Thursday, May 30, 2013

sharity blogs Wire piece

The Wire, 2008

By Simon Reynolds

Some call them "sharity" blogs, a three-way pun on "share" + "rarity" + "charity".  An inevitable evolution from the single-track-oriented  mp3 blog, these whole-album music blogs have undergone a population explosion over the last three years, enabled by filesharing services like Megaupload and Rapidshare, along with mediators like Sharebee which automatically distribute a blog's upload to an array of services, thereby increasing  audience reach.  In this grand give-away bonanza, barely a genre seems unrepresented, from the most readily-available mainstream fare (fancy the complete discography of Iron Maiden? Every last Pink Floyd bootleg demo?) to the most inaccessible arcana (West African guitarpop cassettes,  100-edition Eighties power electronics tapes, complete catalogues of library music labels…).   

What makes sharity blogs different from the peer-to-peer filesharing communities that have come and gone over the last decade is that their activities are more exposed. Indeed there is an exhibitionistic quality, an aspect of taste display, to these blogs, while some bloggers have become cult figures,  "faces" on the scene even though their  real-world identity remains shrouded.

One of the big names on the circuit these last couple of years is Mutant Sounds,  justly celebrated for its prolific output of esoterica, most of which is out-of-print and extremely hard to find.  Founded in January 2007 by a guy called Jim, the blog soon expanded into a collective, enabling Mutant to sustain its ferocious rate of posts and expand its weirdo-music range.  That remit encompasses the more recondite recesses of postpunk DIY, Euro-prog/Rock In Opposition, Neue Deutsche Welle, American freak music in a zone roughly  bounded by Zappa, the Residents and the LAFMS, minimal synth, acid folk, analog-synth space rock, second-wave industrial cassette compilations,  and much, much more.  Eric Lumbleau--who contributes to Mutant under the alias vdoandsound but unusually for a sharity blogger is comfortable revealing his real identity--says a key motivation is to "help demolish once and for all that hoary old line of critical discourse developed in the wake of punk's Year Zero that any meaningful discussion of radical musical thought first entails jettisoning prog outright."

The Mutant collective are a prime example of a drastic transformation that's taken place in record collector culture. The impetus used to be "I have something that no one else has". But with the advent of sharity blogging that's shifted to "I've just got hold of something no one else's got, so I'm immediately going to make it available to EVERYBODY." While definitely a giant evolutionary step in terms of emotional health, on the level of subcultural capital and the gamesmanship of hip it's kinda self-subverting. Or perhaps, not since there is still an element of ego involved, a kind of competitive generosity contest between the blogs. Lumbleau sees it as based in "self aggrandizing altruism, with blog authors anointing themselves as gurus and presiding over their own little kingdoms of cool and in the process, throwing open the floodgates to decades worth of occult knowledge for casual perusal, a mass unleashing that's surely causing fantastic intellectual ruptures across every strata of adventurous music making." 

Jim Mutantsounds, for his part, likes to distinguish between the record collector and the music enthusiast: the former is driven by "vanity of having something that no one  has or knows…   I would call him a sleeve art collector,"  whereas the music fanatic has an evangelical drive to turn on other people.  He notes wryly that "Mutant Sounds" has already become shorthand term used by record dealers, "especially on Ebay… trying to sell their items for higher prices" and says he'd "consider the blog a disaster" if it contributed to the inflationary spirals of over-pricing and over-rating that characterize collector culture.  The rise of "appeared on Mutant Sounds" as a sales pitch shows that the blog has become an updated, vastly-expanded, work-in-process version of the famous Nurse With Wound List, a list of  "out-there" artists that appeared on NWW's debut album.  Indeed in the late Nineties Lumbleau actually  wrote a "reply" to the NWW List in tandem with Matt Castille his band-mate in Vas Deferens Organization, while some of the early sharity blogs were attempts to locate and upload every last one of Steven Stapleton's recommendations.

Sharity blogs often see an almost utopian dimension to what they do, redolent of that early Nineties cyberculture/Mondo 2000 maxim "information wants to be free". Lumbleau enjoys fucking with the hoarders of knowledge and "rare sound", admitting "there's a certain perverse side to me that just enjoys the reversal of polarities for the hell of it, the rarest stuff now becoming the most commonplace." Yet there remain lingering ethical doubts, to put it mildly, concerning the practice of "freeing" music without the permission of the artist.  Because Mutant sticks mostly to out-of-print or never-officially-released recordings by ultra-marginal musicians, the blog has received few adverse reactions from artists, who---one assumes--are probably pleased by the attention.  Of the small number of complaints so far, most, says Jim,  have been "polite, asking kindly for us to remove the links."

Perhaps the real danger represented by the sharity scene is actually to music fans!  The whole-album blogs--like the web in general, with its vast array of net radio stations, DJ mixes,  official give-aways, etc--drastically exacerbates the condition known as collector-itis, whose symptoms were recently identified by Johan Kugelberg as "constipation, indigestion, flatulence." Writing in Old Rare New, an anthology of elegiac paeans to the  record store, he described how the music fan succumbs to "Falstaffian gluttony", "eating at the biggest buffet, heaping and piling exotic foodstuffs not only from all around the globe but spanning history, on your plate" and coating the intestines of one's hard drive with  "noxious build-up."

The mp3-fiend's bingeing is an inverse mirror image of the compulsion to disgorge displayed by many sharity bloggers. One of the most torrential blogs around is Sickness-Abounds. Its operator \m/etal\m/inx admits, "I've received comments like 'slow down!!!' or 'you're going too fast!'…  but I have to blog my way." She discovered the sharity scene in late 2007 and "after a few weeks of maxing out my downloading band with as much as possible", decided it was time to give back  and founded Sickness-Abounds, a blog dedicated to every kind of extreme music: noise, isolationism, black metal, power electronics, Goth, Electronic Body Music,  et al

 \m/etal\m/inx brings up a couple of intriguing analogies for the sharity scene. The first is college radio, which in the Eighties "changed my life forever.  That's what the music blogs of today recreated for me. It was College Radio x 100!" (Meanwhile, the college radio network in America seems to have dwindled in importance in parallel with the rise of the web and with the increasingly post-geographical nature of music culture). Her other comparison is with the tape-trading networks of the early Eighties. "I'd buy Metal Forces, Maximumrocknroll, and any other zines I could find and attack the 'pen-pal' sections something fierce! I really worked at it as if it was a full-time job. I had over 200 traders from around 30 countries by the time I was 16. We all referred to it as 'The Underground.' It was our P2P network, but without computers."  \m/etal\m/inx also mounts a provocative case in defence of the music-blog's disregard for copyright, comparing sharity favourably with second-hand record retail. "Neither the label nor the artist benefits," she notes, when a second-hand copy is sold. "I like used record stores, but I feel music blogs offer a wider promotional benefit for the artists than shops do." Mutant's Lumbleau likewise argues that exposure via blogs like Mutant Sounds has re-ignited "interest in the work of the long overlooked" and in some cases even led to official reissues.  What's left moot, though, is whether people will really go to the bother and expense of buying them if they've already downloaded the music free of charge.

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