Since the Internet emerged in the mid 1990s as a kind of global digital library, millions of computer users around the world have been able to peruse an expanding collection of books, newspapers, magazines and other print materials online. But in recent years, as high-speed Internet connections have become more widely available, people have begun going on line to listen to radio stations, which stream their mix of music and talk over the Internet from every corner of the planet, for free.
The new medium of Internet radio has become a haven for independent, offbeat broadcasters. One webcasting operation, called "Groovetech," is helping to find a wider audience for the distinctive sounds of electronic dance music.
The atmosphere around Groovetech's Seattle studio is casual. In the corner of the converted garage, a glass refrigerator is stocked with cans of energy drink, just for the DJ's, says the sign overhead. Dressed in trendy bowling shoes and baggy pants, co-founder Brian Pember and marketing director Alex Hillinger look like college students.
It was during his college days in 1997 that Brian Pember came up with the idea for Groovetech as a hobby. He said, "It was a great way to put this music, that at the time was very hard to get access to outside of a rave or a club, in an accessible place - on the internet and to a global audience. As soon as we did it we had instant feedback from all over the world."
The e-mails came in from places like Warsaw, Sydney and Kuwait. "They were just really appreciative of having access to the music at the time it was really inaccessible," Mr. Pember continued. You pretty much have to be a DJ or be at a club at 3 o'clock in the morning. So it wasn't the kind of music you could just go into the store and buy."
One of Groovetech's appreciative longtime listeners is Canadian Paul Cramer. The 35-year old computer specialist and musician has listened from remote parts of the Yukon, and lives now in Whitehorse, Alaska. Mr. Cramer says Groovetech makes him feel connected to the progressive music he learned to like while growing up in Toronto. "Sometimes I'm just sitting down reading, sometimes I'm definitely dancing," he said. "I've got a couple of friends over and we're dancing to it. Other times it's just yeah background music to what I'm doing."
Electronic dance music is a tapestry of sampled beats and sounds. It includes trip hop, drum and bass, trance, and techno, all of which are recorded on vinyl records and mixed on turntables.
Up until recently, electronic dance music has been hard to find outside of nightclubs and websites like Groovetech. These days, though, it's becoming commonplace in commercial advertising.
Despite the minor commercial success, the tightly-knit electronic music community remains mostly underground. That prompted Groovetech to expand in another direction - retail music sales.
Alex Hillinger hopes they can capitalize on the elusive dance scene by becoming a global source for electronic music. "I think it was also a natural extension of doing Internet radio broadcasting is that people still want to own the music," he said. "They were going to buy it somewhere and we were definitely at a point where we needed to take this to a business level."
The plan has paid off. Last year, at the British online music awards, Groovetech beat out industry retail heavies like Amazon and HMV to win Best Retailer Online.
Louise Stevens of Britain's Music Week magazine says the key to Groovetech's strategy was persistent marketing. "They have a really loyal client base," she said, "[and] they did a really good job of motivating that client base to say how much they liked Groovetech. I think some of those giants like HMV and Amazon were less inclined to promote themselves in that short list and while their very efficient and very functional they have less of the 'it's my shop' kind of feeling that people like."
But accolades may not be enough to keep Groovetech alive. Like most businesses in the slowing American economy, the company is facing tough times. In an effort to cut costs, Groovetech recently shut down its San Francisco studio. And like most Internet ventures, once-enamored investors are demanding more for their money than just a good idea.