Tuesday, March 6, 2012

These Amazing Vibrations

I am a partially reformed collector.
I imagine many of you have grappled with your own level of craphound compulsion as well. As someone who has taken the step to reject readily available pop music, you're probably someone who invests your music with a deep significance given the extra effort you've taken to explore your musical options. (That's a gross and most definitely self-serving generalization, but just go with me here.) I'm betting the Venn diagram of underground music fans and obsessive collector nerds is practically 1:1.

Pictured: Obsessive collector nerd.

While I've moderated my buying the last couple of years (hence "partially reformed" collector), having my favorite albums at hand has always been important to me. But I've been thinking about the historic preservation of underground music lately after watching the documentary These Amazing Shadows. The movie discusses the work of the National Film Registry, which was created in the wake of Ted Turner's hare-brained scheme to bastardize classics with color, to preserve the United States' cinematic heritage.

Harmony Corruption

According to preservationists, half of the films made before 1950 have been permanently lost. Eighty percent of silent films are gone because nobody recognized their historic and cultural impact and sought to preserve them for future generations That really resonates with the amateur anthropologist in me. Those are pieces of our collective human heritage that are lost forever.
It has also gotten me seriously thinking about the future of underground music and wondering how (or if) key artifacts of our musical heritage will be preserved. While the internet has made virtually everything available with a quick trip to Mediafire, is anyone taking steps to preserve important musical landmarks? I worry the ubiquity breeds complacency. Did Siege realize what they had when they recorded Drop Dead and have those valuable master recordings been preserved? I bet 90 of the people who have heard S.O.B.'s seminal Don't Be Swindle (me included) have never seen a physical copy. Are compressed MP3s going to be the best we can hope for or are the original recordings stashed away somewhere waiting to be cleaned up and reissued?
Barring a radical cultural shift, we can't count on somebody like the Smithsonian or Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame swooping in to preserve our heritage for us. The history of punk and metal has been a tale of kids with a lot of ambition but not as much know-how figuring it out as they go along. I'm betting proper archiving was not high on their list of priorities.
The digital medium has proven more durable than its tape-bound antecedents, and label bosses said it's still their go-to storage device.
"I’m pretty sure [founder Jason Tipton] keeps all of the master recording in a drawer in his desk," Willowtip media guy Vinny Karpuszka told me. "Most of the time they are kept in the same CD case that was shipped to us from the studio that did the mixing/mastering. Some of the older ones are kept in one of those CD wallets that I’m sure everyone and their mother has owned at one point."
Unlike the majors, underground labels tend to have a more cooperative relationship with their bands. That often means it's the bands who are in charge of preserving their own music.
"Hydra Head does not possess any of the reels on which our earlier releases were recorded," co-owner Aaron Turner said. "Those (I'm assuming), are all in the possession of the bands themselves. We have a good number of DATs and CDr masters, but haven't archived them in any secure fashion. There's no real safety net protecting these things, except that most of them have already been released on CDs, which is relatively stable over the long haul. I hope artists of ours who did record on reels are keeping them safe! "
Just as the internet is decimating sales of physical media, it's also proving a boon to the preservation movement, providing several layers of redundancy, To Live a Lie honcho/IT guy Will Butler said.
"I do my part and upload out of print stuff; lately I've put some stuff on Bandcamp (and duplicated it to Archive.org, because I don't trust Bandcamp lasting forever)," he said. "I also have released some albums on iTunes/Amazon...etc, so although people are buying them, it's available and the songs almost become viral. Lastly, the actual masters, I have most of them on my hard drive on my computer. I then duplicate them to my home server which has all RAIDed harddrives, so it's basically triplicated on my home network. So a multi-tier approach to keeping music alive. I mean one day I'll be forty and might not be involved in the label and will hope that I did something positive for the world, so making the music an awesome music virus around the world, living on computers and being shared on P2P networks, and keeping copies for myself is actually an interesting/worthwhile idea!"

Return to Desolation

Extreme metal is entering its third decade of existence, but institutionally, it's still in its infancy. The scrappy labels that have enshrined themselves in our experience -- Metal Blade, Earache, Relapse -- are still defined by their founders and much of our heritage is locked up in their vaults. Time will only tell how they evolve giving the changing musical landscape and their founders' plans to maybe one day call it quits.
Butler is already making plans for the day when he may fold up shop.
"I'll probably make an effort in a few years, if I stop the label, to post everything up free online with the band's permission. Seems silly to not have them on Archive.org for preservation," he said.
One aspect of punk and metal that has always struck me is the reverence for our shared heritage. There are not many fans of mainstream music reaching back 30 years to appreciate the musical canon that gave birth to their current favorites the way we do. I hope we find a way to preserve our little musical subculture. Think about how many obscurities and lost gems that have already fallen out of print and may essentially be lost. With a little luck, when I finally go deaf I'll turn over control of the Childers Memorial Grindcore Repository and Punkatorium to another generation who will appreciate its significance as a subcultural milestone much the way I do.
"I think there's enough nerds out there (myself included), protecting their collections that most of these great records will live on in some form or another," Turner said.


Vinnie said...

As a fan of underground music, avowed collector, and someone who had aspirations of becoming an audiovisual archivist / preservationist during grad school, I feel that there's a duty to preserve incumbent on these artists and labels.

Are Bandcamp, the Internet Archive, and random CDs in wallets / desk drawer the best way to fulfill this duty? No. But, history's diarists had no idea that their personal works would eventually collected, organized, indexed, and maintained in climate-controlled rooms to be accessed only by people sporting white cotton gloves, either.

So, there's hope that what survives today's benign neglect will be there for tomorrow's scholarly examination.

Perpetual Strife said...

Great post Andrew, it's for this reason I find myself unable to get rif of stuff I don't like, whether it be digital or physical.

Reminds me of the "Like tears in the rain" part of Blade Runner (or maybe that's just the music I'm listening to talking).

Anyway, this subgenre is proactive, and self-aware enough to preserve it's history. Just think of how much more sought out a classic Slayer shirt is then some $40 scrawl from their site.

While Relapse and Co. will come and go, it'll be labels like TLAL, 625 and countless others that collectors and fans will reminisce about.

Anonymous said...

Well, our collections have at least two albums in common ("War and Pain" and "Grind Finale"), so that's good news.

Andrew Childers said...

i'm amazed you could pick anything out of that blurry photo.

Zmaj said...

Ace post, although I'm a bit indifferent as I can imagine no better global library than the internet for such things. Well, for now, while it's all very free to whatever extent. Anyhow - till our waters boil away~