Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Working Class of Computer Art?

February 6, 2012

I recently talked to a demoscene musician who had just started studying electronic composition at university. He liked it, but felt out of place there. All of them knew sheet music, had parents who liked “high culture” and they actually liked Stockhausen and Cage.  When teachers or students ask him about his past, he no longer talks about the demoscene. It’s just not worth the effort to explain it every time you talk to someone, because they probably won’t care anyway. In music universities anyway.

Elsewhere, like in advertising and programming, demoscene skills can get you a job. Some companies have even grown out of demoscene groups: Dice from the Silents, TAT from Yodel and haxx from Horizon. In the pirate biz there’s also a few sceners like Peter Sunde at Pirate Bay and the Megaupload-guy. But in the arts? Goodiepal springs to mind, but… yeah.

It’s a bit funny. I’ve argued before that demos are works of craft, not art. Demos are made for showing off and winning a compo. It’s about going to parties and not giving a fuck, screaming at dancing PETSCII-characters from 1992. It’s like rock before art/theory defined and confined it?

Is the demoscene the opposite to art? Well, many important things of software art (interactivity, generative systems, process) are almost completely missing in the demoscene. These things are going mainstream too, but still hasn’t really reached the demoscene. What artists and sceners share though, is the desire to do the impossible. There is an obsession with transgression in the new media art world too (going beyond the ‘system’), but the demoscene is so much ahead of everybody else that nobody gets it. Hehe.

I think that the scene is interesting to art people too. Interesting. But not relevant. Perhaps it sounds unbelievable to them that there’s been a network of A/V hobby hackers since the 1980’s. Maybe they feel stupid for not knowing about it. Or it’s more simple than that. They think that demos are boring crap. I’m bound to agree, especially from an art perspective. Although some things are definitely works of art (Deep Throat, Notemaker Demo, Rambo – A Chronicle of, Robotic Liberation, etc), that’s not the point with the demoscene. (besides, art is pretty boring too)

What is the point? Well, I really like the freedom of the copy party. Think of it as a hackerspace disco with lots of man-beer and old music. There’s no money and no bullshit. You don’t have to network with the right people and explain your work on their terms. It’s an odd soup of CEOs, graffiti writers, headmasters, schizophrenics and academics that is hard to find elsewhere. Some people are just quiet and make music, others are fixing some hardware while the Finnish BBS-d00d is puking in the closet. Then they all crash on the floor, covered in data noise. It’s like being 16 again all over, except for the SD-cards.

The demoscene is underground because it doesn’t fit anywhere else. Even if many sceners have high education, income, cultural capital, etc – the things that they produce don’t have the same status. Demos are more like folk culture, than “high culture” (which Dragan would say too, I guess). But compared to other folky computer things – GIF-animations, general midi music, ASCII, silly javascript effects – the demoscene never became part of the repertoire of post-ironic-retro-dirt-style clip-art ding dong net.art.

There are exceptions like Low-Level All-Stars. But the demoscene is tricky to use in the art world. When Rhizome (the sort of #1 digital art place) had a demoscene week, they had to invite others (like me) to write, which I think is rather telling.

The demoscene is the eternal underdog of computer art. It does a lot of low-level work (manual labour in computer land) but the skills to do this are not valued higher up in the hierarchy (e.g among the institutions that provide the $). Of course it can give credibility in some situations, but if you want to be an artist the demoscene is essentially a waste of time. Skills like tracking, pixelling and assembly coding are useful for many things, but they don’t give you any extra credit in the art world.

If this is true (it’s a bit speculative), there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course it’s frustrating that the demoscene talents get so little attention, but that’s the way it is. Eventhough other people should care, we’re quite happy with being left alone too. Then we can keep on voting for fart jokes and petscii porn without worrying what all you lamerz think. See you at Datastorm this weekend! DATAAAAA!

Musicians Are Spammers

February 1, 2012

I recently read an article about about how to choose between Soundcloud and Mixcloud. The author chose Soundcloud, and the final argument was: the music gets more plays.

It’s a common opinon but it’s pretty lame, isn’t it? Is the amount of plays really the most important thing? When I quit Myspace in 2007, some artists said “I would like to follow you, but it’s just not possible for me in my position”. Despite the epic crapness of Myspace, artists used it because … well, everybody else did! And now they’re using something else, for pretty much the same reason I suppose.

But Myspace wasn’t replaced by one, but several sites. A real musician today should be on iTunes, Soundcloud, Spotify and Bandcamp. Atleast. Because a sensible musician has to be easily available: quick access in as many places as possible simultaneously. If you’re not making yourself available, you’re either stubborn, stupid or lazy.

But content is everywhere these days. It’s like running water, except that it’s not necessary for survival. If it’s good we don’t really care so much, and if it’s bad we look for something else. It’s pretty much expendable. Right?

Modern distributors (such as iTunes) make money from ‘indie artists’ because they feel like they have to be there. And why? Because we are egocentrics who search for recognition and dream about fame, or money, or recognition, or something else. But if you look at it statistically, it’s not going to happen. Ever. It helps for promotion, you might say? Probably not, I’d say. Why would it? You don’t get promotion by “being on www”, do you?

A sensible solution is: use your own distribution channels and work on your communication skills. Inform the right people about your work, at the right time/place/blabla. Do quality work but remember that form is often more relevant than content, unfortunately. Don’t get bitter, just realise that all the smart kids think in terms of PR – intentionally or not – and so should you if you want to “succeed”.

The hardcore solution is: anonymous music distribution. Do you really need personal recognition for what you do? Maybe not? Put your music on 5TFU and feel the freedom of anonymity. Use silly aliases and troll your way through life. Fuck money and fame, just do it for the lulz. Have fun. Piss on social media and burn the flag.

A good example of  ‘troll distribution’ is to hide the music within videos. I found that a f ew years ago. The artist had interlaced an mpeg-video and an mp3 audio file. If you played it in VLC you’d see the video (with gaps every know and then) and if you played it in Winamp you’d get the music (with gaps). The music was some kind of beepy funk electronica.

It sounded great when I first heard it. Almost magically cool. Secret music! I still don’t know who did it. And you won’t know it if you find it either, I hope. What made it even better though, was that the video was an episode from Beverly Hills 90210. Original version, yo. Season 3, I think.

Yeah, I watch 90210. Hmm. Well, atleast I’m not using Spotify! :D

 

A New Hi to the High

September 2, 2011

There’s an interesting article in Vague Terrain about low-bit audio: A New High in Low: Adventures in Low Bitrate Audio. It’s a pretty good read, because it mentions 20kbpsDex and the City and Floppyswop which I released music on several years ago. :) Just have a few comments to make quickly before I go for some food.

It starts by talking about zombie media, and how benders salvage electronics that other people throw away, even if it usually still works. So anti-consumerism is the starting point. The article writes about low bit-rate music as a new approach that comes with a visual aesthetics that the author describes as infantile (hi Kodek and Overthruster!), but also fills an important function for poorer parts of the world. “More interestingly, though, is that no clever scripting, hacking, bending, or esoteric software was required to kickstart this audio micro-revolution: the ability to encode an MP3 at sub-‘CD quality’ bitrates is a feature built into the iTunes application”.

Hmmmm! It’s grounded in critical theory to describe lo-bit as a subversion, and art perspectives to say that presets can be used creatively. Or something like that. The standard way, you know? That’s all fine, but I think there are better ways to talk about this, which perhaps is less alien to the practioners themselves.

Not all music are recordings. MP3/OGG is just one option. For example, on my release at Floppyswop I used mod-files. Sounds better than a lo-bit recordings and it’s smaller in filesize. Non-recorded music is truly tricky for contemporary culture to deal with and it’s a shame that this article doesn’t discuss it. Well, I guess it wasn’t the point. Nevertheless, denouncing chipmusic as videogame remixes and emulations, is a bit perverse.

Lo-bit doesn’t have to be about authenticity. One charm with low bitrate is that it leaves things to the imagination. Low resolution gives more room for the listeners’ own interpretations. Some kind of brutalist hauntology. The articles says that authenticty is a mandatory selling point for culture consumers (which might be true), but it seems more refreshing to say: who knows or cares if it’s authentic or not?

Neither low bitrate recordings or chipmusic are re-animations of zombie media. People have done it for ages — it’s the things around it that has changed. And it’s not about unintended uses. Remember when it became possible to stream audio in the 1990’s? Real audio! It was quite useful, and it still is. Why wouldn’t it be? Because technology has changed? If yes, then you=technodeterminist and that’s not frexxy.

Chipmusic Festival, 1990

August 31, 2011

“We just called it “chiptune” then. I think. I mean, we really didn’t have anything else to call it”. That’s what Minusbaby says about the early days of the chipscene in USA. Nice to read some thoughts about this. My own memories are a bit blurry. But it was certainly unchartered territory back then, perhaps even more so in USA then Europe. Chiptune was the most popular term in the 00’s. I suppose 8bitpeoples contributed to that, like most others. The old VORC was perhaps even more important. Now, the chipmusic term seems to be getting more <3 again, judging from biographies, forums (chipmusic.org), etc.

In the 1980s some people talked about micromusic as music made with microcomputers (8-bit home computers with PSG soundchips, mostly). When the Amiga came out, it could play things that didn’t sound like micromusic. Therefore the terms chiptune and chipmusic appeared. But what did these terms mean 20 years ago?

I’ve previously argued that in 1990 chipmusic was equal to chipmodules but that was probably wrong, actually. I’ve discussed it with several of ye old legends, and there are different opinions. Except for chipmodules, around 1990 chipmusic could also refer to synthetical Amiga music or PSG-music.

What can the archives tell us? According to a search at Bitfellas there seems to have been chipmodules as early as 1988, in Compackting Disk Intro by The Supply Team (a Danish pioneer group also on the C64). I was too lazy to setup UAE and check it out though, so I’m not sure. :) UPDATE: mod.introsound was made by Rambones (still active), and uses a short non-looped sample.

The Supply Team - Compackting Disk Intro (1988)

In 1989 the word ‘chip’ starts to appear here and there without any apparent chipmusic-reason. More importantly, 4-mat makes chipmodules and releases them in a lost production and in an intro without music :) [1]. TSM released something like a chipmodule in Invasion, called weinigkb – few kilobytes [2]. He told me that he heard the chiptune-term only years later, and it meant Soundtracker-based songs with short C64-samples. (I mistook TSM for Suntronic)

Surely enough, 1990 saw the release of atleast two chipmodule music disks with C64-covers: Sludger’s Music Demo and Captured Imagination by 4-mat. He also released chip-things like Mole’s Hot Demo PackSkywise’s IntroMusic Demo (called Chip Music Demo at Bitfellas?) and Inspired SoundsChip Music Festival by Magnetic Fields is the earliest use of the term that I’ve found, and there are no chipmodules in it. It’s all synthetical songs made by Jochen Hippel, Ziphoid & Uncle Tom, Walkman, etc. Chipmodules is a new method and there’s no established term. Look for example at the text in Blazer’s Riots or Savage’s Short.

Commercial break! Some chip-hits of 1990 are Gonad’s Cracks by Omri Suleiman, Fireworx by Mantronix, Paranoimia by TSM (video below) and intro-music by 4-mat.

Chip Music Festival, 1990

It seems like chipmusic appeared before chiptune. Chiptune was a noun, meaning a piece of chipmusic. (That always annoyed me with chipmusic chiptune later. Could it originate from a linguistic glitch between English and Japanese?). Anyway, by 1991 the chiptune term was well established. Nuke/Anarchy made a song called chiptune-12k, 4-mat’s song L.F.F also appears as mod.chiptune, and there’s this. The musicdisk Synthetic Vibes includes some of the most famous chip-names at the time (except the already mentioned also Mantronix, Heatbeat, Emax). [3]

(Btw, if there was a competing term, it could’ve been intro-music. There are many songs called that, for example by Heatbeat, Dr. Awesome, 4-mat, etc. But I guess the C64-inspiration made the chip-terms seem more fitting?)

Unfortunately music archives don’t really date its entries, so it’s hard to do a similar research. But on the other hand, you can search for text inside the songs. That way, we can find songs like megademo-vectorbobs where 4-mat claims to have invented chipmodules and asks all sample-rippers to piss off. When I interviewed him for my thesis he was not very proud of this, and admitted to being a sample-ripper too :)

This little excursion tells us that the chipmusic-term was used in 1990, and that chipmodules might’ve been around in 1988. Also, the use of the chip-term seems to have a UK-origin (Anarchy, Magnetic Fields, etc). But hopefully someone can take this research further. Would be interesting to see more heavy data analysis of these archives, to find out more about how chip-terms were used in demos and songs. (And who stole whose samples, for example. Remix culture 30 years ahead of its time!)

But one thing that strikes me, is that the synthetical Amiga tunes around 1990 have aged quite well. If you listen to this MP3-playlist of Amiga tunes from 1989, it feels very modern compared to other electronic music from that time (for a chip-literate, anyway). First of all, it’s not really songs – it’s loops. The linear song-format, on which most music consumption is based, is not really applicable here (great!). Secondly, the minimalist sound capabilities make it less dated. Elsewhere there were orgies in cut-up sampling, drum machines, consumerized sequencers and FM-synths. But the assembler-based 8-bit micro synthesis led to … something else. And last but not least – the music was embedded in a cracker culture that we – the consumers – were mesmerized by. Who were they? How did they make the music? How can I do it? No recording artist could get the same kind of mysterious distribution.

Some people would say it’s “only nostalgia”. Maybe it is, whatever people mean by that expression. But at the same time, this is so different from most contemporary chipmusic. In fact, it doesn’t share much with it at all. During the pinnacle of chip-purism a few years ago it would not even qualify as chipmusic. But today it feels like its pointing towards a possible future for chipmusic. The chipscene is described mostly in dusty postmodern technoid terms á la remix culture (like appropriation). But that’s going to change in the 2010s. You read it here first!

[1] 4-mat’s first chipmodules were Autumn, Knighthawk and Space Journey according to himself. They were based on ST-01 samples.

[2] Check TSM’s page about his 1989-activities, including the source code to a 1988 text editor softsynth for Amiga. Some great crackmospherical space ambient electro in there.

[3] As for 1992: Music Madness is a large v/a chipmod musicdisk. Some songs called chip music. Also Chip On My Shoulder. Possibly also look at Pink’s Ansi Music series and Chipmania (92-94).

Is ANSI ASCII or is ASCII ANSI?

August 23, 2011

Text art is having a revival of sorts. If you didn’t notice it yet, you’ll see it in the next release on Chipflip with some goodness from Raquel Meyers. I recently saw some nice work made with Melly’s ASCIIPaint and also good animations made in a program called ascii-paint (which was built from ASCII-Paint).

ASCIIPaint-work by Markham, 2010 (cropped, to avoid artefacts)

But I couldn’t help thinking – despite all the ASCII-names – isn’t this actually ANSI? I remember getting dissed by both Amiga and PC text artists for misunderstanding the terminology. A good friend of mine said that Amiga text art with colours was “ASCII with colours, and definitely not ANSI!!!”.

Yeah. Hm. Since ASCII is the lowest common denominator for all (?) computer character sets since the 1960s, I suppose that most other standards (Unicode, PETSCII, ATASCII, ANSI, etc) can be called ASCII art aswell. But that’s an engineer perspective. From a more cultural point of view, you could argue that each of these charsets has its own function, history, aesthetics and users. So they are more different than similar.

The C64’s PETSCII gave BBS’s (and disk directories, BASIC-games, etc) a special feel, especially since the slow modem speeds made them automatically “animated“. Telnetting to for example Antidote today is an experience that is hard to match. As you read the messages posted in the PETSCII-section, you can see how the text (art) slowly builds up, char by char. Check out Poison’s Notemaker demo to see how it can look. Can you feel the baud rate, aww yeah?!

PETSCII-stuff by Raquel Meyers, 2010, for chipflip.org/02 (coming soon)

Afaik, PETSCII was never released on its own. But on the Amiga scene dedicated ASCII-groups was formed, and the so-called ASCII-colly started to appear as separate artefacts around 1992 [1]. It was mostly connected with warez/hacking but also the demoscene. These cultural settings and the tight monospaced fonts and line spacing led to an eLiTE mixture of graffiti and poetry. When they used colours, they sometimes called it (Amiga) ANSI.

Razor 1911 logo by Skope of Up Rough & Divine Stylers, 2010

On the PC, you couldn’t make ASCII the same way. The most popular characters ( /  –  _  \ ) had space inbetween them, so it wasn’t possible to make continuous lines in the same way. PC ASCII-artists had to find other ways, and they mostly relied on the extra characters found in the 8-bit MS DOS font. It was a new style that the Amiga-people called ANSI, and the PC-people called (Block) ASCII. A couple of years later some PC-users returned to the 7-bit ASCII-usage and called it … newskool! This style became popular on the web, of course, but is nowadays often complemented with Unicode characters.

ANSI then, seems to be applicable to most text art that has colours. But if it’s Amiga text art (which isn’t really supposed to use any DOS/IBM-shit) you should watch out. And of course, if it’s PETSCII, you shouldn’t call it ANSI. You might get seriously injured.

But anyway – it seems that according to the PC’s “art scene” ideas the various ASCII-Paint softwares above should in fact be called ANSI-Paint. But I guess this is a battle that will be lost. For most people it’s not very relevant to distinguish between ANSI and ASCII. Just like with “8-bit” or “chipmusic” or “electro” it gets pretty complicated if you refuse to accept the dominant use.

Besides, is there anyone who wants to discuss the difference between ANSI and ASCII anyway? \o/

Btw#1: if you need more text art, you can also check out these posts
Btw #2: if you know of good resources on text art, get in touch.

[1] Year taken from Freax (p.121). Rotox, Desert and other West Germans are described as the first Amiga ASCII-artists in the late 1980s (which I have not been able to confirm). Early ASCII-groups were H2O and Mogul (de) and U-Man (se). More info wanted!

Fantastic PhD Demoscene Book

June 27, 2011

Daniel Botz has finally published his PhD dissertation on the demoscene. Chipflip’s conversation with him in 2009 revealed some of his approaches. Entitled Art, Code and Machine – the Aesthetics of the Computer Demoscene, it is an extremely well-researched study of the demoscene’s history and aesthetics.

The theoretical base is Friedrich Kittler, who is more interested in machines than humans. From this Botz constructs a media materialism that takes the potentials/limitations of the machine seriously. Human fantasies about subverting the machine is not primary. Demos are immanent in the machine and are only “carved out” by the sceners. They are states of the machines, and not products. There is no software, even.

Still – as a researcher of art rather than computers – Botz describes the aesthetical norms also from a social perspective, occasionally with some ideas from cultural studies. New effects typically reference “oldschool” elements to make it graspable. It’s not a virtual and limitless digital “freedom” where anything is possible, which is often implied elsewhere. You know, Skrju can make lots of fucked up noise but still fit in, while perhaps Critical Artware could use some more rotating cubes.

Unfortunately this book is only available in German. You can read a sample here. My German is not very good, so my apologies if this post contains any misinformation. Having said that, this book is the best demoscene research I’ve read. It’s quite traditional in its theory and methods, which I think is required to cover the topic thoroughly. Still, it offers plenty of surprises compared to the usual clichés about hacker aesthetics. Perhaps that’s because the theoretical perspective is down-to-earth instead of pretentiously post-whatever or ideologically biased (e.g. humans or machines).

I can’t wait for the translation, Daniel! :) Meanwhile, check out the great Demoscene Research site and join the (scarce) discussions in the Google group.

 

Chip Critique 1: Re-appropriation

April 28, 2011

“I like restrictions, reappropriating & using tools in ways they weren’t meant to be used”. Maybe it’s just me, but after hearing similar sentences for the past 15 years about chipmusic, I’m getting tired of it. Is that what we like, really? And why do so many chipmusicians say this?

The quote above is not from a chipmusician. It’s from the artist Petra Cortright who’s part of what I see as the Rhizome rhizome. In there you’ll find plenty of artists who work with general midi, low-res, old internet memes and GIF-animations. Perhaps it’s what Cory Arcangel called dirt style.

It seems that this grew big in the 00’s, for example with Arcangel’s NES-works. He supposedly reappropriated restricted technologies in new ways. Many low-tech hackers were annoyed with this, seeing it as some kind of imperialism on ‘their’ thing.

I reluctantly admit that I was one of those, back then. The art-perspective on this was just too foreign for me. But of course, chipmusic was gradually becoming part of the package. The postmodern rhetorics was an easy way to get attention for chipmusic, as we tried to legitimize our work beyond videogames and nostalgia (and still are).

So bending, glitching, dirt style and hacking grew more and more connected. And it was given a political relevance in typical postmodern cultural studies rhetorics. Critical new uses of technologies! It assumes that the glitching, bending and hacking of the previous decades, was somehow not the same thing. Making Gameboy music today might have a different cultural status, compared to 20 years ago. But still. It’s not like we’re making something new, or doing something that the technology was not intended to do.

Consider technologies as subjects instead of objects. Or, more appropriately, consider both humans and technologies as objects. Claiming that something has “intended uses” can be a discriminating claim then. Who’s to decide what the intended uses are? We pretend that the Gameboy was an “inter-passive” commodity, so now we pretend that we are heroes who liberated the machines (and ourselves).

Bob Stevenson - Max Headroom (C64, 1986)

We pose as the heroes of the digital age. The glitchers and benders bring forth the hidden expressions of the machine, and the chipmusicians give the technologies new value in new contexts.

Or: we are reinforcing traditional paradigms such as human excellence and and techno-libertarianism. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the lack of control and comprehension that modern consumer technologies offer. Perhaps it’s part of the zeitgeist of hauntology and lo-fi VHS-artefacts (or, uh, hypnagogic cyberpunk). But it’s certainly not very critical in my book.

And the machines continue to laugh. Let’s laugh with them, not at them. Uhm.

Amiga Apes and LSDj in Libraries

April 6, 2011

Archeopterix lives in Marseille and collects old hardware. Plenty of computers and consoles but also video cameras, keyboards, etc. I visited him after the Micromusic #5 festival and hung out with him a bit.

This photo is from the Game Heroes exhibition at Mars à L’Alcazar in Marseille, which he organized. The gorilla (built by Mégalo) is built from plastic guns, and his head is playing Amiga 600 games. The human ape is VJ Kissdub with his amazing PXL-2000 video camera that uses cassettes.

Monsieur Archeopterix also told me that he gave a Gameboy with LSDj to the library, so now people can go there and borrow it just like a book. I really like this idea, and he is trying to expand this to the rest of France. Let’s see if LSDj-Johan will file a massive law suit to destroy all libraries in France!

What seems to separate Archeopterix from other computer collectors is that he’s casual and playful and messy. Things just happen. He’s happy to share things and there’s nothing mainstream or academic about him. His place is more like a flea market than a museum, and you sort of just stumble across BASIC 1.0 for TO-7 or an Intellivision music keyboard or some strange storage media.

It makes me remember how the chipmusic scene was 10 years ago, before people had started to build fancy peripherals, research and reflect on the tools and cultures (like I do) and well, be very serious about things in general. Before it became infected by the standard tricks of art, pop and science. Maybe it’s time to GO APE again! Or Archeopterix.

An Even More Secret History of Social Networks

February 1, 2011

BBC has published a radio documentary called the Secret History of Social Networking. It interviews people involved with BBS-communication in the 1970s, was influenced by the counterculture in California. It’s a rather expected historiography – pioneering Americans that used computers to network the whole world, and John Cage got into it. We’ve heard it before.

The counterculture merged with commercial interests in a Californian ideology that shaped the home computer revolution. This technolibertarianism probably made the term personal computer catch on so well. So in a way, it is a very relevant history of social networking: individual freedom and computer networks and entrepreneurs (yeah!).

Community Memory, a BBS from 1973

On the other hand, there are the social networks that emerged from software piracy in the 1980s. Already in 1979 there were digital networks for Apple II-crackers, and a few years later a lot of people were distributing cracked software. Not only modem-to-modem, but face-to-face and mailman-to-mailman. It was a network for middle-class kids that had little to do with highbrow art or traditional politics; it was merely a way to use computers for what they were designed for. Copying information.

In other words – it was a popular network where common people did common sense things. It was an early warez economy, which is not so different from the current network economy/culture. You make, share and remix things for free and you get stuff back – either as money or status. Or something like that.

The point is that the countercultural BBS-stuff is an interesting early example, but did it influence things to come?  Sure they conversed and organized through modems, but what else? The cracker/demoscene networks pioneered or perfected many things: text art, free distribution of executable artefacts, open source music and remix culture, mail art, computer parties, etcetera – and it had very real effects on the economy and culture outside of itself. Eventually. If the counterculture led to iTunes, then this network led to netlabels and the Pirate Bay.

I don’t blame the BBC for their angle and perhaps they will also deal with this topic in future episodes. But there’s been very little research made on the cracker- and demoscene networks. I wrote a text for the Media Art Histories 2009 that has some additional information, but it was hastily put together so don’t expect too much.

MP3 is so passe

December 29, 2010

Apparently, we are so used to MP3s that we actually prefer music that has the sizzle artefacts that MPEG algorithms produce. Although it’s hard to believe, it’s not unbelievable. The MP3-standard was set in 1991, and a decade later it had become the standard for music compression. In 1999 Wall Street Journal wrote that “MP3 has created an underground online culture, in which hackers hang around chat rooms and online ‘gangs’ prowl for tunes” (*).

Part of this gang war was Monotonik and other early netlabels. For them, MP3 was a natural progression from releasing tracker music (mod/xm/etc) for free. Monotonik came from the demoscene, where copying was not a problem but actually the only form of distribution. The more copies the better, period. It was not a big step to go from that to releasing MP3s. Still, distributing music in the original tracker had advantages. Monotonik released mod-files until 2003 because they were smaller, sounded better and were open source.

The chipscene has a different background, it can be argued. The music in the chipscene was usually spread as MP3-documentations of the original tracker files. It was, and still is, rare to see chipscene people releasing their source files. As far as I’ve found, all MP3-releases with chipmusic was like this at the time – at 8bitpeoples, 20kbps, Kikapu, No’Mo’, Commie, Slapart, Toilville and mp3death. Maybe they were scared of being scrutinized or maybe LSDj was not designed for this purpose. But also, spreading music like open source means to share every detail of the work you do – the small tricks that are important for “your sound”.

But like Education of the Noobz says in his new release, “open source” music has a long history as a sort of folk music. “Before professional games, before cracker intros and before demos, home computer users were peeking and poking around their machines’ memory in search for the addresses the soundchip would react to”. Flip through any computer magazine around 1980 and you will see BASIC-listings of pop-songs and classical music. They were open source by default, since they were distributed as code to be executed by the listener. Sort of like mod-files, and very much like previous hacker music as found in e.g HAKMEM and Creative Computing in the 1970s, or elsewhere in the 1960s.

In hindsight it’s perhaps tempting to see this in terms of hacker ethics and politics, but maybe it was just about academic traditions and a lack of cheap recording technologies. I haven’t seen any open source music that is framed in any political rhetorics, not even from the chipmusic hippies in LOAMC, who didn’t share their source code afaik.

But the situation is different now. Music usually equals recorded music, or performed music. Even digital music is almost always distributed in the proprietary MP3-format. A jam becomes a song becomes a file, with title and author, start and finish, that sounds the same every time you play it. Chipmusic doesn’t have to be like that, but ever since it pretended to be recorded music in the late 1990s, we’ve learnt to like the convenience. Sure it’s convenient with recorded C64-music, but it also deletes some of the mysteries for the listener, and the open source luxuries for the composer. The ontology of chipmusic is removed, which means removing the potentials for remixability, modularity and imperfection that no other music genre is blessed with at such a large scale. Educate the noobs!

(By the way, Monotonik is now on “(permanent?)” hiatus. Bad and sad news, for the label that brought us chip-releases such as Virt’s fx EP (2001), Vim!’s At the Front (1999), Aleksi Eeben’s Grand Rules (2002), Blasterhead’s Killbots EP, and my own Monkeywarning from 2002).


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