User-generated, socially based distributed databases of writing, music and video content proliferate and multiply exponentially. “Audience” and “musician” as discrete categories are blending into a new entity – the maker-user. The prosumer. The digital share economy participant. Whatever you call it, the old boundaries are falling.
The wounded record industry is looking around at its own smoldering ruins pathetically trying to put the free flowing wine into cracked obsolete bottles. Bands now freely give away music, knowing full well that it’s the brand of the band – the very idea of say, ‘Radiohead’ that is really important now, not simply the music itself on its own.
PR and advertising – database-driven commercial propaganda systems – have subsumed what was once a solid manufacturing model for music, its production and distribution. The Hollywood writers strike demonstrates how the internet is eating away at the movie & TV production process in a similar way. Those writers want a slice of the youTube/MySpace/Google/Facebook/iTunes pie too, and those that won’t get paid by the old-school production dinosaurs that have paid them up until now will probably start their own prosumer media entities.
Studio death is everywhere. The population is making its own media, and sharing it over commercial and non commercial channels hitherto unthinkable in scale and sweep. Broadband, wireless systems and a plethora of ways to connect to them have pulled the rug from under the old system. Legal frameworks like Creative Commons, and well-funded private archival systems like archive.org make the process of making and sharing music easy, and in a growing number of cases even profitable.
The “medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan once said, by which he meant, the medium you use is inseparable from the message sent using it. Emulators and plug-ins exist to digitally reproduce sounds once popular at other times. Those sounds evoke both those times and the cultural values which went with them.
Drum and Bass music could only have emerged in the mid 1990s when the PC hardware and the sequencing software to make it first became widespread. It gave rise to and was shaped by a cultural phenomenon. Electronica then was not just about music, but about the semi-anonymous circulation of music-as-evidence of a new distributed and global cultural underground movement based on drugs, computers, libertarianism and anti-authoritarianism.
1970s progressive rock is inseparable from the elitist idea of the musician as educated classical specialist. It was music for hippies and university educated baby boomers, who listened to it with the same reverence churchgoers have for hymns and prayers. ‘70s UK punk rock was a direct reaction to the ever-increasing decadence of prog-rock and the music industry in general and in particular the very idea that music was something which only certain special people could be allowed or skilled enough to actually do.
The early ‘90s US incarnation of punk rock (‘grunge’ as it was called by the mainstream) reflected a similar frustration with the limits of life and of the commercial nature of society in general. Punk’s fuck-you vocals and loud distortion guitar was all about absolute simplicity and the idea of DIY low-tech self-reliance as a complete philosophy of life. It was a revivalist movement about getting back to basics and casting aside all the frills and the bullshit. And it felt good to be a part of it.
Bay Area cafés at that time had sit-down terminals which for 25¢ per ten minutes allowed access to a text-only bulletin board system called SFNET. Instead of a videogame joystick on these terminals was a translucent rubber-covered QWERTY keyboard. The screen was a simple orange text-on-black type deal. Cafés united the creative population back then and computers were seen as ways to further that informal network.
In this pre-web period, just being able to real-time chat, email and connect with café users across the Bay Area on SFNET as an idea in and of itself was incredible, and later when a telnet service to the internet was added to let you check your internet email it was even better. SFNET actually began as a way of allowing musicians in the Bay Area to connect and share information about gigs, recordings, and other info.
The web made SFNET with its 2400 baud phone modem connections a quaint anachronism by 1996 when it was quickly discontinued, but that initial impetus which prompted its emergence – the need of musicians to exchange information and music – simply moved elsewhere.
From the early days of the Edison wax cylinder recording systems through to the hyper expensive tape and wire recorders of the 1930s, recording music up until the late 1970s for most people was a costly and cumbersome process, and distribution systems were hardly ever widespread or equitable. In Russia in the 1950s, music lovers made copies of their favorite cuts of super-rare US jazz and rock music by recycling x-rays from hospitals to make flexi-disk copies. In the USA, a budding artist could go into a booth, pay 25¢ and record a one-off 45 vinyl record. These booths were called the Mutoscope Voice-O-Graph and were for many people their first experience of recording sound of any kind.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the cassette culture underground offered an alternative to the dominance of the music giants, and an aesthetic of Xeroxed art and liner notes accompanied these cassette ‘zines and music compilations.
In the 80s any kind of multi-track recording system was extremely desirable but also prohibitively expensive. And studio time, even for demos on 8-tracks, was priced at hundreds of dollars per hour. Today the same results can be achieved on any PC made in the last ten years with a sound card. I’ve found some such PCs on street corners with ‘for free’ labels on them!
Mail art, popularized in the 60s and 70s by art groups like Fluxus (which had among its members performance artist Yoko Ono) offered another use for the postal service, turning into an extension of the gallery system. Music and writings circulated in boxes and envelopes, and no matter how unpretentious and simple the packaging, every Fluxus item now fetches fortunes in the art collecting circuit. Value adding you see, special markets for those in the know, and all that.
So those of gen-Xers now look back fondly on obsolete tech for making music as reminders of a time when the same machines and instruments were well outside the realm of access and all the more desirable for it. We are hacker hobbyist collectors, I suppose, but we are also media archeologists, sifting through another kind of ruined landscape, the one where youth and energy fused with machines to make music which we thought, as all young people do would change the world. Every thrift store and pawn shop is a museum of the present and of the last thirty years, and every pawned effects pedal, hocked synth or guitar and every $15 recording deck evidence of a time when the struggle was as much to obtain the gear as make the music.
I have thus bought four cassette four-track decks in the last two years, from thift stores and flea markets and yard sales. One tascam unit which would have cost a week’s pay in 1995 was sold to me for the price of a burrito and a coke. But I like to fire up the old cassette 4-track to record a song every now again. Because, you know, the medium is the message…