Essays on Technology and Culture

Old Music, New Media

I recently attended a show with bands whose sound would not be out of place in 1978, though it’s likely none of the band members were even around for that. I certainly wasn’t there, being born in 1983. How is that people like us, born too late to see bands like Joy Division or Bauhaus in their prime can go find acts and hear albums in 2013 that sound like they could have rehearsed right next door? The Internet, and the growing digital archives of music stored on remote servers by amateur archivists, and shared with fans, old and new, the world over.

Some have bemoaned this as culture simply recycling itself at the expense of creating something new. Others bemoan the death of what we assumed to be monoculture. I see it as a way for culture that didn’t get its due the first time around, or culture that was forgotten too soon, to have another moment in the sun with an appreciative audience. This is not a zero-sum game. We can (re)discover the fruits of our cultural past without giving up the future. The more culture we have to pull from, the more possibilities open up for recombination and experimentation. That is the path towards the creation of something truly new.

Something that often gets overlooked in the discussions of music piracy on the Internet is this: The Internet has become a way for older, little-known and little heard music, to find a new audience. While RIAA executives tut-tut about One Direction’s latest album being leaked on The Pirate Bay, little known blogs and even lesser known curators track down long out of print records, cassettes, and (rarely) CDs by artists and bands outright unknown to most of the world. Without them, we might never know this music existed.

The recording industry doesn’t care about these blogs, or the people discovering their music, and I mean that in the literal sense. It’s not even on their radar. Much of the music these blogs curate and share are by acts long defunct at best, and often independently released. If they are on a label, either the label itself is defunct, or its “intellectual property” owned by a major label through acquisition upon acquisition upon acquisition, to the point where that label probably doesn’t even know for sure what they have the rights to. In all of these cases, the music is out of print, making it unlikely the artist will ever see any more money for it, if they can even be tracked down in the first place.

This is stuff that might fall through the cracks, were it not for the concerted efforts of the folks behind Mutant Sounds. Their efforts give the old music new life, and it extends far beyond the web. What was once the risky province of curious record collectors digging through bins of dusty, musty vinyl now becomes a free-for-all of discovery and re-discovery. [1] The Internet is the world’s greatest used record store, bar none.

  1. And yes, the people who put these songs up do so for free, denying the artists payment. It’s an unfortunate side-effect. Famous used record store, Amoeba Music, recently started selling MP3s of out of print records in their collection, giving a cut to the artists, and estates of artists they’ve located, and putting profits in escrow for the rest.  ↩