If downloadable music is rapidly turning CDs into the ’90s equivalent of ’70s eight-track cassettes, Justin Frankel is the man-child to thank. The 20-year-old University of Utah dropout is the creator of Winamp (http://www.winamp.com), the most popular software player for listening to the near-CD-quality digital-music files known as MP3s. He’s also the newest Internet multimillionaire: In June, America Online bought Frankel’s company, Nullsoft, along with the Internet music service Spinner.com, for $400 million.
But Nullsoft’s dorm-room origins belie the company’s new cachet. It started in 1996, when Frankel downloaded the Butthole Surfers song ”Pepper” in a then-unknown format called MP3. As a learning exercise, he created a piece of software called Winamp to play the song, and a year later he started giving it away on the Web as shareware — asking users to send in a $10-$20 registration fee in exchange for using the program. Although few people who use shareware send in any money, Winamp’s popularity — it has been downloaded at least 15 million times since 1997 — amounted to unusually high profits for an Internet start-up such as Nullsoft, which is run out of the Frankel family home in Sedona, Ariz. Winamp has even inspired cottage industries: There are a dozen sites devoted to ”skins” that users download to make the player window look like a pencil drawing or a futuristic space stereo.
Winamp’s success soon caught the music industry’s attention — especially when artists like Chuck D and Tom Petty began releasing new songs in the MP3 format, irking their record labels in the process. The recording industry has been ”pretty blind” to MP3, says Frankel. ”It seems like they’re just scared s—less.” Such bravado made Frankel seem the epitome of the slacker Internet revolutionary until he teamed up with Steve Case’s 800-pound online gorilla. In Nullsoft’s message forum, one user made his opinion of the buyout plain: ”AOL merger is hell for everybody!” Even Fortune magazine regretfully scrubbed Nullsoft from its list of ”cool companies” because it was no longer independent.
But Frankel’s eyes — and ears — are on the future. Working with AOL dramatically increases the audience for Winamp and MP3s, he says. And it gives Frankel, whose new post at Nullsoft has yet to be determined as it moves to San Francisco, more time to zip around in his Audi S4. No eight-tracks here: Frankel’s car stereo plays MP3s.