If you’ve been keeping up with the web at all in the past two years, you’re no doubt at least somewhat familiar with the terms “Mastodon,” “Diaspora,” or “federated social.” Extratone readers may remember my interview with Eugen Rochko last April — the day when his federated social “clone” made its way around the front pages of the major technology and tech media websites. Though the piece itself was designed and written quite disastrously (genuinely sorry about that — it was easy for me to get carried away when I had no idea what I was carrying,) Eugen is a great communicator of his ideal, which you’ll find to be as aligned with a FOSS future as you’d think it would be.
I signed up for mastodon.social in the February of last year, yet I suppose year sof o find myself going back to Twitter looking for what I only get on Mastodon, these days: diverse, sincere, talented, and extremely curious users from all over the world backed and deeply co-habitated with an inclusive developer culture filled with smart problem solvers who just want to contribute something grand. It’s not exactly easy, yet instances and variations on the ActivityHub project, itself have begun springing up at a pace I can’t keep up with. There’s the open-source federated blogging CMS Plume, along with the gorgeous and very promising Instagram-esque PixelFed. Additionally, Diaspora is gorgeous and fully-functional now.
Ten percent of the United States' adult population cannot functionally read or write (conservatively) despite the exponential increase of required reading in the average American's day-to-day life thus far in the 21stcentury. For written American media, especially, one would assume that a financial and social incentive for maximum literacy in the populace should present a straightforward justification for intense widespread coverage of this particular disparity, yet most related coverage in mainstream national magazines and newspapers is alarmingly sparse and often requires a less-than-socially-conscious context (e.g. a for-profit startup) to actually appear in news feeds. From the most wholesome assumption of the industry's general values — that it holds “newsworthiness” above all — we must assume that it does not generally consider American illiteracy “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” as we examine the intermittent discourse surrounding the issue that does achieve publication.
In late October, the American business and technology magazine Fast Company covered the recent successes of the “for-profit social enterprise” Cell-Ed, noting that “a huge portion of the American labor force is illiterate,” which it described as “a hidden epidemic.” The article's author, Rick Wartzman, mentions foremost that Cell-Ed's userbase is largely “foreign-born” and expected to eclipse one million in number by the end of 2019. Demographically, the magazine's readership is predominantly middle to upper-class, who are the least affected social groups by a significant margin as per illiteracy's strong correlative relationship with poverty. These factors combine to limit any real social consequences from such an article.
In direct contrast with the professional, market-minded perspective of modern business magazine, even niche independent publications from the opposite end of the media spectrum often trivialize, belittle, or generally mishandle the issue. In a 500-word “Editorial” written by The Editor Eric Black of the Baptist Standard — a small evangelical news website describing itself as “Baptist voices speaking to the challenges of today's world” — he points to a global increase in “illiterate people,” as he so comfortably brands them. Such language is inevitably counter-productive and potentially insensitive: to the eyes and ears of activists, educators, and the general public, such a term unnecessarily lends toward a restricted perspective of those people who have been left behind by the institution of read and written language in one manner or another and portrays them as a great vague collection of lingual lepers bearing their own distinct, inexorable, wordless ethnicity which inevitably bars them from the freedoms allowed by the Editor's learned capacity, including the ability to actually read his words of affliction. Simply put, he has dangerously oversimplified the issue.
To once again assume the best and infer that Black had a specific purpose in publishing his ill-supported opinion beyond continuity's sake of his weekly Editorials, it appears to be the promotion of a local Texan literacy “ministry” called Literacy Connexus, though no further specifics about the project are provided beyond “helping churches develop literacy programs for their communities, provide training and resources to overcome illiteracy,” which is virtually identical to the introductory copy on the organization's homepage.
So far, we've examined coverage only in special interest media, but what about legacy news organizations with the largest readerships in the United States? Despite oblivious use of the same ledes, a newspaper like The Washington Post can wield vast influence over the broadest possible readership and the public editorial trust. In November 2016, veteran reporter Valerie Strauss published “Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis” for Answer Sheet — her weekly newsletter designed to function as “a school survival guide for parents (and everyone else), from education policy to psychology” — which represents the most substantial discussion of American illiteracy in topical, widely-visible media (i.e. presence in a succinct search engine query.) She briefly introduces the issue with a bulleted list of illiteracy's consequences on modern society and the individual cited from a Canadian literacy foundation before turning the stage over to Lecester Johnson, CEO of the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Washington D.C.
Johnson presents a passionate and well-informed exploration of the state of the literacy battle from the perspective of a full-time, locally on-the-ground advocate. Her op-ed's introduction includes the most essential observations and statistics throughout, noting “the children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school,” before setting upon a detailed examination of current and relevant organizations working toward solutions. Of course, it's largely centered upon her own organization, which she claims has “helped more than 6000 adults rebuild their education and job opportunities since 1985.”
It's significant that an institution as deeply embedded across the American political spectrum as The Washington Post address the issue of American illiteracy, and both Johnson and Strauss are certainly qualified voices for the undertaking, but when we examine this particular article, it's important we consider the context of the Answer Sheet newsletter and its intended audience. Though it's no challenge to pitch the importance of reading and writing to parents and professional educators, the most alarming and destructive issue at hand is the educational disparity between their adult peers. “There's a literacy problem in the capitol, but I'm not talking about young people who can't read. Many adults — perhaps even parents sitting next to you at back to school night — don't possess academic skills,” notes Johnson with her very first paragraph. However, considering the nature of parenthood, the audience primarily consuming these words are undoubtedly preoccupied with juvenile issues, specifically, and we can assume their capacity to empathize with their fellow working adults who could benefit from literacy education is actually lessened from that of childless readers of the same age as a result. “Despite the magnitude of the adult literacy crisis, most of those needing to make up lost ground are pushed toward traditional classroom settings—even though many of these people can't possibly follow through because of cost or work schedules or other obstacles,” she attests.
Perhaps more than any other American city, Detroit has been struggling with a serious illiteracy problem. According to a profile of the Beyond Basics program (which was adapted from an embedded video broadcast) on their local ABC affiliate's website, forty-seven percent of adult Detroiters cannot read, but even companies like General Motors — who donated \$250,000 to the Beyond Basics program earlier in mid-October — are getting involved. The article quotes Elijah Craft, a young man who was “reading at a first-grade level as a senior at Detroit's Central High School.” “Craft would rare venture from home for fear he would get lost because he could not read street signs,” reports WXYZ anchor Carolyn Clifford. She frames the narrative around a reference to the 2009 film The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock: “here, you might call this story 'The Detroit Side.'” For local television news, this reference to popular culture likely strengthened the story's power ensnare viewers' emotional attention when it was aired, and even in this written accompaniment, it proves an effective — if a bit crude — analogy. The broadcast of Mr. Craft's interview also depicts his own deep emotional investment in reading when he begins to shed tears, which is not entirely communicated in the written article.
When the American news media discusses American illiteracy, it's almost always in secondary or tertiary form: either by way of a short post for a weekly education newsletter, an ultra-low-distribution niche editorial column, or a personality profile of a local activist. Perhaps the fundamental obstacle in the face of increasing the discourse surrounding this issue is that its resolutions will require — perhaps more than any other social issue in this country — advocacy by those who can read on behalf of those who cannot because of how sensitive and isolated many of them feel. When voices of advocates like Lecester Johnson are uplifted by major organizations like The Washington Post, the sociological weight of the illiteracy issue can be very powerful. In quoting former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, she sums up for its extensive audience what the facts should ultimately mean to them: 32 million of Eric Black's so-called “illiterate people” in the United States of America have been and continue to be deprived of their “human right” to functional literacy.
The duo's new album manages to be wonderfully explorative without sacrificing any sacred traditions.
For years, I took the voices and culture of working Americans for granted and sought to generally distance myself from my origin’s heritage as much as possible, but I’ve since realized that I couldn’t have done so without absolute certainty that country, bluegrass, and folk music were stubborn as State highway ditch-rooted fescue blades: omnipresent forces of Midwestern nature that’d secured their invincibility with the simple superiority of their belonging. While this conclusion is true enough for the time being, it’s quite independently so of their worth or necessity. In such conditional blindness, I’ve simply proven my sensibilities to be (predictably in the case of my seniors) not exempt. This truth is noteworthy only because of its potential to spare others the embarrassment of blatant ignorance to their own privilege. That said, I would suggest that you engage this music sincerely for a moment for your own sake, regardless of your own convictions regarding country music, Indiana, plaid, pickup trucks, the end of the world, or the proper noun for “cantaloupe.”
As young adults, even those folks who’ve remained resolutely country-minded found themselves trivializing the name of the titanic Dallas-born trio The Dixie Chicks not out of half-assed iconoclasm, but because their brand was so cleverly immune to irony. You thought you were proving yourself of a higher caliber of discernment, but mocking goddesses only paraded your ignorance. In my teen rebellion against the culture of my rural origin, I scoffed at their mention for a while, somehow oblivious to my blatant hypocrisy. Thanks to my older sisters and their automobiles, I spent before and after elementary school days absorbing thousands of hours’ worth of late-90s/early-oughts Pop Country radio. Two summers ago, I returned to this library at length for the first time in 10 years and found my heart completely vulnerable to its related memories and my mind consistently flabbergasted by the oomph of the composition that defines the genre’s last mainstream hurrah.
The original three Chicks – Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marty Maguire – are still very much alive, kicking, and radio-playing. They even “returned from exile” with a real international tour in 2016. (I regret little more in my adult life than missing the opportunity to see them.) According to a fascinating November 2015 analysis in The Guardian, their 2003 denouncement of President George W. Bush cost them serious cred among their audience, but Johnny Cash likely harbored similar sentiments, Stephen Morrissey is… not straight, the most worthwhile current country sounds from my teenage home are composed and performed by a trans woman, and the staple tunes from the genre’s most chaste personalities are often just about sex. No reasonable individual would still cite this incident in an argument opposing the essential legacy of these three miraculously talented women.
From a pop perspective at least, The Dixie Chicks are almost certainly the penultimate expression of country music as a technical and emotional exercise. Their extraordinary musicianship and prodigally antecedent mastery of suave sincerity represented the absolute peak of pop country’s untenable relationship with the American working class in one hell of a 21st-century-breaching last hurrah that still brings tears of pride to many an eye. However, the hysterical backlash of the greater working people personified in part by Donald Trump’s presidency is a last sure indication of the mainstream’s final estrangement from all distillations of rural culture. In the coming years, I fear the toiling masses will be left only with less and less authentic, more and more suburban bastardizations of their music as the last superficial delusions of condescending affection from the middle class fade, and the enterprise dies. What does survive will “graduate” (retire) to Folk (for white performers,) and further strengthen the Blues resurrection (for everyone else.) That said, it’s hard to find anyone who’s comfortable mourning the loss openly after acceptance has progressively set in – there’s simply nowhere else to go, and its aging icons have been in desperate need of retirement throughout the Information Age.
The Top 10 Vegan Alternatives to Working-Class America
Even if I’d had the moderate exposure from my current perch in the midst of the notoriously grass-roots nature of Portland’s Folk/Blues scene, 2000 miles west, I would have still been totally blindsided by my incidental introduction to The Matchsellers, two years ago. One needn’t harbor any presumptions about the relationship between Kansas City violinist/fiddler Julie Bates and Hoosier blues guitarist, Andrew Morris – they’re just about the cutest pair you’ll ever see, couple’s act or not (it’s less relevant than you’d think, and none of our business.) They’re also extremely talented and genuinely authoritative world-class musicians with plenty of authentic country mileage who exude a proud air of warm, confident serenity occupying the bluegrass sphere. After happening upon their set at Columbia’s faux-speakeasy in Summer 2016, I was at once charmed and impressed by the pervasive magnitude of the ethereal aura that followed them, especially after our brief post-performance conversation. I’m ninety percent sure they came without a mobile phone between them carrying a wicker basket full of CDs and matchbooks, and shucks… I do believe we’ve been doing this whole thing wrong, all along.
I bought a copy of Kosciusko County then and there and played the shit out of it the next summer, wandering aimlessly around Missouri with my best friend, revisiting (and occasionally disrupting) the resolute peace of the tiny communities I grew up orbiting. On our way to the Hannibal – Huckleberry’s Fictional home/the great Mississippi’s tired tourism machine – we just left it on repeat. As a soundtrack to such sentimental pursuits, a central trio of back-to-back tracks proved especially potent, beginning with “Mentone (The 3,000 lb Egg)” – the work’s nostalgic, tear-jerking sole instrumental. Production isn’t low-fidelity, but appropriately honest – no amount of expensive mastering would be capable of compressing the essence of a surprise late-night live performance from The Matchsellers’ work into a digital audio file, anyway.
Bates’ fiddling is an impossibly rare pleasure – the real type of sawing that mystically manages to erase one’s inhibitions and sense of civic responsibility when tearing about the borders of quiet row-crop plots, leaving long-lived lesions of billowing limestone high above numbered county roads at ninety miles-per-hour. Succeeding the distant, eye-misting cruise of the 1.5-ton Egg, “Driving Escort” is a masterpiece (naturally) of this raucous realm.
Driving down the road with a yellow light on top of my truck / Going down to Vincennes earning my sixty bucks.
Add the accompaniment of Morris’ obviously-fathomless relationship with the guitar, and the result nails a select truth without any hint of prudishness. At sufficient volume, “Muskmelon Breakdown” becomes a beautifully-harmonious catalyst of fast, loose, maniacal, hilarious energy that’s sure to land you in a ditch, but you’ll still be laughing your ass off by the time you’re pulling clay clumps and waist-high fescue blades from your steaming radiator. Kosciusko County isn’t an innovative record by any critical instrumentation, but I’d do best to keep my sun-faded, skip-worn copy readily at hand for the next time I find myself on a fresh gravel road, whenever that may be.
For the last five years, all we said was goodbye
I said it again, it was the fifth time
I took your word and did what I thought was best
I took your word and went 600 miles west
That’s it, then – we’ve got The Matchsellers pretty well figured for either wannabe(?) or reformed(?) yahoos of their own design; charming, dusty novelties who chose a folly destiny of toiling their craft for none but a seasonal dozen acres of white, sweating State Fair flesh. Obviously, they’re meant for us sophisticated, globetrotting Winners to collect like thrift store antiques on our way down the interstate. Their time is ours to book for nothing on our mediocre “speakeasy’s” waxy new stage; to post on an Instagram story, to Tweet in an easy compartmentalization of their quaint displacement from our time, deep in the dusty recesses of our collections for no good bargain, where they’ll fall comfortably in line as our predictable and willing country servants should an opportunity happen upon us to show a stranger how interesting, dynamic, and worldly we are.
As a displaced (and formerly ex-communicated) yokel, I’ve often been astonished by how easy it is to discard American folk music for huge swaths of time unless it expresses some unignorable sort of spectacular torment. My own failure to recognize the value in this one until I became separated and homesick was an overtly foolhardy cliché (though quite predictable of like privilege,) but I can’t help but wonder: is it unavoidable? Of course, the process is necessary for ‘class justice’ – one might even call it a natural law of sorts – and in the case of The Matchsellers, there’s hardly a struggle to communicate emotionally. For a real music scholar, though, it’s surely worth asking of those voices who know: do the oppressed, destitute, and hope-impoverished people of this country still rely on bluegrass, or has it been replaced for them?
The abstraction of the phrase “good surprise” had plummeted from our collective vocabulary at a record-demolishing velocity in the interim, but this past spring’s release of Bluegrastronauts hit me squarely upside the skull again, stirring a solid half hour of hysterical, shrieking psychosis. I assumed the worst… Dear God, what has the internet forced upon that sweet, rootsy duo?! – and was immediately compelled to drop everything and listen.
Hoosiers, we have a problem. What the fuck is this album, exactly? A nonchalant, apparently oblivious challenge to every assumption you could possibly arrive with. It’s safe to suppose “Bluegrastronauts” refers to its departure from the rest of their discography – from smack dab in Indiana’s center to the goddamned Beta Quadrant, the two managed to stupefyingly ace a theme most comfortable residents of their bluegrass sphere would take care to avoid leaving up on the kitchen whiteboard – even tackling apocalypse with regal serenity. At first glance, I was sure that copious soft glow had to either be the false product of my own insanity, or a deliberate attempt to alienate the sum of their audience in a single crises of identity. In fact, The Matchsellers had pulled off yet another especially-sparse artistic miracle and harnessed their creative restlessness to propel their departure from the elderly genre’s pretensions without spilling a single drip of their secret sauce. It’s not a concept album (thank God,) but doesn’t wander in any disparaging sense, either.
Earl Scruggs in a spaceship on his way to Mars
Pickin' away on the banjo at 100,000 miles an hour
Bill Monroe in a rocket, see the look on his face
it's mighty dark to travel when you're in outer space
Name-dropping four bluegrass legends within the number 1 album-titled introductory track is the pair’s single self-conscious acknowledgment of visiting folk fanatics: this CD looks crazy, but we know what we’re doing – and Kansas City’s mention accredits the locale of the following entirely Missouri-made production. Indeed, in the WhoDoneIts, you’ll see The HillBenders’ Chad Graves layed em’ down in Springfield, and Johnny Kenepaske’s Dead Horse Sound Company spread em’ around in the Heart of America, itself. Missourian musicians especially should take note of these names: the offerings may have diversified since my day, but sound talent like this is difficult to come across, even within explosive college towns. Cutting two live acoustic tracks per performer – four in total – while expecting to retain any subsequent control over the behavior of either unwanted or subject sound is as difficult as any other circumstance you’ll encounter in studio production at this level. I know this much (but little more in that direction): real sound control is simply too tedious to bear for monomiking rascals with GarageBand. Now, having lost or been estranged from any remotely-professional sound reproduction equipment, Bluegrastronauts sounds as balanced and polished as my wired Apple earbuds could ever convey.
In shared verses, Julie and Andrew’s charmed harmonies are separated beautifully about the listener without inducing a sense of lateral imbalance when one of them sings alone. (Admittedly, I don’t exactly know how it’s accomplished.) No single personality in the record’s toolset – guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, or dobro steps over any other.
I have no idea who’s listening, but I’m positive their numbers should be multiplying by a hundredfold very quickly, filling especially with all of ye who feel abandoned by all authentic American representation. They shouldn’t ever fill up stadiums or establishment radiowaves, nor should their art invite extensive pretentious dissection, but they will be adored.
It’s a quintessential manner of Country Boy pride to whip the middle class’s condescension right back around with a classic demonstration: Oh, you thought I didn’t know about that? You thought I couldn’t do that? Well, of course I can! I’m just not particularly interested. The Matchsellers, though, have attained a much higher tier of comfort and confidence in their own skin.
I have to just fucking do it — I’m going to start writing about music in this space. There’s virtually zero chance that I’ll shout over other voices of music criticism as long as Bilge remains so poorly optimized for SEO, and Portland, Oregon has been far too confusing to deprive myself the opportunity to work out any understanding of its youth culture. It’s not a lack of talented musicians in the area — the opposite is true — but a severe drought of the kind of tragedy and trauma which ultimately give acoustic American musical expression its whole shit. What I caught of the weekend’s invasion with Santa Cruz musicians were all praiseworthy, tight and confident performers who’d obviously invested heavily in their equipment and their presence here. Joe Kaplow arrived with a sort of bespoke magazine rack containing 20 neatly-arranged effect pedals, leading me to wonder for a moment if I was about to witness banjo powerviolence for the first time, but he explained that he simply preferred their availability, and wouldn’t use “more than a few at once,” and seemed almost genuinely perturbed by my attempt to explain the specific industrially-influenced involvement of audio hardware in hardcore punk and grind performance which I was referring to with the term. (“Powerviolence” has apparently become an ambiguous one around these parts, and I’m sure he was actually just utterly uninterested.)
No more than two dozen guests made up their peak crowd of witnesses, yet Joe and his band certainly made good on shear effort expended in laying down a hearty, back-to-back recital for us at an unusually protracted rate, though apparently either they, the Getaway Dogs, or The Curfews had insisted that a “cover charge” be collected at the door of the house show. It’s not my business to to dwell on or attempt to investigate an unsubstantiatable rumor, but I understand this could have been a breach of house show etiquette. What I do know is that one of the visiting musicians stole 4 flat AA batteries out of my COOLPIX and apparently attempted to jack its ancient Compact Flash card, which is only hilarious because they didn’t succeed. Regardless, it should be said that Joe Kaplow’s songwriting is more flattered by Indie mags than my own ears, though one still wishes for a more substantive topic than “I thought it’d be cool make a corn cob pipe, so I did.” Then again, much of what you’ll find at this URL reads a lot like “I thought it’d be interesting to make a WordPress blog, so I did.” White people have truly run out of shit to say, haven’t we?
The inspiration that sparked ‘I Said’ moved me like a puppet. So much so that I had to pull over at the top of Altamont Pass, by the huge windmills, and write the song in the back of my van.
Joe Kaplow for Glide Magazine
Reflection upon just about anything can have personal meaning, but no amount of musicianship can mask a stark lack of context. I do wonder if Indie Folk should just return to the megachurch, where songwriters like Joe and musicians of his crew’s sort are literally handed a gigantic audience of trained experts at finding profound meaning where it probably isn’t, along with great salaries, from what I hear. Otherwise, all that taxing preparation and expenditure will only lead to more forgettable performances. Or perhaps I am simply misguided in my assumption that artists work exclusively to communicate something lasting to someone. Every conversation I’ve had with Portlanders about Portland music has been predominantly about what artists and their audiences wear and how they behave instead of what they’re trying to say. There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving things petty, lyrically and choosing to remain content with established sounds, musically, as long as your work is advertised as entertainment, not performance.
Before I came Northwest, my fiancé had been exposing me to a variety of its music, which I mostly tolerated politely. Dozens of albums and EPs were played through once and forgotten forever, but when I arrived at a demo tape recorded by her long time friend’s band, The Cigarette Burns, I finally heard something familiar, yet vitally compelling: pissed off punks having fun. That said, I should admit that I only attended Saturday’s show because he was on the ticket, and I’m still glad I did.
After what felt like hours of drowsy corn cob pipes, Christmas sweaters, and old sweethearts at fifty beats per minute (there were literally two young men sleeping within 15 feet of the bands for the duration,) Ricky sat himself on a stool in the midst of Kaplow’s sprawling gear load at 2:30AM with only his guitar and his voice. Unfortunately, I’d squandered the Nikon’s batteries on Californians (the lighting was not ideal anyway,) so I thought I’d share his set on Periscope. Though Ricky had been patiently present and attentive for the entire night (unlike myself,) those who were left of the entertainers bolted to the porch for a lively discussion about unicycles and quinoa while Ricky told us about hate, jealousy, and feeling like shit in a somber elegy. Any further adjectives may edge dangerously close to a half-assed “concert review,” which I am not yet qualified for, but I will say that Ricky’s sincerity made him most engaging part of the night, and his frustrated, conclusive nod to The Cigarette Burns was the first real punk sounds I’ve yet heard in Portland.
I realize sharing this small experience does little to grow the conversation, but this isn’t a magazine, and I am desperate for answers about the bizarre reality in which I find myself. When Ricky dedicated a song to Courtney Love, one of the male musicians(?) yelled “Courtney Love fuckin’ killed Kurt Cobain!” which was such an unbelievably cliché happening/decision that I’ll surely spend the rest of my days in this city unsuccessfully attempting to work it out, aloud. I can’t quite recall who it was last Fall that responded to my frustration by challenging “what if there’s nothing to understand?” While this may be a reasonable conclusion, I suspect it’s not one I could accept as long as I remain here without losing my mind. If Portland is truly the dimensionless bastion of apathy and intellectual stagnancy for young Americans, I must blog my way out it as soon as possible (for Pete’s sake, just give these kids some antidepressants,) but I’d still like to believe the idea too oxymoronic to actually exist.
Opera's no-connection mascot is the cutest branding on any current web browser. Fight me.
Yesterday, I finished moving out of the situation I’d been living in for ~6 weeks in the basement of a southeast Portland home near the western base of Mt. Tabor. You'd see it just across from the flat Washington Mall-ish grass rectangle that provides daring suburban explorers their most worthwhile reward for reaching the top. It resembles one of many local residential templates which I was completely unequipped to understand when I arrived in the area last year. You'll never observe any of its inhabitants outside doing any of the things people do when they are unaware of – or unconcerned with being observed. Walking by an afternoon front yard “family gathering” (young white parents and their one or two children) is a prospect of haste. Introducing new movement to the vicinity after the sun has gone down stirs a disruption from deep within its energy. Everyone in this town is afraid. I say it’s an unnatural way to live, but I’m just a fucking bumpkin.
As you may or may not have observed, the vast majority of my working being lives on the World Wide Web, which requires, fundamentally…. An internet connection. In most any other present-day first world circumstance, these are infinitely available, but I discovered – after the moving process was entirely completed, of course – that my tenants did not actually have an in-house connection of their own. They explained to me that their neighbor – an “IT professional” for IBM – had offered to let them use his WiFi network, and they’d found the arrangement sufficient. However, because IBM is The archaic marque of digital fascism (disclosure: they are also my sworn blood enemy,) it wasn’t altogether a surprise when they told me that his offer did not extend to “guests.”
I considered that a defined period of WiFi fasting at home could make for an interesting experiment – perhaps even a needed mental reset – and I couldn't reasonably afford to acquire my own dedicated 4G hotspot, anyway. The reality became a relentless paranoid battle for any trickle of access – sometimes for a dozen bytes per second; for just the most basic digital communications like SMS and email – which led to more superstitious hypotheses about precarious antenna orientation, progress bar hallucinations, out-of-control frustration, and hopeless fixation with refresh commands than I remember from 2nd generation cell networks in the Midwest, 10 years ago, or even domestic dial-up, and truly revealed the extent to which I'd taken connectivity for granted.
My observations of my own behavior throughout this drought are worth more than their mild amusement: even this petty disparity (I was never more than two or three yards from nearly-whole signal at the top of the outside stairs) re-sensitized my perspective to the abstract concept of network unreliability which I'd been entirely spared since prepubescence. Though 4 billion human beings now regularly interact with the World Wide Web, their connections span a mathematically gargantuan spectrum of speed and reliability. In urbanizing myself as an adult, I have unconsciously latched on to the entitled ideal that internet access is a public service and accepted dramatically-increasing dependence on services that engorge greater and greater volumes of bandwidth without any explanation but their lack of incentives for efficiency. I reflect on my relationship with technology every day, yet I still became an oblivious data glutton in mind-bogglingly little time.
The current state of connectivity in the United States, alone is quite alarming under 5-year-absent examination. Mobile carriers are still merging and the compartmentalization of all ISP customers between prioritization tiers continues to be tested, less encumbered by regulatory safeguards than ever. I don't know my politics on this issue, nor do I have any specific solutions, but I'd point to the work of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and express only that I hope the pace of the technology's progress is greater than the growth of its merchants' imaginations and the scope of their greed so that the sheer volume of plenty overcomes even the shortest-sighted, and humanity as a whole continues toward a more just distribution of connectivity. What I am in a position to share are the revelations about our current infrastructure, software services, and hardware devices I could only have discovered from such an experience.
I remember standing on top of a John Deere combine's 15ft-high roof in order to successfully make a telephone call 10 years ago – one of thousands of behaviors which were more abruptly and universally required for a few years and subsequently more abruptly forgotten than any other such united tick in American history. This blip of shared technological adversity also led to an unfathomably vast collective mythology surrounding incredibly tedious manipulation of our archaic handsets in varying degrees of desperation for just one bar.
My Sprint plan includes unlimited 4G LTE data for my iPhone 8 Plus with a 10GB tethering limit – which performed so admirably in the lonely role of my thin tether to the rest of the world that I am obligated to actually use the phrase *like a champ*. but the quality of its connection is dramatically impacted by the studio apartment's depth. From the space's geometric center at stomach-level, the handset indicates “1x,” meaning CDMA 1x, which is technically a data connection, but certainly not in any usable sense for the network applications of 2018. The native Twitter app, Apple Mail, Snapchat, Instagram & Facebook, Safari, Opera Mini, Firefox, Chrome, and all others I tested in this condition would simply timeout – giving up after a minute or two of repeated attempts before declining to continue, each in their own minor variations. An interesting anecdote: in a pertinent reflection our human ballooning expectations for connectivity at all times, the language of our creations across both iOS and desktop applications has recently become noticeably less accountable and more accusatory. Instead of saying “____ can’t connect to the internet,” many of the browsers will declare an absolute: three is no internet connection, or just straight up blame the user: “you are not connected to the internet.” (Emphasis mine.) No apologies... No regrets.
Dude, no wifi? Where the fuck are U?
Directly above my head’s place on the bed, the phone could be propped on the sill of the East-facing window on a clear-skied day, enabling it to scrounge up and loosely establish enough contact to receive calls and text messages, claiming 1-4 3G “bars,” and a single in 4G at night, though one overcast Northwestern week basically did it in completely. If we were actually doing something to noticeably increase our old Nokia boxes’ bandwidth bids on those early networks by turning them every which way to find “better reception,” it’s completely futile on current devices. (I’m fairly sure I remember a network professional explaining this to me when LTE was first gaining traction.) It was immediately apparent that orientation had no effect, but the handset’s bearing certainly did… Most sensitively so. I realized quite early on that I should endeavor not to spend too much time standing in different positions throughout the space attempting to will on a browser loader bar above a story I’ve probably read already. Intstead, I committed to the very first position that indicated any correlation whatsoever with a better connection: atop the biscuit tin on the metal rack nearest the outside door.
It’s been three months, but I’m still using my tired old Hewlett-Packard 6930p backup machine, so I was very skeptical about the odds we’d be successfully reliably pairing its ancient network adapter – now worth just $9.99 – with that of A Cellular Phone 10 years its junior without struggling significantly with range or reliability, especially considering that it cannot run a single one of its vast library of proprietary drivers on Linux. You’d at least assume they’d need to be practically touching each other to maintain a smooth marriage, yet the only compromise I had to make on the local end was to bring them near to each other as they paired. Afterwards, I could return the phone to its tin and work on the laptop from the kitchen table, 12-15 feet away. (Curiously enough, the 6930p itself shipped with hotspot capability by way of the SIM card slot behind the unit’s main battery.)
Quantifying the speed of a mobile data connection as you would a dedicated WiFi network is incongruent because the former trades in a much less consistent packet stream. That’s the extent of my knowledge, but it’s easy to visualize: a signal that can travel a mile or two in big globules bound to be intercepted in splashes upon the device’s little antennae, versus your home network’s local, evenly distributed sauna of irradiated mist. It’s much less definite, to say the least, and I can’t actually comprehend the sort of voodoo that’s required in order to expand and maintain the networks as they are, nor would I ever wish to burden myself with such knowledge.
Setting out upon a desperate personal journey to rediscover enchantment with computers.
This evening, a package is scheduled to arrive upon my doorstep containing a Compaq Portable Plus luggable computer from 1983 which I have fantasized about buying for far too many years. Despite living in the midst of perhaps the worst possible financial situation to spend $139.99 outright on a relic of computing, I finally just bought one anyway last Thursday because I’m absolutely fed up with life without the magic I remember feeling from computers. Yes, I am having a mid-life crises and The Machine is just a physical manifestation of one of my favorite stories, but I expect it will provide something irreplaceable for me and at least one piece of entertainment for just about anybody: I’m going to start a photoseries of myself using the 26-lb., suitcase-like, and utterly time-displaced Portable Plus in different coffee shops throughout Portland.
There’s also potential opportunity (or necessity) for me to make use of my limited knowledge of hardware electronics. I’ve never been very comfortable with openly using the term “hobby,” but I fully intend to savor, document, and preserve every possible detail of my experience, so we’re going to behave as if the tales of computer history are precious to a dedicated audience besides myself, and that I am thereby and hereafter binding myself to an important duty of discovery, curation, and presentation expressed through multimedia of the highest possible caliber.
In other words, I’m pretty sure I’ve just begun a vintage computing blog. Before we go any further, then, let’s dispense with the obligatory arrangements.
Put simply, Compaq was punk as fuck. Three dorky Texan technodads premeditated their leave of fair, secure jobs in the industry in order to bet everything on the promise of a single undeniably pro-user ideal to disrupt its dominant monopolistic supervillian. Unlike any of the countless other stories from the information age with the very same introduction, theirs was immediately propelled into stratospheric, record-breaking success — from coffee table sketches in the wastelands of suburban Houston nights to one billion dollarsin less than five years, proving that it was possible to win huge in tech by committing sincerely to liberating the consumer and manifesting the ultimate performance of the underdog complex American business has ever witnessed.
Those of us who’ve maintained some curious orbit of technology have recently entered a reconcillatory process as the world has become all at once intimately familiar with our collective pursuits’ true consequences. Never has it been more appropriate to reflect on the wholesome bravado of the only American computer company to build a billion-dollar business atop the sole mantra of user liberation. At a glance one might assume that AMC’s attempt to reproduce Mad Men’s formula with a story set in Compaq’s origin in a series that’s supposedly attracted a fair number of Netflixers called Halt and Catch Fire in conjunction with the 2016 documentary Silicon Cowboys have sufficiently reminded America of to whom it really owes its privileged tech industry. However, a Twitter search for “Compaq” turns up virtually nothing of consequence, and — on the other cultural spectrum — I’ve yet to see a single well-documented collection of Compaq hardware, and I’m unsatisfied.
Like it not, you’re coming with me on a safari back through two full nostalgic cycles to rediscover our wonder and excitement about technology because I miss it desperately and I know you do too. We’re going to find something marvelous.
As the industry endeavors once again to reconcile the cultural and financial incentives of streaming digital music, one independent platform has wavered little from its 10-year-long mission to bring the business to the unsigned artist with elegance and integrity.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself wow, Bandcamp has looked basically the same forever, you were entirely correct – now for a tenth of the century, at least – and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another Silicon Valley technology company toting a venture-funded origin story with such casual, yet robust long-standing user relationships underneath an unwavering, bullshit-free commitment to their product. Even under the most ludicrous scrutiny, the company’s rudder is flawless and its course true. What at first glance you’d swear to be an unsolicited conclusion to an obscure examination could very reasonably be described as cheesy, stubborn, dweebish, pious, or just generally boring, indeed, yet the respective accuracy of each of these adjectives are no more than the byproducts of the very same operational ethics which we’ve suggested, requested, demanded, and begged the rest of the world’s computing capitol to re-adopt, enforce, or at least ponder for a beat. The volume of the masses’ exponentially-increasing attendance of late is only overcome by its hysterical shouting match, so let us pipe down for a while, now so that we may be precise as we dig deeper into the methodology which has finally led to a profitable, drama-free outlying technology organization without the need for a single drop of analogous sweat over its brand upkeep. By arranging the company in its infancy to so precisely and elementally align with the needs of its customers, the original troupe of Bandcamp Bums ensured profound and lasting simplicity in the single overarching priority for those in every single role behind the quiet perpetuation of Bandcamp dot com: selling goodmusic.
The platform indiscriminately provides both individual artists and labels with a clean, cozy, charming, smartly-designed and technically competent storefront with a wide-open storage allocation, optimal search engine optimization and a widely-trusted point of sale experience in exchange for 15% of any sales that should come in – significantly less than other channels; half what Apple Music will take. In examining Bandcamp’s history, its impact on independent music, and its viability as an alternative streaming service, we shall excavate the truth behind the derisive cynicism directed its way by the titans of the tech and music press. Over the course of this super link-laden journey, we’d consider the alarmingly hypocritical possibility that it’s been overlooked by mainstream conversations only because it has so long operated in the precise manner we claim is so hopelessly absent from its neighbors in its deliberate, principled, and innovative journey towards a transparent, progressive vision.
To catch our starting gun, we must first travel to Face The Music 2016 in Melbourne – as far as one can possibly get from The Valley – alongside Bandcamp’s super-worldly Chief Curator, Andrew Jervis to observe his interview for a live audience.
Bandcamp has always grown extremely organically. There’s never actually been any advertising that we’ve done; there’s never any advertising on the site, and there never will be. We haven’t really tooted our horn very hard.
In fact, just about everything from the shrewd idealism of those who beget its conception to the on-the-nose care in their person-to-person customer service is so adamantly inverse of the tech industry archetype which the global End User community at large are presently discovering at twice the speed of sound there should at least be some conspiratorializing going around. Where I come from, launching a desolate business to little mainstream success with persistence and dignified determination is (or should be) regarded as a telltale sign that one is running a front (according to the television, anyway,) but exploration of this plausibility yielded nothing in Bandcamp’s case, even after I took the risk of incrimination and begged a certain Boston-based future funk producer to accept my ginormous bribe and include any sort of pharmacological substance with his summer beat tape. He wouldn’t even send antihistamines.
As uncomfortably as it lands on the soul, no moniker describes Bandcamp more comprehensively than “an online record store.” As far as Ethans go, Bandcamp’s CEO and founders’ public attaché Ethan Diamond is as good as they come: it’s quite telling that he is the only Silicon Valley CEO who’s remained intellectually grounded enough with the rest of us in order to retain any skills in nuanced forms of verbal communication like… humor. The closest the company has ever come to promotion? His awkward, sub-20-minute presentation at the XOXO Festival 2014 offered an impressively succinct introduction to their greater mission considering the unmistakable agony in his body language.
“We worked out of the public library for the first four years of the company's existence,” he admits. Impressively, Bandcamp was operated entirely as a “virtual company” until 2015.
Either Bandcamp just happens to be the single Silicon Valley company where the executives are unanimously so fucking fulfilled by their work without exception that they aren’t compelled to leave it long enough to stumble upon the inevitable coastal colleague with a connection to something like The Internet History Podcast, or technology journalism has definitively lost all reverence for actual innovation in favor of the emotionally-charged Innovation Myth, now relinquished almost entirely to the narrative control of its own protagonists. Perhaps it was inevitable that Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos would become immortalized as “those who make things happen,” but our ability to quantify value as consumers tends to scurry rapidly away behind our backs when they’re turned by the constant distraction of these mostly inert figureheads. As their personalities have stolen the story, the people in industry with their hands on real product have all but completely disappeared from the frame, and all of the work remaining at the End User’s eye level was abandoned by aspiration long ago and replaced with the unfulfilling mechanism of A Quick Buck. Though now we are proceeding into a similar frame – only because our subject cares more about their mission than claiming recognition for it and might just be the first such company run by a cast who become sincerely defensive at the suggestion of a cash-out.
“Bandcamp’s philosophy has always been very different [from] a lot of the companies we’re surrounded by,” reflects Jervis. “We are not a ‘let’s-raise-money-and-burn-through-it’ type of company.”
I know that your mind has been trained by years of engagement with the digital media of a rapidly-globalizing, venture capital-obsessed society to block the passage of this sort of language across your conscious threshold at risk of life-threatening overexposure to the Medium Dialect and its churnalising neoliberal cyberchode scholars of the Personal Brand; I know you’ve read the exact same quote from how many entrepreneurs in how many worthless, masturbatory business magazine profiles, but I swear on my one-of-a-kind Estonian Hilary Duff pullout that Jervis speaks without irony or deception. how many fucking churnicles have abandoned you, but this time, it’s actually sincere.
On The Web
Though Bandcamp was technically the first comprehensive library-modeled music streaming service in existence, the topical conversations between both technology and music journalists and industry executives flooding both podcast and news feeds at the moment orbiting the “Cord-Cutting” phenomena as it’s washed over television, cinema, and music are rooted in the same building blocks as the core technology behind the delivery of all of these conversations as well as their subjects, funny enough. As long as my subgeneration has known it, The Web has been a source of sound in some manifestation, but the example with the most perplexing history was also the first. Today, one of five tabs in the main menu of my iPhone’s native music app contains the text “Radio” beneath an “antenna with waves” graphic which opens a service once called iTunes Radio that was absorbed into – and restricted to subscribers of – Apple Music as of 2016, confusingly. However, both “iTunes Radio” and “Apple Music Radio(?)” – along with any and all audio streaming services (mentioned and not) – are fundamentally nothing more than different UX design interpretations of the “simple” practice of streaming an audio file, which made its debut at the turn of the century in the form of “Internet Radio.” Astonishingly, the protocol – still referred to by at least one person on Earth as “Webcasting,” no doubt – has survived nearly 20 years, and even the youngest of us have likely encountered it in unusual situations.
Ironically, the majority of Internet Radio broadcasts remaining on the air are nothing more than live duplicates of the traditional radio wave-bound products from the physical stations your car’s head unit receives. Even the current desktop version of iTunes maintains support for streaming “audio files over the internet,” though a glance at Apple’s dated support page for the process suggests it hasn’t crossed anybody’s mind for at least half of that history. In 1994, the publicly-funded radio network Voice of America became the “First [radio] on the Internet” when it began – after an introduction by Al Gore, no less – “offering digitized audio versions of selected newscasts and other program segments in 15 languages on its public internet server on Monday, Aug. 15,” according to former engineer Chris Kern. However – since we’re already this deep into internet history – a distinction must be established between streaming static files and streaming live audio. The first relies on pre-recorded audio files uploaded to a publicly-accessible server – in Kern’s original case, “via anonymous FTP and the Internet Gopher protocol,” which continues to be the elemental process behind every audio file streamed across the Web (including those on Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.) more or less because it ain’t broke.
Semantically, “live” digital audio streaming in its aforementioned “purest” form is more or less exclusive to Internet Radio. Obscured aside from the traditional station simulcast, Web-only Internet Radio stations have their own of “the Internet’s quiet success stories,” filled with quaint experiences and an endless cycle of death proclamations which continue to be disproven, anywise.
On June 27th, 1999, The Seattle Times ran an especially worthwhile introduction to the concept that likely represents the only major newspaper’s mention of SHOUTcast (the first and likely last name in DIY Web DJing) in the history of the printed word within a work of truly phenomenal tech reporting on Mark Mataassa’s part. From the past, one will find his chillingly spot-on foresight and well-considered observations are bestrewed with mind-boggling hilarity when they look.
Dialing in to the Net through a 56 kilobit-per-second modem, as I am, this seems like a ridiculous waste – or at least misallocation – of resources.
I'm using a $3,000 machine, tying up a phone line and seriously compromising my computing power for an experience that in sound quality, simplicity and dependability can't compare, truthfully, with the $9 Emerson clock radio an arm's length away.
And yet Web radio is one of the hottest ideas going in the ever-hot world of Internet startups and acquisitions: In the past few months, America Online and Yahoo! each have purchased fast-growing Web music sites, rock-music trendsetters like Rolling Stone and MTV have gotten into the business, and technological improvements – from Microsoft's newest browser and Real Networks' newest player to the latest MP3 enhancements – are closing the quality and accessibility gaps.
The combination of developments is not only changing how computers (and radios) are used, but offering a glimpse of a future when audience demographics are sliced ultra-thin – to the person – and everybody has the potential to be a radio broadcaster as well as listener.
I only have a few experiences with Internet Radio of my own, but they’re all rampantly more memorable than one would expect. The now in-stasis NWIRE project was by the most relevantly intriguing and savvily-curated home for a diverse host of electronic musicians I’ve ever come across – it was my second default browser tab for most of 2017, when I’d even listen to the odd-hour broadcasts overseen by just the automated library-perusing bot for hours. On episode 16 of Drycast, I recounted the absurd tale of my surprise morning encounter with a Norwegian station’s live broadcast from some European breakcore club, which was likely responsible for the most fun I’ve ever had working in retail.
Extratone’s former Tech Editor is partial to a station called Radio Swiss Jazz, which appears to be thriving in comparison with most visible broadcasters, and unapologetically emits a bizarre amalgamation of tunes both chart-topping and Seriously Obscure across every conceivable genre (including Marching Music,) and continent of origin. Between every few charts, the brief commentary and station identification has provided our own private mystery: Was that one pre-recorded? This guy was on yesterday, but has since shed his accent? However, these tiny temporary mysteries are Internet Radio’s only remaining value for us, and I suspect the same is true for all but the most laggard laggards. For as long as I’ve been coherent enough to disseminate between much of anything, very few of its visible offerings have offered anything groundbreaking or fresh, perhaps out of negligence (one can very easily arrange leave a machine running SHOUTcast to shuffle through a given library of music and/or podcasts indefinitely,) frustration, or economic necessity.
Crucially, the truly most critical consequences and contributions provided by the pioneers of Internet Radio to our current digital streaming experience were centered within intellectual property legislation and advertising-supported business. Unfortunately, this juncture marks our complete departure from my wheelhouse, but thankfully, a few sacred accounts of one of technology’s foremost confusing clashes with the ill-equipped, technoilliterate monoliths of the American justice system do indeed remain. As early as 2002, the ineffable Doc Searls reported on a document authored by the Library of Congress’ Copyright Royalty Board called “Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Ephemeral Recording and Webcasting Digital Performance of Sound Recordings” for Linux Journal in an encyclopedic breakdown of its implications ironically entitled “Why Are So Many Internet Radio Stations Still on the Air?” I would hope my comprehension is sufficient to declare that this was no Cambridge Analytica: only a few years subsequent the technology’s inception, operators within the Internet Radio business faced serious and immediate fines for their pre-enforcement distribution of copyrighted material stretching four years back – the severity of which the Doc suggested would “surely bankrupt many of the individual broadcasters that have been pioneering this marketplace for the longest time.”
Unlike the commercial radio stations we hear on the old-fashioned airwaves, Internet radio stations' primary market relationship isn't with advertisers; it's with listeners. In many cases, the listeners are the primary source of revenue. This business model is similar to that of noncommercial (public) radio, only the market relationship is much more direct and efficient. Internet radio stations don't need to stop programming to hold marathon whine-fests begging listeners to call phone volunteers and pledge money to qualify for a mug or a t-shirt. Listeners simply click on a PayPal or an Amazon link, and after a few more clicks they've made a payment.
By March, 2010, just 374 stations were aggregated in Google’s Internet Radio Directory, and my own quick sample from its list unfortunately indicated that most are now silent, but SHOUTcast has yet to be abandoned after all this time and we can safely suppose the core architecture of the internet will remain recognizable enough to support it until after we’re all dead, rendering the necessary tools indefinitely ready and accessible should new projects in NWIRE’s vein come along (I know of no better fate I could wish upon the protocol.) From Internet Radio’s pioneer days, we must skip over a whole era to close in on Bandcamp’s origin in the very brightest peak of Web 2.0.
Again, we find ourselves in 2008 and nobody knows what an iPhone is, but the same classic rock-worshiping, upper-middle class, white collar Early Majority who first loved Internet Radio are now rapidly and delightedly distributing links to something called “Pandora dot com” between AOL and Hotmail inboxes. True luxury music reproduction comes in the form of Beats headphones motivated by a 320GB iPod Classic. Budding audiophiles and backpacker dweebs illegally torrent lossless .FLACs to play over their Christmas-gifted studio monitors with WinAmp, which they’ve set up to impeccably “scrobble” their history with every played track to their Last.fm profiles. Everybody else is still buying music from iTunes. (Those who cannot afford to buy the music they intend to add to their libraries transition to the music nerd classification as soon as they’ve sought out a way to obtain it free.) “Streaming” comes from subscription services like Rhapsody (now Napster,) which are too buried in Digital Rights Management controversy to feel sustainable. MySpace Music has just begun to fade away – next year, in “the Twitter era,” SoundCloud will definitively replace it as the go-to creator network – and Pandora’s immediate future is bright – they’ll make a big move on brand-new mobile streaming experience when they launch their iPhone OS app in July, but the limited performance of the handset’s EDGE network will render it a poor alternative to onsite .mp3s for years to come.
In January, to minimal acclaim, Oddpost’s Ethan Diamond launched Bandcamp, the startup with programmer friends Joe Holt, Shawn Grunberger, and Neal Tucker to be “a sortof WordPress for musicians” – an easily-created, well-designed landing page to showcase one’s digital music files. As Holt laments in an interview with The HTML Times, creating an online presence for your music had long been “a pain in the ass.”
“You need to find a place to host it, you’ve gotta get the metadata right, it’s just hard. So we just decided we would do that hard part for musicians so that they didn’t have to be so nerdy.”
As an address to all of their shared complaints about the experience of online music distribution up to that point, early Bandcamp was an astounding piece of engineering. The quaint, unsurprisingly crate-digger-looking Ethan Diamond – who’s more or less remained the singular public face of the company since the very beginning – began a brand tradition of transparently music-nerdy correspondence with his first post on the Bandcamp blog, explaining the solutions the team had come up with in greater detail.
We keep your music streaming and downloading quickly and reliably, whether it’s 3am on a Sunday, or the hour your new record drops and Pitchfork gives it a scathingly positive review. We make your tracks available in every format under the sun, so the audiophilic nerderati can have their FLAC and eat mp3 v2. We adorn your songs with all the right metadata, so they sail into iTunes with artwork, album, band and track names intact. We mutter the various incantations necessary to keep your site top-ranked in Google, so when your fans search for your hits, they find your music long before they find bonkersforlyrics.com or iMyFace. We give your fans easy ways to share your music with their friends, and we give you gorgeous tools that reveal exactly how your music is spreading, so you can fan the fire.
The launch garnered very little attention from tech or music publications of the time, but Andy Baio’s interview with Diamond provides a substantial, technically in-depth picture of just how revolutionary and necessary it was. Most of what has continued to make Bandcamp such an essential tool was present at the very beginning: server-side stats and metadata (a unique architectural undertaking, no doubt,) track and album-oriented pagination, and a robust, easily-embedded Flash player.
Study Diamond’s first “screencast” alongside a video tour of SoundCloud from the period and you’ll notice just how much more functional, future-proofed and dignified Bandcamp appeared in comparison. As apprehensive as I am to be caught arguing for minimalism over good design, it’s made perfect sense in the use case of this one platform, which knew exactly what it was from birth, along with what it would always be, apparently, which is such a bizarre reversal of the archetypes and the relentless common narrative we know from The Valley’s legends. Ethan first shows the consumer’s experience – none of which has changed after a whole decade aside from quality-specific track purchases – before delving into the artist-side UI, beginning with the statistics tool, which included playback and search insights to a depth that was (and still is) unheard of from a free service. Then, he demonstrates the publishing process from upload to playback: adding album art, setting a release date, and pricing its purchase. Aside from their removal of the old waveform visualizer (I couldn’t find any record of an announcement of this decision, official or otherwise,) Bandcamp has changed absolutely nothing of what’s shown in Diamond’s tutorial. In the next few months, they would add custom page design, email address capture, and support for custom domains. By October 2008, they’d made enough waves to be picked up by CNET, for whatever that was worth. Apparently, Facebook Music was a legitimate property as well, but I do not remember anything about it at all—pondering an alternate reality in which The Social Network became the dominant online music streaming platform leads to a bizarre comparison of Neil Diamond and Mark Zuckerberg which I can’t imagine being altogether productive. Suffice it to say, the two founders’ visions differ greatly.
Contextually, it’s also important that we dwell for a moment on the legal and financial hullabaloo surrounding music sales during Bandcamp’s first formative years, and the federal government’s losing battle to interpret, enforce, or replace intellectual property law for the information age. As the Web had grown exponentially more capable and accessible as a means of audio file distribution, it had become absolutely saturated with blatantly DRM-circumventing .mp3s and .wavs. For years, the quickest way to follow up on a check it out sort of music recommendation was simply to search Google for its track name followed by “.mp3.” If the first go didn’t yield success, even the most rudimentary application of cryptography – like substituting some variation of “nsilmtic.rar” to find a download for Nas’ Illmatic, for instance – was a sure bet for one’s second try, which would often return several copies just laying around Google-indexed WordPress media libraries, though results hosted on Mediafire were a preferable alternative. This was the establishment into which my first adolescent digital music discoveries were borned, and I’m still convinced that 99% of us participants were completely without malice. I’d argue heartily that music’s brief escape from the tireless grip of the record industry as its only medium stumbled into digital form would be clearly shown to have a net gain for the whole of American recording artists if you could measure and plot it, including the past, present, and future use of peer-to-peer sharing.
2010 would prove to be The Year of Reckoning for the fraction of DRM-violating traffic on the visible Web, at least. Though it’d be virtually impossible to quantify, is it only reasonable to assume that many siteowners made some real money from the ad impressions that directly resulted from their unauthorized hosting and Mediafire-embedding, but let’s consider how minuscule even the most outrageously liberal overestimate would be, side-by-side with the billions in additional revenue YouTube has raked in from the same music since assuming their place as the de facto platform for quickly summoning just about any work of audio that’s ever taken digital form. It was in February of that year that Blogger (another Google property) deleted six music blogs from its platform in response to complaints about allegedly DMCA-violating .mp3s. The Registryinsisted the collective finger be pointed at the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, itself.
“It would seem the music bloggers aren't versed in the ways of DMCA claims and counterclaims. But you can't blame Google for that,” they concluded, after one of the blog’s founders expressed some of the most personally-dramatic words mine empathy has yet faced as quoted in The Guardian.
“It's just sad because we were documenting young people's music from all around the globe. For a lot of people, it was music they wouldn't have been able to discover elsewhere.”
In hindsight, “blame” is an even more useless avenue of one’s attention than usual, especially when one party (Google) was 100% exempt from any consequences all along. The alarming takeaway is not the DMCA’s deftness, but that Google had the freedom to wait for a parallel business incentive before deciding the law applied to them.
Frankly, we should all have realized long ago just how fucking futile it is to attempt to control any file traffic. Every desktop-class browser ships with the capability to capture any streamable media on the Web with a handful of keystrokes – it’d take a maximum of 20 minutes to bestow upon even the most casual user the knowledge they’d need to keep every single track, YouTube video, and Twitch stream they’d ever watch, 100% legally without a single third-party service/extension interaction, but the crucial question remains to what end, exactly? It’s easy, but it’s not exactly a fun way to spend an afternoon. The only two rationales that’d justify capturing streamed Web files at scale are 1) the totally bonkers inclination that any given property/ies is likely to disappear from the entire World Wide Web, ever or 2) the increasingly rarefying expectation of prolonged time away from internet access.
As Bandcamp has stood so obdurately still, the mainstream music streaming sphere has expanded titanically around it as if enveloping the Indie platform in a surrealist timelapse within the eye of a ruinous tech industry cyclone, which would explosively expand the market into a ghoulish, filthy monstrosity beyond anything we’d recognize from the rule of the WinAmp Hipster, long ago. Today, the coolest and most rabid daily music listeners I know all have Spotify memberships, joining 70 million others globally as of January. For most, it’s how they prefer to swaddle their lives in a constant soundtrack – at work, in the car, at school, then at home on the television. For many, it’s how they “explore” new music outside of peer and social recommendations... or, that’s how the narrative was supposed to go, anyway. Those folks I know who actually create music, however, are rarely seen using Spotify—even after they’ve endured untold horrors in order to publish their own music there—because the real story of its track record as a place to “Discover” new artists, genres, or sounds is completely abysmal. When 2017’s streaming data began coming in this past January, a popular feature by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski was run by the definitively terminal music magazine of broad notoriety—Pitchfork—entitled “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming,” which he began by citing some very alarming statistics.
“More than 99 percent of audio streaming is of the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks [on Spotify.] Which means less than 1 percent of streams account for all other music.”
Why? A brazen disregard for necessary meta information, for one.
“Look now at how badly their applications already serve entire genres of less popular music. Spotify lists recordings by song title, album title, or featured artist name. But that information is so limited it leaves out even the other performers on a recording, a crucial aspect to classical and jazz.”
Alarming for those of us who intend to create or consume any music separate the Top 40, anyway, which one should feel justified expecting from most people, most of the time. Last month, The Carters released an album on which even Beyoncé identified the problematic service by name. “Patiently waiting for my demise ‘cause my success can’t be quantified,” she rapped, “if I gave two fucks about streaming numbers woulda put Lemonade up on Spotify.” The unfortunate issue with this single denouncement of the industry’s current direction is that its source is adamantly guaranteed a place for her work within Spotify’s top 10 percent for the rest of her career’s lifetime (and probably far beyond.)
[I could now take the time to complain that she’s also entirely abandoned the city she owes for her career’s creation in its darkest hour, but let’s just plan on coming back to the subject at a later date, when we’ll be sure to touch on how terribly Drake also treats Houston (and women.)]
Unsurprisingly, the apathy is far from mutual. From the Swedish company’s perspective, the digits themselves should’ve been dearly and universally beloved from the beginning, and their exponentially ballooning hubris became so inflated by 2014 that they launched a WordPress blog dedicated entirely to promoting and discussing their data called Spotify Insights, proclaiming themselves—naturally—to be “the world’s favorite streaming service,” championing the growing diversity in their demographics. Though Beyoncé is mentioned only twice upon a search of its archive as it stands today, it’s with fanfare: “10 Female Artists Women Listen To The Most on Spotify” declared her the third most popular female artist among women, globally, and “Single Ladies” the number one female-streamed track in the world (assuming I’m interpreting its language correctly.)
We’ve established that Spotify has comfortably planted itself at the polar opposite end of the business spectrum from Bandcamp, yet for the sake of an oblivious adjudicating layman’s understanding, you’d have your work cut out for you explaining the difference between them: both are online marketplaces with gigantic libraries of digital music which a listener can browse, download locally, or stream from using Web browser or the mobile applications offered by each, respectively—and they can do from just about anywhere, for as much or as little as they wish. And—as the music industry and its satellites shall always remain for the rest of humanity’s reign—both are overwhelmingly associated with young people. There, the crucial divide should probably ring a bell—it’s been a constant between cultural generations for as long as culture, itself has existed.
There are those among us who’s adolescent adoration of music is still completely valid as a very powerful component of hormonal development, yet doomed to quickly sizzle into casual listening or worse by the time our post-secondary Senior year rolls around. And then, there are those on whom the curiosity clings devotedly on: the cool high school punk band-forming types our culture loves to romanticize, who’ll inevitably end up bald and bespeckled with a pre-dawn community radio block. These Musicians, Crate-Diggers, and capital-A Audiophiles have historically overlapped in synonymous functions across a love triangle of dweebish intolerability, though it’s become especially easy as of late to forget that DIY recording is by no means a recent development—its financial and technical barrier-to-entry has simply plummeted thanks to the developmental progression of Digital Audio Workstations and a growing industry of consumer-oriented audio equipment. For succinct insight into this dynamic, let’s refer to the pre-dialogue context in Chuck Klosterman’s GQ interview with “the second- or the third-best rock guitarist of all time”—Zinc Blimp legend Jumbo Page.
The only thing Page really wants to talk about [is] the sound of the music, and how that sound was achieved. He can talk about microphone placement for a very, very long time. Are you interested in having a detailed conversation about how the glue used with magnetic audiotape was altered in the late 1970s, subsequently leading to the disintegration of countless master tapes? If so, locate Jimmy Page. If a different musician obsessed over technological details with this level of exacting specificity, he would likely be classified as a “nerd,” as that has become a strange kind of compliment in the Internet age. People actually want to be seen as nerds. But that designation does not apply here. Jimmy Page does not seem remotely nerdy.
Bandcamp’s core architecture was handbuilt from the beginning to handle the “hard part” for creators “so that they didn’t have to be so nerdy,” which it, alone pioneered on the Web, becoming the best metadata management utility for all time, but also committing to a traditional interpretation of music mediums that can feel old fashioned in 2018. Despite having been around for a directly comparable length of time, SoundCloud has maintained its relevance among friends in my network as the more socially-focused platform for keeping up with work from their peers thanks in large part to its exclusive, timestamp-oriented comment function, which allows for ultra-specific shortform feedback between fellow creators and fans. This is how the company has chosen to grow its community, which has lent especially to its strength in the most “nerdy” independent scenes: hip-hop and electronic music. The experience is busy by design and the divide between listener and creator is next to non-existent—by now, the difference is universally irrelevant. External sharing has also become a major strength since the inception of SoundCloud’s Web audio player, which was unlike any other embeddable we’d ever seen at the time. Over the years, it’s become the most universally-supported means of embedding a track or playlist elsewhere, though the space has quite recently began blooming with a few much slimmer Open Web offshoots like Vocaroo, Clyp, and Instaudio.
While I can casually throw these names around for you in the same sized font, the gulfs between the properties they denote are completely inexpressible in words. Because Spotify went public in Q1 of this year, they released their first earnings report in April: 170 million active monthly users, $1.33 billion in total quarterly revenue, and $5.7-$6.2 billion in expected total revenue for 2018. I’ll spare you the entire Forbes piece it would require to comprehensively demonstrate just how cavernous of a disparity canyon the industry represents. Early projects like Pandora were docile, ad-free, and sincerely curious about the curatorial potential of music streaming services – *let’s use this cool new tech to play music for anybody with a Web browser if only because it’ll be a blast* – yet in that sense, they’ve all failed entirely. All except Bandcamp, anyway.
“We started as a service to help artists sell their music and merchandise directly to their fans, but then as the site grew—it’s now at about 12 million tracks and 1.5 million albums [as of 2014]—we evolved into also being a destination for music Discovery,” he explains, partially anticipating the foot-to-the-floor transition to streaming which has indeed shook the industry the hell up over the years since. The company's solution is minimal, elemental, yet uniquely alternative as only theirs could be: an idealized digital interpretation of a music collection, which had actually launched a year before XOXO as part of “Bandcamp for Fans.” That release notably introduced the ability to “follow” both artist and fan accounts, the now-iconic “supported-by” section on release pages showing customers’ avatars and optional comments, and public wishlists. “I think it’s great to use a streaming service for music Discovery—they can be really really good for that,” Diamond concedes, before reiterating one of the several variations of Bandcamp’s founding premise that composes his core argument: “if you actually care about music, and you care about the people who make it, and you want them to keep making it, the best way to do that is to buy directly from them, or to use services that allow you to directly support them.”
Instead of the “firehose”-like experience of a contemporary activity feed, “you’ve got a collection of albums and tracks that people were passionate enough to spend money on.” For my personal use, Ethan lit up a long-dormant incandescent bulb in my skull. My use of Bandcamp had long been to purchase and download music files, only—never to stream it—and there’s been good reason for this. While Bandcamp has formally supported playback on iPhone and iPad in-browser since July 2010, actually using it for any substantial amount of playback has always been a souring endeavor. Considering that it’s persisted to this day, we must concede that it is part of an intentional design rather than just an irritating flaw: multitasking between apps or even browser tabs will prevent continuous playback of an album, as will locking the device. In order to move from track to track fluidly, one must keep the page with the in-use Bandcamp player front and center. For three years, this was the only way to stream Bandcamp on mobile, but such capability was far from reliably expected by even the earliest adopters, then—3G data networks were worse than you remember, anyway—and then in 2013, the Bandcamp app was launched on iOS and Android, providing a sufficient fix in my book at the time. (I’d rather any externally-embedded players I may engage with in an album review or artist profile be limited to a single track, anyway.) However, the app itself remained quite mediocre for years, which was a tangible disappointment given how revolutionary their desktop experience had been when the company launched,but not necessarily a substantial deterrent to the sort of user they were attracting.
I made a point to spend a lot of time engaging with Bandcamp’s service as much as possible – naturally, this included a trip back through my neglected, digitally dusty Collection, which proved a way more emotionally provocative experience than I anticipated. Ethan’s simple truth didn’t really sink in until I realized that this list is made up exclusively of my real favorites, and there’s not a single track that is not inextricably and intoxicatingly tied to a specific era(s) of my life (yes, even that one Blank Banshee album... I was 18, okay?) It’s absurdly powerful—not something I could engage with for any extended time without becoming saturated with nostalgic gut stuff. (Listen for my upcoming special celebratory episode of Extratone Radio to hear the best music I’ve found through Bandcamp.) It hadn’t occurred to me that I would retain ownership and streaming rights to all music I’ve purchased—including for a $0.00 sum, as I did for at least half of the works you see—even after an artist chose to delete or hide it on their own page. (Though they are not retained in my public collection, of course.)
The Discovery Debacle
Pursuing an objective definition of “music Discovery” might appear foolish – an individual’s music taste is perhaps the most broadly angst-steeped realms of overwhelming subjectivity in modern American culture, after all – but its the pungent poignancy of our fundamental human relationship with sound, itself which makes the history of Discovery’s digitization so important (and fascinating.) If I were to ask you what you believe should be the single most important function that must be reliably performed by any “music Discovery” device – whether it be an application, Web service, magazine or even a crate-digging habit – the single factor which would render whole vague concept inert, irrelevant, and/or completely destroyed, how would you answer? How would you interpret the question?
It’s important we do well to take a considerable moment to cultivate a special wariness of the eggshells beneath our feet in this arena. Debatably at least a minim more than one’s taste in film, Americans from Generation X on forward until the end of time (I suspect) will hold “their” music as perhaps the most integral support upon which their identities are built throughout every stage of their lives. The intense sensation of ownership that propels this phenomenon within our culture leaves an especially sensitive passage ahead of us.
As a wide-eyed teenager and infantile audio producer, I explored the idea of anti-music in my own entirely Bandcamp-supported project while I searched – aided tremendously by my expert best friend – for the edgiest, least sensical sounds and scenes on which to publicly attach on my identity in an opposing of “Discovery’s” extremes with fandom: an obsessive, entirely-detached last-ditch skirmish between the cultural reality and my delusional pubescent need to be unique. This process appears to be a universal requisite in modern youth in one form or another, but it’s important now that I emphasize this confession: I was an especially ostentatious little backpacker fuck, but I’ve continued to find my shame well worth achieving a specific balance for music’s purpose in my life, and I’d anecdotally endorse its potential to relieve cognitive dissonance at great scale. There’s only so much fun to be had blasting breakcore cassettes at deafening, distorted volumes solely to bewilder rural overnight convenience store clerks on their smoke breaks in the wee hours or the bruteforce seizure of the speakers’ Bluetooth connection at a frat party just to play harsh noise or anime-sampling Hardstyle while demonically shrieking – eyes rolled back – and lighting various parts of oneself ablaze before one realizes that 1) it’s they who end up looking like the idiots for aggressively breaching a group’s fun with inappropriate tunes (yes, no matter how interesting, rare, or underrated they may be, Chadley;) 2) by ferally manifesting, you’ve deligitimized yourself, which 3) can seriously damage any future attempts to accomplish the fundamental drive to share the gospel of music’s variety out of your own rubish frustration with the differences between you.
The real, sweetest truth is that 100% of all music has value potential because of the medium’s broad influence on the human psyche. Pop music is amazing right now; the signature trap sound we devalued with Datpiff jokes made us all look like fools when it unconsciously transcended our “irony” and burrowed its own huge partition in our sincere hearts. After my pitiful attempt to reject and distance myself from my own rural roots by scoffing at country music for years, I’ve made a beautiful peace with the childhood memories and the historic excellence of Shania Twain and The Dixie Chicks in their mastery of both wholesome joy and crippling nostalgia (I’ve even cried to Taylor Swift.) Yes, it’s been entirely reasonable all along to enjoy the straightforwardly slothen pleasure in belching “Sweet Home Alabama” pounding cheap pissbeer on a foul pontoon boat on the Lake of the Ozarks, leaving my penultimate irony to confess that I’ve only found true and serene identity through music after learning how to stop insisting so violently upon the worldly, one-of-a-kind superiority of my “taste.”
That said, it’s still bewildering how content we are to abruptly abandon the substance music had to our teenage selves out of misconstrued justifications for our classic fainéance – actively choosing to subject our public ambiance to thousands of replays of “the best” records in favor of dipping even the most cowardly toe into unfamiliar waters, even when the opportunity cost is inherently halved – only to then have the audacity to evangelize our dilapidated conceptions of “good music” to our children as we demonize the music of their generation, depriving them of a very essential rite of their cognitive development. I can think of little more reductive, repugnant, reckless, or racist crusades as a model figure than indoctrinating your child with an inherent distaste for their own culture, and nothing more deeply alarming to hear from the mouth of someone born in the 21st century than shit like “Queen was better than any rapper will ever be,” or “real musicianship will die forever with Eric Clapton.” It’s unfair and unnatural: imagine if your high school classmates had consistently turned up their scrunched nose at the living whole of rock & roll, declaring Scott Joplin to be the last musician they could stand.
Consider if the industry-wide customer experience standard for the musical ambiance in 1970s American eating and drinking establishments was entirely comprised of works by John Phillip Souza, and the most prevalent cultural revolution manifested itself something like the following: In countless popular films set in the time (and the stories told today by your parents of their youths that informs them,) a group of popular high school boys – generally three longtime childhood friends and a single addition from the previous summer with an Army Dad and a moderate bad boy aura that’s made him one of the school’s notoriously attractive students and the somewhat-abusive leader in the pack. After spending some time trying to convince the other three (the crucial moment for his case being the bad kid’s rare moment of sincerity trope) of its guaranteed social, sexual and financial ROI, they seal their agreement to start a band with a four-way saliva slap. Imagine if in the progression of this exhausted old tale, it remained entirely classic (and boring) when it faded to a “THREE MONTHS LATER...” ceiling shot of the four the in full, gleaming, performance-spec get-up of the presidential marching band in their garage, and it was revealed that they’d they practiced “The Star Spangled Banner” every night just to make the girls swoon in the film’s resolution with an encore of “America the Beautiful” at an unsanctioned (and very patriotic!) house party. Would you have made out on your first date with someone in your 80s high school Chemistry class after they’d was about
but suffice it to say that it’s absolutely fucking bonkers how often I encounter “Sweet Home Alabama” (and other tunes I’ve already heard hundreds of times throughout the first third of my existence, conservatively) dripping down from the overhead speakers in all manner of big retail stores, where it’s inappropriate and unwelcome. Even from the generous assumption that every single one of them is an objective masterwork of composition, the amount of affection the American music listening audience has for the same 500 singles is on par with our rampant gun violence in terms of our unanimous tolerance for ridiculously illogical habits. I’ve been sitting in a cute, moderately trendy coffee shop on the corner of the major avenue of access to my cute, moderately trendy Portland neighborhood for an hour now, and I’ve recognized every single one of the tracks played just a bit too loudly on the stereo. I’ve been sick of them all since Middle School. That one Bow Bow Chicka Chicka thing… How very charming.
“The 70s, the 80s… the one-hit wonder channel!”
Contrary to the popular hipster narrative we’ve just defeated, it’s not the popularity of the lineup that makes these experiences so distasteful, but their regularity. It doesn’t take a doctor of psychology to observe that tireless exposure to any given work of art inevitably erodes its value, yet we continue to expend resources saturating most mundane spaces in our society with an unyielding regurgitation of the same brackish pop culture symbols as if we’re trying to either induce a canonical vomit, intentionally obliterate the Yelp! reviews for a distant future museum’s “North America Enters the 21st Century” exhibit, or both. After failing my best attempts to elaborate with historical analogy citing a past event, I’m afraid we must pivot to a science fiction-esque nanonarrative containing obnoxiously speculative hypotheticals, instead.
Imagine: It’s 2036 – four years after we found out we are not alone in the universe when a significantly more advanced civilization makes formal first contact with humanity by sending a party of diplomats, anthropologists, and explorers (who were actually getting ready to go in 2016 before getting word of the Trump presidency and deciding we weren’t quite ready just yet) who land their space egg right in front of the United Nations’ New York City headquarters and expressing something to the tune of hey so um… we noticed you guys moved in and we just wanted to stop by and say hi, entirely altering humanity’s self-perception and future trajectory (see: works by Gene Roddenberry) yadda yadda. The visitors expressed a wish to begin a cultural exchange project with us, and it’s just now coming to fruition… I have only moments ago made history in the eyes of the entire world when I walked through the front door of a Target store in suburban New Jersey leading a hovering hyper-intelligent silicon-based sphere of agender mist (roughly comparative to a basketball in size,) who’s already both impressing and shaming me tremendously as we move by the in-store Starbucks. From above us, Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is belched upon my life’s proudest moment and my guest requests we pause to discuss it, to my profound horror.
“The sound from the reproduction devices embedded above us...” the android translator trails off for a moment. “It is the same noise that was distantly reproduced 51 hours ago in ‘Miami’ as I conversed with Ambassador Phillip Defranco about ‘the setting sun’ on the ‘beach,’ coming from a small open air structure which he defined as ‘a surf shop,’ which was occupied by a young male who appeared to be moderately agitated, moving about in jagged strides as he wildly smacked the foundational surface with ‘a broom.’ The Ambassador explained the youth was likely nearing the end of his allotted period of daily occupational labor.”
Blood is flooding my cheeks as I listen with a building dread to the robot’s interpretation, awash with all manner of embarrassment for my species.
“Is the purpose of this noise reproduction of a logistical nature, or is it perhaps a common ritual within business and/or working class culture?”
Now, it’s your turn to be the human representative in this pico science fiction: you’re now obligated to confirm the alien anthropologist’s hypothesis and explain that “Closing Time” is but one piece of recorded music among billions of diverse expressive works across millennia. You must reverently describe how the “universal language” of math within melodious composition has long been a hefty buzzword in the pop culture conversations about interstellar communication and our longtime search for extraterrestrial intelligence from the future-thrilled 90s—S.E.T.I.’s glory days – when we felt pretty damned good about space. The historic launch of the United Nations’ “greetings on behalf of the people of our planet” etched into The Golden Record aboard Voyager I and Jodie Foster’s novel portrayal of a S.E.T.I. scientist in the iconic Carl Sagan-sourced 1997 science fiction drama Contact are among the globally-celebrated Best Hits of humanism (not to mention the organization listed on your paystubs,) and they weigh a billion tons on you, now—in the most significant moment of your entire life, bar none – as you explain on behalf of your species to real extraterrestrial intelligence the reality of how negligent it is actually is of the culture the Record claimed to treasure. The worst part, though? The entire experience is accompanied by a nasal-as-hell Semisonic soundtrack.
Aren’t you frustrated? You should be, but it’s not over yet: inevitably, your round fictional companion of note is going to follow up their query with some seriously burning meat.
“Just a half-generation ago, your utopian dream of a globally-connected world – in which everyone would be empowered to saturate and culture themselves with new ideas and forms of expression – was the defining aspiration of your society, and yet you’ve definitively achieved Total Connectivity, now, and caused the overwhelmingly opposite result: you’re all intolerable shitheads who every passing solar orbit become less and less capable of anything but regurgitation of the same foul bullshit. Y’all fucking wack. I’m out. ”
And there, that filthy little ball would have us all. Friends, colleagues, human siblings of mine, it’s long-past time we expect better from ourselves as music citizens of the world. Even the longest living of us are endowed with very little opportunity to absorb anything more than an infinitesimal fraction of all there is to experience, and we’ve all been carelessly and embarrassingly chucking it to the weeds. If it this all seems excessive, there’s no need to feel attacked, but for Pete’s sake… please stop claiming you “like music” because it’s misleadingly inaccurate and I’ll promise never to use the phrase “music citizens of the world” again, in exchange.
Distribution & Curation
You, your friends, and I are missing out on way too much cool shit and we’re going to continue addressing possible causes and solutions to this ongoing catastrophe without asking for a single moved finger on your part because we are fucking saints. Let’s come back to ground and consider a casual real-world use case for a streaming service which I’ve observed.
It’s just after 1PM on an especially beautiful Summer day in 2018, and you’ve decided with your two best friends that an impromptu hot dog barbecue in your little apartment’s parking lot would be a great way to spend the afternoon. You get on Facebook Messenger – no time to bother with the formality of creating an event – and begin to bother your group of art school friends. In a few hours, you’ve set up chairs in a circle around the borrowed fire pit, gathered meat tubes, marshmallows, and beer, and your guests have begun to arrive. The next step: retrieve your cordless Bluetooth speaker from inside to place it atop a log nearest the scene, re-pair it with your smartphone, and ___?
Let’s acknowledge that music has incredibly diverse purposes of value in human life—of course I realize this—and ultimately, nobody can dictate those fulfilled for another individual by any given track, album, artist, or genre across time and setting. Even splittercore-obsessed serial killers and body modding cybergrind disciples are doomed: inevitably, they will one day let their guard down and find themselves singing along with “Goodbye Earl” on the radio way off key, smiling like a doofus. Even if one hates humanity, they will eventually be forced to acknowledge that The Dixie Chicks came very close to its penultimate manifestation.
I understand that it’s not always time for something new for everyone, but you’re missing out on music’s most worthwhile function by far if you never seek anything fresh, and—if you still find yourself unwilling to bother, even—carrying around even the slightest bit of anecdotal knowledge about what’s going on in music with you can be invaluably culturing to your image when socializing with youths and alien intelligences, alike. There is a spectrum of enthusiasm (or pretentiousness, depending on one’s own subjectives) for music that is far more culturally consequential than the practice of partaking and/or patroning any other artform. Settle comfortably on any point – extreme or not – and you’re at serious risk of being uncool. Nobody wants Anthony Fantano showing up to their party, but if you live too long confusing the Beach Boys with the Beatles – as I have – folks start to behave as if there’s something wrong with you. If it helps, let’s suppose this to be the real reason behind my need to discuss Bandcamp – perhaps its relative lack of aged or worshiped-at-scale work justifies it all.
By this nature, its effort is designed to bracket the enthusiast as wholly as possible, but the value most in need of its experience has become its comparatively extravagant hospitality for the dabbler. The “Discoverinator” (I would’ve voted for calling it “Genre-Fucker”) is simply the most ingenious tool available anywhere to filter music by genre, subgenre, location, and medium. Or at least... It’s too gorgeous not to be. Thanks to its recent visual redesign, I don’t even care if it’s useful—it’s just a beautiful thing to play with on both the Web and the iOS app (though I’d bet they were each crafted separately.)
Front and center on the homepage is the Bandcamp Daily – a showcase of features, lists, albums of the day, and artist interviews from various staff and guest contributors which I’d most certainly judge befit of a standalone publication – and the Bandcamp Weekly – an extraordinarily-produced podcast like no other with special mixes, guest appearances, and commentary which the company’s Chief Curator Andrew Jervis has been honing since 2013 over 289 episodes as of this morning. Its player functions both in-browser and on the iOS app unlike any I’ve ever seen, with a list of embedded tracks that pop out when they’re actually spinning on the show so that you can engage further with them, if you wish. It’s difficult to describe, but it feels visually like you’re listening to a playlist in Bandcamp’s normal player, except tracks are intermixed and faded between one another beneath the host’s commentary, so the audio itself must be pre-rendered. Regardless, it’s nearly as extraordinary an achievement in Web design as the program itself is in curatorial music broadcasting. I’m no addict to the genre, but I have yet to Discover another similar product which I can binge episode after episode for hours without becoming bored or irritated as I can the Bandcamp Weekly’s.
To fill in the parking lot party blank with a single streaming solution for the sake of our young, art school-attending, likely more musically-literate than average summer barbecue guests—how viable is Bandcamp? Truthfully, it’s only slightly more suited now than it was in its earliest infancy for obediently filling a space with ambiance. We could ponder whether or not its design discourages absentminded playback only consequently, or perhaps condescendingly from the high, white tower of hipster elitism on which you’ll occasionally hear it accused of perching, but UX design is the most ridiculous sphere within which to intenspeculate in lieu of verification (gazing at you with the timeless grace of a thousand moons, Medium,) so lets hold off to seek out an interview with a Bandcamp representative.
SoundCloud would be a bit closer to the mark—it can be configured to simply keep going after you’ve finished a track, regardless of where you may be within the interface (excluding the embedded player, of course)—but it’d be much safer to spend the smidgen of extra time required to find a manmade playlist. Letting it loose will quickly land you on some seriously dubious (and probably embarrassing) nerd shit. As I understand it, YouTube has long been the go-to houseparty music player because of its universality, Chromecast support, and (obviously) visual component for accompanying music videos, so its new, ad-free YouTube Music service has a lot of potential, in theory, but we’re outside in this scenario and our smartphone is our only playback device.
Startlingly, the Web’s given best answer to this situation is still Spotify in all of its culture-diluting gluttony. Internet radio? Yikes. You can still find a gem of a stream every once in a while, but they’re usually unreliable and probably abandoned, so the catalog won’t last you more than a few hours before you’ll start to hear repeats. You could search out the internet stream of your favorite radio station—a student radio station, even—but those offering the most entertaining programming are unlikely to have a suitable playlist on a summer afternoon. So—forgetting its overwhelming financial funneling toward its top 10% and everything else for a moment—why not just give up the pretense and use Spotify? Again, for most of my friends, it works just fine to play Cat Stevens, Run DMC, Gorillaz or The Rolling Stones, but I have yet to figure out a combination of keywords to keep it on target within even the most rudimentary parameters. Such ill-restraint becomes especially dire—necessary, really—when I queue up “Cannibal Ox Radio” for the office and R Kelly ends up playing, 20 minutes in. Using personally-targeted artist bans is probably too subjective to ask of such a service in the spotlight, but how about an option to filter out white rappers? (I hope you didn’t blink because that’s by far my best contribution in tech writing yet.)
The truth is, I’d probably end up calling upon Apple Music as I’ve been an on-and-off subscriber since its release, but have yet to meet a single fellow user. The girth of its catalog is reportedly still nearly 25% larger, its UI is significantly more cohesively integrated with iOS (which hasn’t always been a given from Apple with its music software, mind you,) yet it costs me precisely the same $9.99 a month as Spotify Premium would. If I did know somebody else who used it, they’d be able to see my public profile including my playlists and activity, just as my followers on Spotify can, and I can create “Stations” for artists that function similarly to Spotify’s endless adaptive playlists, but—crucially, for myself—after the app’s redesign for iOS 10, the integration of Apple Music music with my own iTunes library is completely seamless. With unlimited data, I’ve selected the option to refrain from storing music locally, which further diminishes the distinction between “my” music and the music I’ve paid for the rights to stream. Fundamentally, the end result is that I pay ten bucks a month for “ownership” of all the music on iTunes proper.
While I might personally play Bandcamp Weekly episodes in such a context and gladly accept whatever results I’d get, I’d only do so acknowledging the subsequently increased risk of some vest-wearing fuck I’ve never met springing out of the bushes to accost me about Weird Allan. However, I am neither cool nor musically literate, which makes me particularly vulnerable to misusing algorithmic Discovery—the practice in which artificial intelligence has become most widely-deployed which continues to prove itself to better deserve the term “automated wallowing,” or “robotized ear rot.”
Ironically, Damon Krukowski’s aforementioned “responsibility” essay on Pitchfork openly cites Liz Pelly’s burning-hot and 100% essential analysis of algorithmically-generated playlists for The Baffler notes the publication’s own substantial relationship with Spotify, including a Webby Award-winning advertorial series called Inside Discovery, which the two collaborate to produce that’s “meant to boost awareness of the ‘Discover Weekly’ feature.”
The series shows Pitchfork editors (and favored musicians) gushing about their love of streaming—the immediacy! The deep back catalogs! One editor says it helps him keep track of his listening habits, while another rejoices at not having to dig through crates at record shops anymore. Yet another likens Spotify to walking around a music festival, discovering something new at every turn. What does it mean for “the most trusted voice in music” to celebrate an algorithm as preferable to its own crate digging? What does it mean when the tastemaking humans endorse data-driven machines? What does it mean when the algorithms become cool? Virtually every music publication now relies on Spotify media players to embed songs within online articles, and Websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone regularly celebrate their playlists with listicles: “Ten Albums To Stream Now.” “The Five Playlists You Need to Hear This Summer.”
We love bespoke Open Web projects, so exploring Inside Discovery’s (surely bespoke) experience induced the same pathetic sort of I wish business just incentived building nice things disappointment which has become my default, bitchy mood, and blaming as a further let down to immediately land on Mitski’s playlist, to whom I’d just been reintroduced (by Pitchfork, admittedly) after happening upon her performance at Pitchfork 2017 (which is organized, admittedly, by Pitchfork.)
Upon a brief review of these once-petty desires and the new, apocalyptic solutions which we are burning barns full of cash to develop, it would appear that the overwhelmingly defining feature of those which are at all viable remains to be the interference of a human being, and why wouldn’t it be, still, when manual music aggregation remains so desperately cheap? I’d wager heavily that there’s at least a single editor within Apple Music who’s spent serious time embedded in the Berlin techno scene considering how regularly the prime “Techno” playlist is updated with new work of a moderately-industrial bias.
“The downside to automated music Discovery is that we’re encouraged to develop a taste profile and stick to it,” opines somebody on Pigeons & Planes, complimenting Pelly in their profile of former BBC Radio 1 host, Zane Lowe, and his new job curating an Apple Music playlist?
The truth is, the stories that come to us that smell the strongest of philanthropy on the surface are often actually about some dusty, Y2K-lookin’-ass nerd with powerfully tedious grievances and too much time on their hands. The whole world knows the details by now of how Mark Zuckerberg’s horny social ineptitude led to Facebook’s conception, but we must both keep in check the bad habit we share – the whole present-day reading world and I, that is – of dwelling entirely too much on the most “negative,” soul-agitating tales in what we perceive to be the pursuit of necessary ingredients for concocting a better solution. Bandcamp’s story is predominantly comprised of smart decisions, sincere transparency, and savvy ideas which are best examined in contrast, I’m afraid, with all that’s being done wrong everywhere else.
Are my favorite punk bands now Bandcamp bands? Are they suddenly wanting to conform to a kind of Bandcamp aesthetic? I don’t think so. Not yet. But if that does happen, something might be lost — a sense of these bands defining themselves as they want to, which is sort of the Bandcamp promise in the first place. People can use help navigating the riches of Bandcamp. But its estimable editorial project opens an interesting question: When does help turn into tastemaking?
You missed it, didn’t you—the ten-year anniversary of Bandcamp’s launch? Ashamed, I realized last month that I did, too. Ashamed, because I owe a lot to to the platform’s unwavering commitment to the distribution and curation of work made by just about all of my favorite artists—within and outside of my social network. Throughout 2015, I hosted a number of conversations with exceptional, future-looking creators on Drycast which I am especially proud of. On one early episode with an exceptional total of seven music makers, I observed in a beat that “all of us have Bandcamp accounts,” before the week’s guest, Samantha Carter, suggested that she’d found her page especially financially rewarding, and originated the concept of the “Bandcamp Sugar Daddy” (which I personally ship 100%.)
“It's something I take for granted,” said my friend yzome – a truly one-of-a-kind electronic producer who’s far-traveling composition is probably the closest Digital Audio Workstation equivalent of Extreme Use Testing—when automotive manufacturers effectively torture new prototypes with the most inhospitable conditions on Earth until they break. However, it’s not a PR stunt in yzome’s case—he’s just very good at doing what he does after doing it for nearly 10 years—and his end product requires a hell of a lot more than any one genre would ever presume, but it more than delivers back on the investment with significant interest.
When he appeared on Drycast in January 2015, we failed to achieve any descriptors more sophisticated than “alien sounds,” but perhaps that’s all they need: the inner worlds into which yzome invites us are of manic, unpredictable arrhythmia which poses an unapologetic, yet magically lighthearted challenge to any cohesive theory. It’s very rare that his proudly-ungenreable exploration of the fringes does not demand the listener’s full attention, yet it always manages to be inoffensively aggressive like nothing else, which suggesting promise for the possible upheaval of a long-upheld natural law among electronic dance music: yzome doesn’t need to be a shithead to challenge the listener intellectually.
Play YVETTE for any boomer you know with that classically impenetrable disgust for all electronic music, and you’ll witness firsthand how special yzome’s particular innovation truly is. No, they’re not going to be sexually liberated, or anything—it’s still going to be alarming—but you’ll notice that the swift and overwhelming fury which sample and break-heavy dance music has always awoken within them has been miraculously circumvented. Instead of immediately storming off, they’ll be paralyzed in an existential fugue state from which they may never quite fully emerge. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s witchcraft.
There is no other across the (especially-wide) electronic spectrum who can so loudly go so far, so fast without any insincerity, whatsoever. His arrangement seems mischievous and all over the place, but really listen and you’ll hear rips of recognizable patterns playing peekaboo in willy-nilly bursts that reveal his dynamic mastery of the dance music space through Breakcore, Juke, Footwork, and Techno sampling. All of this is to say, really, that yzome’s music represents a level of boundary-pushing which only a niche audience tends to truly appreciate, yet is undoubtedly worthy of an elegantly-presented host like Bandcamp.
“Like thank god I don't have to look for a label to release this. It's seen as a legitimate platform (by people who might actually care about what I’m doing, at least,) which I think is less offputting than uploading things to Mediafire or whatever else. It’s populist and boutique at the same time.”
Populist, yet boutique. Can we really be expected to exceed this summation? Well, nobody’s said much at all in the mainstream press, but what has been said is 1) unusually misplaced in the spaces of those least likely to find it relevant and 2) way more insightful than you’d expect.
“Bandcamp has an independent-artist identity because of practicalities: Independent artists from Web-centered subcultures need it most,” observed an especially savvy online aside from by Ben Ratliff—jazz and pop critic for The New York Times—asking “Is Bandcamp the Holy Grail of Online Record Stores?” So why aren’t we talking about it? The other important takeaway: founder Ethan Diamond told Ratliff that “the company has never spent money on promotion.” This is largely why I’ve invested so much time and affection into this piece—gratitude is not often sellable incentive for mainstream coverage.
The truth is, the continued obscurity of Bandcamp’s story despite all it’s done comes down not to any malpractice by the company (in fact, it would likely be more visible had it fucked up more,) or even to its prevalence in the careers of big industry names (whom I will address in detail shortly,) but because it simply operates too magnanimously for its customers to be taken seriously as a newsworthy business, which is problematic and personally infuriating. In November, 2015, Bandcamp made mention in The New Yorker via the openly diminutive context of Car Seat Headrest’sorigin story, describing it as “a charming alternative,” and “a casual, low-risk approach.” Granted, it’s worth noting that the platform did not address its lack of “editorial guidance” until a year later, with the launch of the excellent Bandcamp Daily blog, but I think you’ll agree it’s in poor taste to argue against the legitimacy of a music distribution platform because it’s too democratic. Perhaps it’s still just beyond reasonable expectations to get a top-of-the-foodchain music writer’s head wrapped around the idea that such products on The Internet can easily—even optimally—service both hobbyists and professionals.
Last year, Bandcamp was responsible for $270 million in payments to artists like Jlin,the genius commonly associated with Footwork (certainly Chicago’s most underreported and popularly underrepresented movement,) for pushing its expressive boundaries both in theory and geography further than any other, and who’s so far produced two of the most “aggressively beautiful” records you’ll find anywhere in the process.[i] Type her name into any search engine and her Bandcamp page is always the first result, yet Cntrl-Fing for “Bandcamp” will yield 0 results from her interviews with The Fader, FACT Magazine, Pitchfork, The Seventh Hex, Passion of the Weiss, PopMatters, Crack Magazine, DUMMY, The Guardian, The Quietus, BOMB Magazine, Ableton Blog, The Creative Independent, Rolling Stone, SPIN, No Fear of Pop, self-titled magazine, Circulation Magazine, The New Yorker, Cyclic Defrost, Mixmag, or melting bot, and only one in Interview Magazine. To be clear: I am not arguing that Jlin—a black female music artist—should be profusely thanking Bandcamp—a service founded largely by white male programmers—for hosting her most visible page but rather that the more independent of these publications, especially, should mention its role in her story or—at the very least—be hyperlinking to her Bandcamp page first, for both her’s and their readers’ sake—Bandcamp’s cut of album purchases is half of iTunes. From the user experience perspective, it’s absurd that those of these pages including embedded music players chose to use SoundCloud’s—which is more resource heavy (yet of noticeably lesser streaming playback quality) and visually disruptive—instead of Bandcamp’s.
Free Bandcamp Account
Uploads: quantity unlimited, size of each file limited to 291mb.
Distribution: unlimited streaming, up to 200 free downloads per month.
Free SoundCloud Account
Uploads: total of 3 hours uploaded at any given time.
Distribution: unlimited streaming, unlimited downloads.
Both offer access “basic” statistics for their tracks at this tier which most of the creators I know consider more than enough—the usefulness of any playback/download stats is negligible when you’re publishing within tight niches—and each has had about 5 years to fine-tune their free offerings so that they feel as complete as possible. If you’re planning on publishing a podcast on SoundCloud, you’re obviously going to have to upgrade your upload limit even beyond Pro ($8/month, 6-hour upload limit) to Pro Unlimited ($16/month, unlimited uploads,) though I would suggest a plethora of alternative methods before you got that far. Unfortunately, they would not include a free Bandcamp account. While there arepodcasts on Bandcamp, they’re completely separate the platform’s aspirations and without support for the basic requirements of podcast distribution (namely, RSS feeds.)
Bandcamp’s Pro option is $10 a month and includes a custom domain, batch file uploading, private streaming (for press and/or fans) plus the ability to disable free streaming (requiring listeners to actually buy the music to enable any playback,) ad-free video hosting (which nobody uses, to my knowledge,) extended fan interaction tools, and a broader statistics suite that includes Google Analytics support. SoundCloud’s Pro and Pro Unlimited options are complimentary, but a full-time independent artist could justify maintaining Pro accounts on both services or neither—one does not necessarily replace the other, but the contrast in their chosen presentations has led to a divide in the cultures of the two communities so stark it could be a punchline and/or simplified to say that SoundCloud is for rap and Bandcamp is not.
It’s not entirely shocking, then, that SoundCloud’s story has been more present in the greater conversation than Bandcamp’s. Frankly, its largest issues are directly related: compared to SoundCloud, Bandcamp’s community is White As Fuck (a claim I can only make on behalf of my own observations and those which a select few creators have seen fit to express to me over the years, considering that the company has yet to release any demographic information about its creators) which is a glaringly fundamental obstruction to the project’s broader mission to help music culture “thrive.”
From a future historian’s perspective, the battle for the definitive name in independent digital music distribution has already won, largely thanks to its relationship with Chance The Rapper, who’s quickly become a “cultural influencer, thought leader, global star,” and one of my generation’s upmost celebrity champions. Obviously, there is little sense trying to determine whether SoundCloud earned his partnership or landed their popular association with his name as long as the artist maintains it publicly, while continuing to give new meaning to the phrase “serially likable.” Thus far, his mythical power to exude purity has felt virtually 100% airtight Last year, his second album Coloring Book made history when it won the first streaming-only Grammy for Best Album. In my personal favorite moment in recent popular culture memory, the fashionable-as-hell young man accepted the accolade by looking the whole industry establishment in the face and proclaiming “this is for every indie artist—everybody who’s been doin’ this mixtape shhhh...tuff for a long ass time... shouts out to every independent artist out there; shouts out to SoundCloud for holding me down.” Obviously, such significant, sentimental, and sincere sentiments are never expressed about tech companies by beloved darlings of the art world like Chance—especially not for Earth-encompassing awards show audiences.
After last year’s massive layoff, it was Chance’s assurances that “SoundCloud is here to stay” which the public took to heart. Even if the company is destined to fail within the next year (it appears to be as yet missing much of a verdict,) and it’s all still destined to fold at any moment, at least it’ll have the distinct pride of doing so having maintained his publicly-expressed respect and confidence, which is a damned fine legacy in my book. Meanwhile, Bandcamp has only made a few small tweaks to its basic infrastructure, and added new features very deliberately, which haven’t resulted in a single memorable controversy. Aside from Amanda Palmer, perhaps, there has never been a single band or artist who’ve been known as “from Bandcamp,” leaving our only pitch to be something like Independent Online Music Platform on Track to Complete 10th Year Serving Small-Time Artists, Continues to Look Pretty Good.
Considering the significance of these contributions, it’s of a special wonder that they were made not by a non-profit organization, academic movement, or government endowment, but by a for-profit, California-based tech company that’s continued to thrive and innovate great content, entirely apart from mainstream coverage.
It might seem a bit much on the surface, but in many ways, Bandcamp has spent the past 10 years showing us what a for-profit, Web-based, culturally-edging independent platform Can be, even in the Valley.
Though Bandcamp has embarked upon unusually sparse explanation of its editorial directive in the Daily blog and Weekly podcast, but regularly consume either for any length of time, and you’ll notice a particular savvy for Discovering technically-progressive Afrocentric projects: “Black Experimental Music.”
On last week’s episode of the excellent New York Times podcast Still Processing, co-host Jena Wortham “I’m thinking a lot about ways in which new culture, new cultural products, new cultural creators come to light in ways that sidestep these traditional means and don’t have to go through the traditionally very white, very male, very cis, very hetero hoops to prove worthiness.”
So, our greatest hope for the decentralization of the music industry in the 1990s ended up transforming before us to become the most effectively divisive Discovery barrier ever known to man because of its psychological influence sub-threshold at unprecedented scale over time, in parallel with so many other like horrific monstrosities we’ve discovered in anguish to be mutants of those final salvations from our atrocious history which we’d been so relieved to believe in. Surely, the turn of the millennia was destined to be our final turning point – the moment we’d finally use our new technology to discover a truth (or maybe just a really good clue,) that’d immediately unite our species in a deafening, worldwide aha moment when it would reveal a general abstract of whatever the fuck our deal was that was preventing our silent, dutiful, and 100% harmonious collective effort toward a utopia like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s, in which anyone is absolutely free of obligation or desperation from birth to pursue… whatever with their time.
All of this may one day be worth significantly more revision and/or visibility in the future, but for now, just know that I rambled out all of this because it’s by far my most effective way to think, and this darned lowkey blog post has just provided a very long-overdue opportunity for it. Please feel free to read or even respond to it, if you’d like, but I’d like to ask that you don’t panic or circulate it. Thanks.
So far… the only intercorrespondence between staff at Inmunis is people having a problem with one another.
Before Extratone, there was Inmunis – my first, relatively short-lived attempt to launch an online magazine which wasn’t particularly important, but the experience surely did contribute to and inform my progression in understanding media that led to my (utter bewildered) current state. Anyhow, it’s fun to look back. Here’s the web archive’s last snapshot.
This, a derelict Twitter account, and two film reviews by James Wilson are all that’s left of inmunis.co.uk for good reasons – many of which I did not entirely shed when I tried again. Until I started Extratone and made doing “this” – incessantly reading/exploring the web, obsessively tinkering and experimenting with The Extranet – I actually had very little knowledge on or exposure to the state of digital publishing or the real depth of variety to be found with any significant effort to comprehend the current offering real, surviving magazines, online or not, yet was dumb and arrogant enough to assume that I’d seen it all and none of it was even close to good enough for me to read or seek to write for. I was actually delusional enough to regard myself as too smart and one-of-a-kind to lower myself by going back to journalism school – that I was so special, anything I put effort in creating was destined to turn out superb. Granted, I’d had the actual idea for less than two weeks before I experienced by far the most traumatic, soul-destroying, world-upturning, and life-altering event of my entire existence, which I think accounts for the insanity, and all of my decisions were inevitably preempted by the fact that I was a 21-year-old straight white male community college dropout, which accounts for (but does not excuse) their absurdity.
I’ve publicly implied before that it was probably only thanks to Drycast – which was also in its infancy during the time of The Big Event (episode 7 was published just two days before) – and its weekly obligation to sit down and talk with my favorite people about interesting stuff that I did not end up dead or institutionalized in 2015 (I wish I was exaggerating.) If there is a Gourd, let it be known that he is fully up-to-date and brand-activated – he sent me a fucking podcast to save my life.
Reading and compiling stories for the show notes throughout the week provided an early avenue for exploring and embedding myself into media. Beyond the actual content, even, it’s been the rationality in the tone which journalists generally adhere to that has drawn me in and provided a brighter and brighter guiding light to help keep my sanity in check after my world ended because New Media values empathy in tandem with critical thought. All my life, it’s been very important to me that I continue to learn the best way to both appear and feel smart and functional. I’ve long since accepted that I am very fucking weird – and not in the wow, I dye my hair bright red sort of way which helps people feel unique, but in the holy shit, I’m terrified of what would actually result in losing control of my facade sort, which is actually much less sinister than it sounds for you, and infinitely moreso for me.
This is why I still have a very infantile habit of becoming overwhelmingly frustrated with those who socially emphasize and celebrate their “weirdness” as an important part of their identity because my self-perception has long since transitioned from regarding my deviations as something that made me “unique,” to gigantic obstacles in the way of every possible aspiration which I’ll probably never overcome, but am doomed to kill myself trying. I’m now working on learning to appreciate those very fucking common people who are determined to prove how strange they are because ultimately, my own self-perception is just as ignorant, loneliness is not a virtue, and I’ve only maintained the whole charade because I’d rather have delusions of grandeur than acknowledge that I am also mostly unoriginal, and most of my truly more “original” behaviors could easily be described as simply unhealthy.
This is an important confession for this explanation because its “solution” is another crucial motivation behind my creation of Extratone – as both a symbolic and literal means of understanding and minimizing my own biases and bitterness by 1) surrounding myself with the huge amount young, talented people I knew with great ideas and 2) editorially committing to curiosity as the most precious ideal in writing (and in life.)
I do know that – for whatever reason – I really do have a special knack for identifying the culture and creators that are truly fresh, innovative, even cool among those who can’t comprehend or stand it and the heartbreaking number of those who actualize themselves by trying to act aggressively apathetic toward the status quo. This sense is far from 100% reliable and is certainly not of a greater quality than everyone on Earth, but I would still confidently suggest it’s at least better than most, and – as most of us know – it especially jives with and defines the world of magazines.
As I did in Spring 2016, I still believe that Extratone is the best way for me to hone my greatest talents and shed my biggest problems – that it is the name I can place on my endless journey to improve myself, which – most importantly of all – will all the while achieve the tightest possible adhesion to the only meaning of “original” with any significance or real world value at all, which serves human curiosity without punishing it in any sense. I could actually just be crazy or completely, irrationally inverted – and I know it sounds abstract and preposterous – but I promise it’s my best shot at one day performing my optimal function for the world.
The very first thing I did after I’d arrived upon these hypotheses and been abruptly forced to cling to them as my last hope in life was to obsessively search for a single mantra/battlecry I could drill into my memory and could shout under duress – including the temptation to escape the whole lot of it – to succinctly remind myself that I had at least one logical chance at a fulfilling life (and yes, it’s still funny that the chance is, in fact, a Web Site.)
Scribam quid non legerim is possibly grammatically incorrect to a scholar, but it’s the best possible translation I came up with in my Latin research of “I will write what I have not read.” It’s cheesy, yes, and a bit cringey in the middle of just any old day when it happens to catch my eye where it’s proudly displayed, all-caps, in the footer of our CMS, and – I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I could explain it over coffee to a stranger without turning red and covering my face, as I once could, but it’s (sincerely, in this one case) real gravestone material. (As in, if someone were to read this after my death, they would be encouraged to receive it as a bonafide last wish.)
I’ve never understood why I never see anyone making use of the vast catalogue of nearly 140,000 standard Unicode symbols available in their social media posts, metadata, or word art. Like replacing standard bullets in our weekly newsletter with ◎ (U+25CE,) — probably my all-time favorite, or using strings of four characters for intro, ad, and station identification spots on Extratone Radio. (☉☉☉☉, for instance.) I’d like to think these uses make their experiences feel just a bit more unique to users — if only unconsciously — but I’d long wondered if I was in fact the last Unicode enthusiast alive.
The development of Jordan Hipwell’s UniChar for iOS would suggest otherwise. Its app store page describes it as “a powerful yet beautiful Unicode symbol selection app and keyboard,” and its generic webpage appears to have testimonials including a real post on the Web Site lifehacker.
UniChar is a third-party iOS keyboard that unlocks the wide wide world of weird Unicode characters. Service marks, copyright logos, mathematical symbols, technical signs like Apple’s “splat” icon or radioactivity indicators, and more are available in the standalone app as well as the keyboard add-on you can use wherever you need to type something.
Wow! I can’t believe I’d pull-quote lifehacker anywhere, but here is an iOS app that actually addresses a regular issue of my own in a beautiful and intuitive way. I actually cannot remember the last time this happened — you’d have to give me a list and a comprehensive refresher of all the ways I’ve used my iPhones in the past ten years.
Contrary to what may seem obvious, UniChar’s character selector is by far the more intuitive and efficient of these two separate ways to use it. Even in the free experience, there are simply too manycharacters in the catalog to reasonably browse in iOS’ old extended keyboard. (For the record, I’d like to note that UniChar is technically a “Reference Application,” but I understand if you can’t bring yourself to use the term.) Across both the seamlessly-interchangeable gallery and list views, the user can very quickly copy a character to the clipboard with 3D Touch, which works so well it’s as if it were meant only for this use from its beginning.
In the off chance you’re a longtime lover and devout user of the grander Unicode collection and an iOS user, I hope you’re now experiencing the same sort of petty enthusiasm I felt myself when I discovered it. If not, I hope you’ll take away a desire to explore it. I mean… aren’t these smileys way better than any emoji? ☺☺☺☺
Despite a handful of reports of crashing issues in App Store reviews, Unichar has continued to perform admirably for me. I ended up spending $2.99 to unlock the full Unicharacter keyboard as the tremendous value of that number for the time and effort it would save myself would be more than worth it. (Actually, it’s thanks to Redbubble for sending me the first truly usable Inter net Money I’ve had to actually spend on any apps and/or services in fucking forever, but you know.) After all this time, I’m still giddy that someone else on Earth values these hieroglyphs as much as I do, and that they knew enough to manifest the perfect software to preserve them.