Wider Screen: Authenticity in Chipmusic

Yesterday I wrote about the new scene issue in Wider Screen, where several noteworthy scholars write on chipmusic, demoscene and warez culture. Today I return to that, to discuss the ethnographic study of authenticity in the chipscene. Chipmusic, Fakebit and the Discourse of Authenticity in the Chipscene was written by Marilou Polymeropoulou who I’ve met a few times around Europe when she’s been doing field studies for her dissertation. Her article is refreshing because it deals with technology in a non-technological way, so to say. It takes a critical look at the ideologies of chipmusic (which I also tried to do in my master’s thesis) and she doesn’t get caught up in boring discussions about what chipmusic actually is (which, uhm, I have done a lot).

Polymeropoulou divides the chipscene into three generations. The first generation is described as a demoscene-inspired strive for being an original elite, by challening the limitations of original 8-bit hardware from the 1980’s. As I understand, this generation is everything that happened before the internet went mainstream. The second generation is internet-based and focused on mobility (read Gameboy), learning by copying and making more mainstream-ish chipmusic. The third generation is characterized as “chipsters” that are more interested in sounds and timbres rather than methods and technologies.

The first generation of chipmusicians would be a very diverse bunch of people, activities and machines. Perhaps even more diverse than the chipscene is now. Back then there were not as many established norms to relate to. I mean, we hardly knew what computers or computer music was. The terms chipmusic or chiptune didn’t exist, and I doubt that it was relevant to talk about 8-bit music as a general concept. It was computer music, game music, SID-music, Nintendo-music, etcetera. People were using these 8-bit home computers to make music for school, for games, for art, for their garage band, for themselves, for Compunet, for bulletin boards, the demoscen, for crack-intros, etcetera. However, looking back through the eyes of “chipscene 2014” it makes sense to zoom in on only the demoscene during this period, as it is normally considered as one of the most important precursors.

Chip Music Festival, 1990

In the demoscene there were many people who ripped songs to copy the samples, look at their tracker tricks, or just use the song for their own demo. Copying was common, but it wasn’t exactly elite to do it. There was certainly a romantic ideology of originality at work. But I’m not so sure about ascribing a technological purism to the demoscene of that time. Sure, people loved their machines. But most sceners eventually moved on to new platforms (see Reunanen & Silvast). So I’m not sure that this generation would be the anti-thesis to fakebit. In fact, when the chipmusic term first appeared around 1990 it refered to sample-based Amiga-music that mimicked the timbres of the PSG-soundchips and the aesthetics of game music.

So, in a sense, the Amiga/PC chip-generation of the 1990’s (when the 8-bit demoscenes were very small) was actually not so far from what is called fakebit today. And that’s obviously why this big and important momentum with tens of thousands of open source chip-modules is so often ignored in histories of chipmusic. It just doesn’t fit in. (It’s also worth noting here that many if not most 8-bit demoscene people today use emulators such as VICE or UAE to make music, and use the original hardware more like a media player.)

My theory is that the hardware-fetish of the chipscene is a more recent phenomenon, established sometimes in the mid 2000’s, and I think that Malcolm McLaren’s PR-spree had something to do with it, regardless of the scene’s reaction. If you listen to the early releases at micromusic.net and 8bitpeoples today, you could call it fakebit if you wanted to. Just like with the Amiga-chip music of the 1990’s. So it seems to me that this generation didn’t build much on what had been done in the demoscene, other than perhaps using tools developed there. Games, on the other hand, were a popular reference. So to me, the post-2000 generation of chipmusicians feels more like a rupture than a continuation from the previous generation (something like hobbyism->crackerscene->demoscene->trackerscene->netlabels).

At this time I was still a purist demoscene snob, and I thought that this new kind of bleepy music was low quality party/arty stuff. Still, I decided to gradually engage in it and I don’t regret it. But I was one of very few demosceners who did that. Because this was, in short, something very different from the previous chipmusic that was characterized by lots of techné and home consumption. Micromusic was more for the lulz and not so serious, which was quite refreshing not only compared to the demoscene but compared to electronic music in general (you know, IDM and drum n’ bass and techno = BE SERIOUS).

It’s funny, but when Polymeropoulou describes the third generation of the chipscene (the chipsters) it actually reminds me a bit of the early demoscene people, perhaps even during the 1980’s.

Chipsters compose chipmusic – and of course, fakebit – on a variety of platforms, including modern computers, applying different criteria, based on popular music aesthetics rather than materialist approaches. [..] Chipsters find creative ways combining avant-garde and subcultural elements in order to break through to mainstream audiences, a practice which is criticised by purists.

In the 1980’s they used modern computers to try to make something that sounded like the “real” music in the mainstream. They borrowed extensively from contemporaries such as Iron Maiden, Laserdance and Madonna and tried to make acid house, new beat, synth pop, etc. There was definitely some freaky stuff being made (“art”), and something like comedy shows (Budbrain) and music videos (State of the Art) and later on so called design demos (Melon Dezign) and those demos appealed to people who were not sceners. And the megamixes! Here’s one from 1990:

Okay… how did we end up here? Oh yeah — my point is, I suppose, that the demoscene is not as purist as people think, and never was. Atleast that’s my impression of it. But even if I disagree with the generational categorization of Polymeropoulou’s text, I consider this article as an important contribution to the field of techno-subcultures. Also, I am even quoted a few times both as a researcher and as an anonymous informant. Maybe you can guess which quotes are mine, hehe.

5 Responses to “Wider Screen: Authenticity in Chipmusic”

  1. Peter Swimm Says:

    I think the real vs fake thing really did come from the 8bc.org youth movement around 2008, because only teens really care about authenticity as a shortcut to respectability. Almost all the 2nd wave chimusicans I know ether accepted the idea of combing chip and nonchip sounds to make music, and the argument or fretting over whether the songs they where making where “real” as opposed to simply being good didnt come until the third wave.

    Its the same attitude I found as a teen in hardcore punk, metal, and indie scenes growing up, and represents a kinda of insiders shorthand that often overwhelms conversations of whether or not the music is actually good. “Hey this song is terrible, but I only have three channels, so a for effort right?”.

    You could even say that it was in reaction to mainstream coverage, I remember doing a few interviews with media outlets post wired interview who where firmly in the ARCHAIC NOSTALGIA TRANSGRESSIVE agenda mode when talking about my friends and I music. They didnt seem very interested when I said i was just as happy with the sound of a casio through a Marshall stack, or muting a NES and playing a DEICIDE CD as a teen while gaming.

    By choosing the name fakebit as a pre-defensive reaction to kids who probably couldnt find, or afford access to hardware, and instead relied heavily on cracks and freeware vsts (which is in a super demoscene spirit if you think about it) on their family pc, these kids used the pejorative of fake as a badge of honor, much the same way punk is an insult termed tribe designation. Its always a real dumb argument to have, to the point that most of the people left on forums making it rarely seem to be making a lot of music.

    • goto80 Says:

      I’m a bit frustrated that I don’t remember more from those 2005-2010 years. After the peak of the chipscene in Europe, it really took off in USA and it seemed to be even more focused on the Gameboy. Maybe you’re right that it was around 2008, but it sounds so late to me somehow. I do remember though, that this particular chip-dude was complaining about the American tech-focus, and that TCTD was like an insult to him since he didn’t use 8-bit hardware. That was fun!

      Anyway: I do believe that McLaren and the media attention, like you say, helped to form a sense of community in the scene. (Actually, I wrote about it almost exactly 4 years ago: https://chipflip.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/malcolm-mclaren-made-us) But I had never thought about that fakebit was a way to reclaim the right to use family hardware instead of hipster hardware (hehe). Great point.

      Hm, if I combine your idea that only teenagers take the authencitiy-shortcut, with my idea that the chipscene started off rather disconnected with the previous (demo)scene, then the chipscene were sort of pioneeroidz and the next wave were kids who took the idea of authenticity more serious than the pioneeroidz, therefore reinforcing the myth about an 8-bit authenticity in the demoscene in the 1990s, which wasn’t all that authentic to begin with. Hmmm.

      Revelation or Bullshit? I’m going to sleep…

  2. Peter Swimm Says:

    I’m pretty sure it was directly after blip 2007 with the 8bc table then that forum really exploded so early 2008 feels right. TCTD was a tongue in cheek swipe at fakebitters in name only.. but we covered everything cool equally. I regret a little taking such a provocative stance from timeheaters classic sticker, but it sure lead to a great KeFF logo.

    • Peter Swimm Says:

      But I think you are right about the fake notion that fakebits are pariahs. I mean some of the most covered labels on tctd, like ubiktune and pause were mostly fakebit releases.

  3. lvdata Says:

    For a live radio station try https://www.scenemusic.net/demovibes/

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