Prison Dave. As you might imagine, Prison Dave got his name after a number of stints in prison, probably for stupid offenses like driving without insurance and probation violations. He was, however, a really nice guy who paid me to help him do electrical work from which I gained a solid understanding of residential electrical wiring. He also taught me many things about fixing cars, though I have since learned that Prison Dave didn’t exactly do things “correctly”. He was more a results-driven kind of guy. In any case, the man who approached me was surely a meth addict, and he was carrying this guitar. While I assume he had stolen it – judging by the sparkly nail polish painted on the pick guard, by reaching through the open window of a teenage girl’s bedroom – I inquired about it. Probably something like “Soooo, why are you carrying that crappy guitar down the street?” He said he was looking to sell it. I told him I had $10 on me, and he instantly handed me the guitar. Ten dollars wasn’t exactly pocket change to me at the time, but the instrument had no signs of major damage and was interesting enough that I didn’t hesitate to pay what turned out to be the bargain price of a lifetime when it comes to random guitars bought from wandering drug addicts on the street.

Over the following weeks, months, and years, I played that guitar relentlessly. I played it hard. I played everything on it. I wrote countless songs with it. Some of my favorite shitty old recordings were made late at night in the detached garage of the house I was living in (so I wouldn’t wake my roommates), giving that guitar everything I had while heavy rain hammered the metal roof over my head. I played frequently with an old friend who had a superb voice and was quite good with a harmonica. We took it on road trips, once spending an entire day drinking beer and playing the streets of Portland, OR during a blues festival where we drew large crowds outside bars and near the festival grounds.

The guitar was magical. It didn’t have a great sound, and it has never traveled in a case the entire time I have owned it. I even had it repaired once after a careless friend sat on it, and the luthier I brought it to almost refused to repair such a low quality instrument (probably because I took it to Steve Helgeson, who builds utterly breathtaking instruments). But something about the action on the fretboard, the way I could make it sound nice and light or loud and nasty, and how it gradually broke in to my particular style of play… it seemed to channel a kind of raw musical energy from me I hadn’t experienced before. And so I eventually began referring to it as The Magic Guitar. I still played my other guitars, but not when it was time to consume many drinks and wail out some depression-driven bluesey jams with my harmonica-toting friend.

This whole concept of the ten-dollar magical guitar and the effect it had on my music during my early- and mid-twenties definitely played a role in the rise of the Uvumi.com project. The guitar brought forth such raw, emotionally-driven music from within, and that reminded me of envisioning (in the 1990s) a website devoted to amateur musicians like myself, hosting a massive online library of low-fi recordings and connecting like-minded artists. I had been recording my own crappy music since I was a teenager and in my early twenties spent much time recording music using cheap equipment and open source software. While you can hear some of my (admittedly embarrassing) old recordings on my Uvumi profile, I think my best recorded works were created with my old friend with the golden voice and a pocket full of harmonicas. We released a couple of demo songs under the name Going To Austin. In the end, it was fun that we did eventually move to Austin, specifically to launch Uvumi, even if it did fail as a business. The experience was priceless and there is no question that one can learn a LOT from failure. I certainly did.

Back to the photo real quick: it was shot at dusk in Uvumi’s office in Austin with the overhead lights turned off. No flash was used. Here are the details:

Equipment & Settings

  • Nikon D50
  • Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 (shot at 18mm)
  • Exposure 30s at f/3.5
  • ISO 400

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