The Rise And Fall Of The Obscure Music Download Blog: A Roundtable

by Mark Allen

A series about internet history.

One internet music “sharing” trend largely unnoticed by the powers that sue was the niche explosion of obscure music download blogs, lasting roughly from 2004–2008. Using free filesharing services like Rapidshare and Mediafire, and setting up sites on Blogspot and similar providers, these internet hubs stayed hidden in the open by catering to more discerning kleptomaniac audiophiles. Their specialty: parceling out ripped recordings — many of them copyrighted — from the more collectible and unknown corners of music’s oddball, anomalous past.

While the RIAA was suing dead people for downloading Michael Jackson songs (and Madonna was using Soulseek to curse at teenagers), obscure music blogs racked up millions of hits, ripping and sharing 80s Japanese noise, 70s German prog, 60s San Francisco hippie freak-outs, 50s John Cage bootlegs, 30s gramophone oddities, Norwegian death metal, cold wave cassettes made by kids in their garages, and the like. It was the mid aughts, and the advent of digitization had inadvertently put the value of the music industry’s “Top Ten” commercial product in peril. That same process transformed the value of old, collectible music as well. If one smart record collector was able to share the entire contents — music, artwork and all — of one vinyl LP on his blog, for free, and upload another item from his 1,000+ collection the next day, for weeks and years, and others like him did the same, competing with each other about who could upload the rarest and most sought-after record, and anyone who downloaded it could then share it again and again… Suddenly everyone in the world had the coolest record collection in the world; and soon, nobody in the world had the coolest record collection in the world.

Obscure music download blogs weren’t shut down like Napster or Megaupload were (though they were indirectly affected by that crackdown); they just, mysteriously, seemed to burn out on their own sometime around 2008. While some are still around, their number represents only a fraction of that mid-00s heyday. Was this because obscure music blogs had overshared the underexposed and blown the whole thing into oblivion? Is the fact that a guy in Japan will no longer pay $500 on eBay for a first pressing of the No New York compilation because he can find it for free on the internet good for the world? Was the commodity-lost but the knowledge-gained an even exchange? To explore what was going on then, I assembled this email roundtable discussion between creators of some of the most popular blogs of the time: Eric Lumbleau of Mutant Sounds, Liam Elms of 8 Days in April, Frank of Systems of Romance and Brian Turner, Music Director of WFMU.

Mark Allen: Do you remember the earliest days of obscure music sharing blogs? How did they start?

Brian Turner/WFMU: In the initial days of music blogs, I’d say 2004–2008, there was certainly a race to be at the top of the share heap, to garner attention, to come up with the most fascinating albums or artists to spotlight, and I think that a lot of authors really blew out the depth of knowledge they had quickly.

Liam Elms/8 Days In April: It was around late 2004 with the demise of a file sharing service called Q-File. In those days RapidShare’s maximum file size was 30 megs, split archives not allowed, and people would put one half of an album on Q-File and the other half on RapidShare. With the sudden demise of Q-File, suddenly all these blogs had not one downloadable album, and they disappeared. The only one whose name I remember is That Girl Needs Therapy. Around this time I started uploading one album a week to this site, the name of which I can’t remember. After a few months I got tired of this guy editing my little blurbs that described the album, and I decided to start my own blog. The very first day I had 1,500 hits, so I knew I had tapped into something. I can’t tell you how many comments I got from people that said something like “I’m starting my own blog!” I’m not saying that I’m responsible for the explosion of obscure music blogs, but from my blog many people saw that it was an easy thing to do and they suspected that it would be fun, and they were right!

Eric Lumbleau/Mutant Sounds: The initial eruption of music share blogging, circa-2006, was because the tools were suddenly there to do so via Blogger and Rapidshare. If new tools to reproduce and share media are handed to people, they can be expected to use them. At the time that I entered this arena in ’07, Mutant Sounds had already existed for several months under blog founder Jim’s command and had a blossoming cult reputation. My decision to become involved in music share blogging was down to a serendipitous combination of my enthusiasm for what blog founder Jim was doing at the outset and the threat of Mutant suddenly evaporating after a flame war on a comment board made Jim publicly question going forward in the early days of the blog.

This caused me to leap into the fray and offer my aid, since we were both equally versed in the same veins of fringe musical activity and the cultural arcana that surrounded it and had the creaking shelves to show for it. But it also became immediately clear to me that doing this would open up all sorts of other amusing possibilities for cultural intervention by re-writing what I perceived as a hopelessly flawed and inaccurate cultural history. Since I’m mostly occupied with creative work connected to my band Vas Deferens Organization, and my label Puer Gravy, my sense of involvement in the music share blogosphere is limited to making my own little playpen within this realm and the possibilities that affords, but I’ve never been either that ideologically invested in it as a movement or, after a few months of relentless downloading back in ’07, as a consumer, so my relationship to this necessarily differs from others who have thrown all their energies in doing this sort of thing.

Frank Deserto/Systems of Romance: I’ve always felt the reason for the rise (and fall) of music downloading blog culture has everything to do with the internet’s growing expansion. Until the early 2000s, my experiences with the internet were limited to looking up song lyrics, writing an email to an old friend, very pedestrian sort of things. Once everyone jacked in and connections became faster and more stable, the sharing community grew. Instead of trading tapes and CD-rs as we had in the past, we could now upload mp3s. It’s my understanding that the kind of music many of these blogs feature was much more affordable in the 1990s and early 2000s, as copies were limited to their native countries, and finding them through Ebay took a little more know-how. Not only did this (as well as us bloggers sharing the material) drive up the prices of many hard to find records, it opened up this entire world of forgotten gems that were finally getting discovered — and in the new wave spectrum — some of it was just as good, if not better, than the popular songs and bands.

Mark Allen: Is it shaky to begin with, building an archival library that relies on services like Mediafire and Rapidshare? Like what happened last year with Megaupload?

Brian Turner: As a music collector myself, I’m really, REALLY paranoid about throwing my collection in the singular hands of any digital entity acting as overlords, you just never know.”

Liam Elms: I used RapidShare exclusively when I started the blog, they were much friendlier to free users back in those days. My files were generally safe from deletion, unless the links were re-posted on a public forum. This only lasted a couple years, when trolls discovered they could get links deleted by complaining to the file hoster, and evidently it became a sport, a fun thing to do. So for me the shakiness was never never about a file hoster going down, it was about random internet assholes.

Eric Lumbleau: Shaky is an understatement. I’m sure the Megaupload thing was the breaking point for many, either because they lost files or because they felt menaced by our government officials doing the mercenary bidding of the MPAA and RIAA, and felt there were more boot heels yet to come down from our lawless elites. Mediafire arbitrarily deletes files constantly, so they’re to be discounted out of hand and I’d advise any newbie to avoid them like syphilis. Thus, it’s proven to be the case that over the long run, Rapidshare is really the only man left standing that makes continuing on with any of this blog sharing business still viable. And they in turn have us all by the short hairs. As such, they just ass raped a whole universe of people beyond the damage already done by the closure of Megaupload, via their recent deletion of all content that’s either not connected to a paid user account or to an account that you’ve signed into before uploading. With that, they killed off 6 times the content on Mutant Sounds that the removal of Megaupload did (half since re-upped again). But as they have a virtual monopoly on this game now and since all my files that were connected to my paid account with them survived intact, I have no choice but to just grit my teeth and re-load all my old deleted content right back onto their system again, a feeling somewhat akin to being asked to lick your lips after someone shits on your head, but there ya go.

Frank Deserto: As for the death of most blogs — it’s simple. I believe that more than lack of spare time, interest, etc.… it’s these paranoid times that are killing off many of the blogs we know and love. We live in an era that is now overly policed. Free music is now expected by the masses and the industry is broken beyond repair. When met with a mandatory shutdown, most bloggers are happy to throw in the towel, and I can sympathize with the frustration of having to start from scratch. I’ve been one of many casualties of the file sharing site crackdown (which caused me to take the next step and start my own domain), and while I can’t say I blame people for trying to take back control of their livelihoods, the truth is that many of the blogs and servers being shut down are false targets. I highly doubt that sharing an out-of-print, private label French cold wave cassette was cause enough for the RIAA to flag down a file, it’s just that similar names and a lack of discretion by these services tends to lead to unnecessary casualties. Not that we’re innocent, as there’s a definite moral grey area here, but I think bloggers are doing more good than they are harm, so long as the material they are unearthing is out of print. While I can count the times I’ve been asked to take down a post on one hand (and most have been nice, mind you), I’ve received countless positive emails and even befriended many of the artists I’ve posted, most of which are ecstatic that their work has this new platform for discovery and appreciation. Many reissue labels owe a debt to bloggers as well, and they are taking the next step in making this music available for everyone to support. People who download just need to understand that they should support the artists whenever possible- so if a reissue happens to materialize, do the right thing and pick up a copy. I’ve always encouraged this and frown down on blogs that post material that is very much in print.

Mark Allen: Back in 2006, I could just Google an artist’s name and album title, followed by “rar” or “rar blogspot” and I would instantly be lead to links of several blogs with access to these works. In 2012, when I try that, all the resulting links lead to what seem like automatic web-crawling spam sites, like RapidShare4U or FilesTube, that seem to have absorbed the text and images from old, dead music-download blogs and weirdly re-formatted them next to ads for Viagra and cam girl sites. Trying to download LPs through them is like a hall of mirrors, trying to get you to buy download services that don’t even exist.

Frank Deserto: Well, there are definitely clone blogs out there — some bloggers who just copy and paste (mostly by bot or script- though some just trying to grab a piece of the pie without putting in the effort) and steal content from other sources. When those sources dry up or disappear for whatever reason, this information just gets cluttered and reduced to spam, kind of like shadows or spectres. The internet is cluttered with this now. Very few of those links actually work, lost in the internet graveyard, and it’s for this reason, the sheer frustration and sad state, that I feel the need to continue, or at least keep the old links alive should I decide to pursue something else. However, over five years and I’m still going, and I’m hoping that’s a testament to how great this music is and how it deserves to be heard en masse by anyone willing to listen.

Eric Lumbleau: The aggregated links on some of those services like Filestube are very much active a lot of the time, so they certainly can prove useful. Mediafire offers you the same kind of pop up spam whenever you download from them, so that sorta thing just comes with the territory, I suppose.

Liam Elms: I really don’t know what to think about sites like that though I find them useful for episodes of old television shows!

Mark Allen: Will mining obscure music’s past EVER reach an end?

Eric Lumbleau: Doubtful.

Brian Turner: After a while, you have to start digging deeper and deeper into the internet to come up with true gems. Also, there’s obviously millions of already-existing records, tapes, and CDs that can be revisited, it’s just a matter of how long you can stretch out exploring the vaults, though as links expire, memory can be short in peoples’ minds, you can always revisit things that have already been re-re-posted. I wonder how much this whole music bloggery will actually influence bands of the future. As one example; you already see a whole slew of young kids who weren’t even born when those Flying Nun New Zealand records of the 80s were out, totally filtering that sound into their new bands, in big part due to the internet. People want to look for arbiters and gatekeepers that can show them things they haven’t experienced.

Liam Elms: Will it reach an end? I really don’t think so. To this day I still occasionally “discover” some 70s band that was really good. The early 70s was a real fertile era for rock music, and so many great albums were released, that many brilliant albums simply never got noticed by the record-buying public.

Frank Deserto: No. There is always another rock to be overturned. Many of us bloggers who chat and share with each other have lists of materials they’re hoping to find, picking away at them one by one. Sometimes it takes years and years of searching to get a lead, only to lose out to the highest bidder on eBay. Those are just the releases we know about. Most of the recent posts I’ve made this year focus on demo tapes that were never known to exist, so I’m sure there will always be something out there. Even if we reach a palpable stopping point, with every relic uncovered, there’s always the possibility of finding and digitizing better sounding copies, a project I’ve been working on as a record collector, DJ, and unfortunate on-the-go-music listener.

Mark Allen: What are your thoughts on blogs that find self-made cassettes from bedroom music acts from the 80s and upload them to an audience that has a global reach, sort of resurrecting these homemade music careers in a way no one could dream of back then?

Brian Turner: I think the cassette-oriented blogs are among the most valuable. It’s an extremely limited release in a format that may eventually deteriorate needs preservation. Awesome Tapes from Africa is an especially good example, where is anyone gonna get a chance to hear this stuff otherwise? Also, labels like Dais and Dark Entries are great, they’re taking band artifacts like Deviation Social or Vita Noctis tapes from the 80s and putting them out on vinyl. These artists get an entire new audience.

Eric Lumbleau: I’m sure it’s been something of a shock for some of these folks to see their long-forgotten and moldering old tapes revived and celebrated like this, leading to many grumbles of “where the hell were they back then?” I know some have even flipped their wigs, like a certain sociopathic German artist of negligible worth named Franz De Byl, whose inclusion on the Nurse With Wound list (possibly the lamest thing on the list, IMHO) and subsequent name-checking around the blogosphere caused him to completely snap and harass everyone that had ever breathed his name on the web. His handiwork in the comment field here has to be seen to be believed and more of Mr. Madman here.

In the 21st century, do you think something exists if it doesn’t exist somewhere on the internet?

Eric Lumbleau: If something can be said to meaningfully exist if said existence occurs amid such endless proliferation that it’s forgotten sooner than it’s absorbed. A better question is whether the cultural relativity induced by having all musical histories on tap 24/7 renders the act of attempting to connect historical threads a fool’s errand. Being inside this cyclotron of atomized information from my own vantage point produces a palpable sense of vertigo. A feeling that it could be anything in any order by anyone at any time for any reason. Everything pointing in all directions quaquaversally but arriving at no destination. And its effect is a cancellation of affect. A feeling like Baudrillard’s screen stage of blank fascination has reached its terminal phase and all previous depths are collapsing into an endless vista of dazzling surface play. In my case, it’s caused me to recoil and retreat to engaging with music in the way that I did when I was in my early teens, which is to say with no concern at all for what else I might be missing at the same time or what else “I need to know about,” since there’s no sense any longer of a beginning, end or causation in the spaces between, so I just tune into a select few things that I then revisit with depth and intensity and block out the rest of the hubbub.

Frank Deserto: My grandparents exist, and they have no presence on the internet.

Previously in series: A Suitably Bizarre Interview With The Early Web Provocateurs At Jodi.Org

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Mark Allen is a writer and performer living in New York.