…today’s target audiences no longer, or at least not overwhelmingly, consist of scholars and bureaucrats; rather, archives have an undefined audience whose members have varying levels of expertise, different expectations and cultural backgrounds, and are more and more focused on demanding remote access to archival holdings. In some respects, the distance between archival institutions and users has been growing: the earlier, more personal and collegial relationship between archivists and researchers is being replaced by more casual and diverse relations as well as a more diversified audience.
– Do Archives Have a Future in the Digital Age?
Ivan Szekely; Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies
The internet’s an integral part of artistic livelihood in 2020. Whether you’re a musician, graphic designer, or film maker, it’s a tether to your audience and a tool for preservation not unlike the archives of old. Online data stashes are invaluable as an alternative to physical storage in every artistic medium. As independent musicians produce content, we rely more and more on streaming services not only as shareable media, but as personal libraries of our own music and the music of others. Our collections are important, but the ways they are stored within digital streaming services relies on the good will of corporations that are not incentivized to reliably preserve them.
Odds are, it’s gonna be a long time until we see cloud rap or wonky trap bass in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox. In the meantime, there are considerations that need to be made in order to understand why we should all be archiving digital music for posterity.
This is a broad topic, so I’ll be framing the importance of archives with a focus on independent artists and fandoms. What actions can be made to make sure that artist’s works are preserved? Look, I don’t have a PhD in internet collectivism, but I’ve lived through the rise and fall of many a streaming service. Take the anecdotes with a grain of salt; I’ll explain my research and try to divorce myself from the years of digging through Soundcloud and blogging about the scene. All citations will be hyperlinked in bold text and listed at the end.
What Happens When Your Preferred Streaming Service Disappears?
While it seems unlikely that the mega-troves of online music will go anywhere, it’s not impossible. It has happened before with platforms like imeem, and it can happen again to the services we use today.
In 2017, reports came out that Soundcloud was hemorrhaging money and that the virtual birthplace of thousands of musicians, podcasters, radio shows, and DJs would evaporate taking their content with it. While the big day never happened (see; Chance the Rapper), that fear was assuaged by teams of archivists and data hoarders who fought Soundcloud themselves for the right to mass download everything on the site, regardless of corporate claims that the site wasn’t going anywhere.
Even before there was any fear of Soundcloud imploding, it was far from reliable as your personal music repository due to their inane copyright ID system. Monetary fears pushed execs into record label deals that eradicated profiles with reckless abandon. It was a free-for-all on remixes, sampled tracks, DJ mixes, leading to deletion of your entire profile (on the grounds of DMCA takedown policies). Soundcloud at one point had a reputation as the home for up-and-coming stars, but its shaky infrastructure and damaged trust lead to many independent artists switching their preferred platform.
[In Recent News…]
A few days ago, another collective was hit with a near-fatal copyright strike. While Souletiquette claims that they miraculously beat the copyright strike coming for their 5+ year Soundcloud profile, this was enough for them to give up on the service. This threat is ever-looming even after half a decade of loyalty. One radio show, DJ mix, or sample within a single track can wipe an entire catalog, and the risk/reward isn’t worth losing years worth of perfectly legal, streamable music. Souletiquette‘s been a huge influence in the future beat scene, and even supported the SWS fam by dropping the latest electrobro x sultang release. Their statement below explains that they’ll be switching up focus on platforms like Audiomack and Audius.
[Wherever Souletiquette ends up focusing their efforts next, we’ll be following with full support.]
The largest streaming service on earth currently is Spotify. While they rake in billions off the backs of their artist base (I digress), their success raises a question of ownership and trust that needs to be tackled. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, even Soundcloud; these streaming hubs are a middle-man between you and their subscription base (aka their profits). Every subscriber, every artists, every track is commodified to meet a quarterly goal.
These are not archival services. These are corporations.
When money changes hands, assets are traded, when interests start to stall, your music is on the chopping block and in a worst case scenario, your discography can fold in tandem with any company. Spotify’s whirlwind of changing shareholders raises questions on who’s going to be in control, which doesn’t mean much to subscribers, but can be a detriment to artists. There’s enough entropy among streaming mega-conglomerates that securing trust will be hard to do. The last thing we need when it comes to building archives is it being dictated by the chaos of the market.
Potential For Streaming & Archival Coexistence Within Audius.
[or: simping for Audius and not getting paid for it ¯_(ツ)_/¯]
This new streaming service is making waves in the indie artist community by doing things differently compared to major streaming services; its open-source block-chain algorithm is dedicated to making sure your music is impossible to delete. It’s still a very young service with lofty ambitions, but their goals align with those of archiving efforts.
Their motto champions “Empowering Artists”, while openly displaying their intentions. The web pages dedicated to the leadership/developer team, the open-source files, and how they plan to monetize using cryptocurrency with artists in mind make it hard to resist rooting for the platform. I’m hopeful that they maintain a moderate level of transparency.
Although there are plenty of vested interest groups crying foul about the copyright implications of un-deletable music, Audius is the front runner for legitimate music archival through a streaming service. Time will tell whether Audius becomes the dream streaming service it aspires to be. Considering the history of archaic copyright policies and the fate of older file-sharing domains, there is still lingering anxiety that there’s gonna be some kind of wicked corporate retribution down the road.
Reclamation of Lost Music
Lost archives are history’s greatest misfortunes. There’s always a glimmer of hope that morsels of lost knowledge will come to light, whether it be from a two thousand year old library, or the metadata of a miscalculated mass transfer of audio files. The latter is a real blunder that happened last year, where Myspace botched a server migration losing a decades worth of music, and users have been trying to undo that loss ever since with variable success. What happened was a complete catastrophe, followed by a limited recovery process brought about by another archivist team who recouped only 490,000 songs back from an initial 15,000,000 song stockpile. This titanic undertaking could have been prevented with foresight, and is a warning to users that the platforms they use are fragile. When a trusted platform obliterates our portfolio, there is a driven effort to reclaim what was lost.
I can attest that Soundcloud profiles change and disappear, and I have so many files that I can’t trace to their creators. I feel that pang of grief when an entire profile is deleted without warning. I know that I’m not alone in this regard-
One contemporary resource of note is why you delete?, a Soundcloud collector who hoards tracks in case an artist’s work is deleted. It’s grown into a much larger page over the years, even creating a podcast series with artists whose work had been saved and archived in their separate display. Granted, sometimes an artist doesn’t want to display a loose idea of a song on their front page, and that’s totally understandable. In the situation where an artist is de-platformed due to copyright ban-hammering, pages like this can take initiative by hosting the losses with honest accreditation. The playlist below contains a whopping 408 deleted tracks (at time of writing) that they’ve managed to save from obscurity over years of collecting.
On a smaller scale, there are already user-driven groups online that are trying to rectify what’s become murky with time, like r/Lostwave. This subreddit is where people put a spotlight on unidentifiable music and attempt to discover the who, when, and where of sounds that dodge a typical Shazam or Google search. They’ve succeeded in accrediting songs to those elusive artists who managed to make their way into a dusty old mixtape from that kid up the street, or tucked away in an iPod full of suspicious track titles from LimeWire.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need these groups to rediscover lost music. Our goals should be minimizing the need to restore what’s gone missing, while maximizing efforts to archive what we already have.
A Story Of Fandom Archiving:
DMT Tapes FL
Starting in 2014, DMT Tapes FL began hosting independent Vaporwave content en masse, reaching 900+ albums on their platform by 2020. Their music hosting status came under fire this year due to a Bandcamp Infringement strike enacted by Sony/ATV detecting copyrighted content. While it wasn’t a nail in the coffin, the vast majority of Vaporwave music relies on the nostalgia of samples; and this meant that there were new eyes on the label with the power to destroy it.
This saga is ongoing as explained by the label creator, Vito James, over twitter since roughly Spring/Summer of 2020. One solution was to flood an older, less scrutinized file sharing site as a way to spread the cache of albums.
What came next was a community-driven surge; not to fight the Bandcamp infringement strike, but to mass-download the entire DMT Tapes FL catalog and spread it to as many listeners/archivists as possible. With calls-to-action like “HOW TO SAVE DMT TAPES FL”, the vaporwave community came together to host the 2 terabytes worth of music on their own hard drives as well as other file sharing platforms. As it stands, DMT Tapes FL is still on Bandcamp but does not plan on releasing new music on the platform anymore out of fear of deletion.
“I can only hope that every recording we’ve ever featured is cherished by someone, archived for the future, and is never ever forgotten” – Vito (vapor95.com interview w/ Pad Chennington)
Archiving Is A Preventative Measure For Indie Artists & Fans
A future with minimal digital sleuthing relies on the archival efforts of the present, a burden easier carried through a collective effort by artists and fans alike. The odds of properly accrediting an unknown track without any referential material is low, but somebody somewhere with the knowledge or database is invaluable. Saving random Soundcloud tracks might not seem like much, but it takes work from people like you to carry the torch for future historians.
For independent artists;
Your best bet of self-preservation is more than just having multiple hard drives (although that’s not a bad idea). The most important step to legitimizing your music is to copyright your intellectual property. If you make sample based music, be sure to clear your samples if you plan to monetize. Proper copyright registration will protect your music from bogus strikes brought about by broken algorithms and grifters that can steal or demonetize your music. Youtube is particularly egregious at allowing false claims, with a history of striking artists for their own music. It is also essential to diversify what platforms you plan to use. If your grind to reach listeners is strong, you’ve already done most of the work. Use Bandcamp and allow listeners to buy the .wav files of your tracks. If you’re only posting music to Soundcloud then you’re at risk, so link everything to somewhere else on the internet like an active social media account. Put your song over a static image and upload it Youtube. Start a Patreon and link your followers directly to a file/drive-share of your music. Reach out to artist collectives like us or indie labels to host your tracks on their platforms.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to play a small part in digital archiving. What’s the best way to be a part of the archival process? Ideally, you want to support growing artists by buying their music and getting those files into reliable storage. If there’s no option to buy the music, request a DL link for the file. On the rare occasion an artist is no longer around to provide legal avenues to obtain their music, there are ways to convert URLs to .mp3s for posterity’s sake. Last thing: keep up to date on the artists and collectives that are at risk of removal or plan to quit. Follow your favorite musicians who are on multiple social media outlets if they need to communicate an exodus from a platform, or if they can’t accomplish effective archiving without your support.
If you’re planning to become a more active archivist, there are plenty of preservationists and resources you can use. Luckily, the most dedicated digital archives are simply through archives.org which hosts an immense variety of digital files. The previously mentioned ArchiveTeam who worked to save Soundcloud is always looking for folks to comb through metadata and contribute however they can. Passively seeding downloads through SoulSeek also counts, like with DMT Tapes FL. Here’s a comprehensive list of Web Archiving Initiatives via Wikipedia that preserve everything from dead webpages to digital audio files. Every contribution preserves a slice of history.
For all the criticisms of streaming platforms, they give us the ability to virtually get any music we want to hear, basically for free. They provide a revolutionary service to connect with artists, and the least we can do to honor that gift is preserve those artists who give up certain rights and comforts for next to nothing in return. Get active before you lose something you love; protect these sources of connection, inspiration, and future history, because you are capable of preserving the present.