A case for the new digital ephemera.
I’ve always held a soft spot in my heart for the micro-communities within music: particularly the noise and DIY scenes that managed to sprout in Peoria and every other small town I’ve been in with enough restless, bored college kids and weirdos to make something happen, kids who have been shut out of the regular channels and venues and still want to make something that feels vital to their lives and uncompromising. A good chunk of my understanding of local music scenes comes from those anything-goes communal basement shows, and the carefully hand-crafted CD-Rs in editions of 10 or 20. The artwork on each object would be unique, considered, labored over. The music often had a luminescent quality, even at its ugliest: sure, this is the harshest lo-fi noise you can conceive of, but/and it was made for you with something resembling love. And you own a small piece of this person’s journey through their artistic life, however small, however niche, however forgotten by everyone else. It has an impact on both the possessor of the object and the giver of the object. It holds the qualities of an ephemeral but important gift, perhaps a wonderful, labored-over dish — eaten and then removed from the world, but nonetheless one with an impact on people you care about.
My older friends in their 90s tape-trading scenes felt something similar, too, I think. Maybe more so.
Ephemera is kinda underrated. And listen, I hate when it’s brought up by older traditional critics — such as Dan Brooks in the New York Times — who wax nostalgic for a time when you had to work hard to earn your oh-so-important music snob credentials, to judge yourself and others (even romantic partners?) by. It’s all very High Fidelity. I find this line of thinking execrable. There’s nothing worse than an aging indie rock snob, honestly — the kind of person who holds on to his (always a he) long-expired cultural cred in a vain attempt at impressing anyone who wanders by, and who bemoans the democratic nature of the way we consume music now as too easy.
I have no problem with increased access to music, generally. It’s revolutionized the way I’m able to enjoy things, and if I ever have kids I’ll be thrilled at how much is available for them with a single click, how much they have access to that I never did growing up. I have concerns about the viability of the streaming music model, on a purely monetary basis — how the fuck haven’t we figured out how to compensate all players fairly and still provide a good, honest service? I blame a lot of factors from licensing to tech culture, but that’s another essay I guess. But yeah, some of those troubling nuances aside, give me that firehose of content for criminally low prices. I’m down with that shit.
But what I want to talk about is the idea of digital scarcity as an artistic tool. We seem to believe that it’s sacred and inviolable for recordings to stick around forever — once they’re out there on the internet, they’re around forever, and that’s great, right? Except recordings have not always been held up to that pedestal. John Cage, for example, was very conflicted about the benefit of recordings, and many in the experimental music world felt similarly. Live performance was critical; recorded performance was a sham, an artificial endgame that hides the ongoing daily artistic practice that free, improvisational music should aspire to. David Grubbs’ Records Ruin the Landscape explored this beautifully, and changed the way I thought about recordings in 2014.
Lydia Goehr writes about Cage: He wanted music neither to be ruled by a score (which dictated exactly what should happen each and every time it was performed) nor embalmed in a recording archive. Both would dampen, on his thinking, on the crucial experience of immediacy, spontaneity, and change rung by chance, of rhythm emergent through scale, of deepening absorption on whatever happens to happen, of, as they said in the 1960s, “being there” until the performance, like a human life, simply ceased to exist. The recording was, he felt, a pale replica of this experience of live performance: one incapable of engendering it. Repeated listening to a recording would turn it into a museological occasion rather than a lesson in fleeting intensity.
A lesson in fleeting intensity — that serves as a sort of slogan for the new digital ephemera we’d like to explore. We currently have a buffet of endless music options, and our attention is swayed from one classic recording to the next, one surprise iTunes release to the next. The one thing all of these recordings possess is a feeling that they’re going to be around for the conceivable future. You can take a listen now, you can take a listen in ten or fifty years. It’s all being captured, frozen in amber.
If we’re able to bring back the “extremely limited edition” to our streaming music, then we get back some of the artistic fruitfulness, vital transience, and fleeting intensity that we may have been missing. We get back a sense of the small, labored-over gift from one person to the next. We get back the care and attention from those CD-R and tape-trading scenes.
It’s not about snobbishness. It’s the opposite. From both the listener and the artist point of view, it should be incredibly generous — a small peek into a daily, ongoing artistic practice, a glimpse into a whirlwind of fleeting intensity. This is what we’d like to explore in 2015 and onward.
Bring back the extremely limited edition. Delete your bandcamp album after it gets 10 or 20 or 30 downloads. Cut off streaming after a few days. Release self-eating recordings. Maybe it’ll get pirated and distributed beyond your control, but it probably won’t if you’re on the small-scale side of things like most of us are. And if it does spread beyond your control, oh well. But the joy is in the ephemeral quality of the release, for everyone involved.
It’s superficially along the lines of something like Record Store Day, but it couldn’t be more different. We admire the spirit of the day and a noble effort to bring in business for the ailing local record store (and will certainly cop to some lovely records resulting from it) but it has been eaten alive by the ‘collector’ mentality and eBay and a general weird turn away from people who just like to listen to records and a hundred other diseases.
We’re anti-collector. We’re anti-sickness. We’re anti-object as cultural cred.
We just want to put out recordings that have a small window of beauty, that spark and blaze for a tiny moment in a few lives and then disappear forever — a form of temporal magic. Music still has that capacity, it’s a huge reason why we all still go to live shows.
Why not explore it in the brave new world of digital releases? It could be really fun and a little strange, at least. And we’re all on board with that. Except Steve Albini. He’s not on board with that at all.
So, this post coincides with the introduction of Vaporcake, a digital label dedicated to ephemera. You can follow along at @vaporcaker on twitter. Nothing in our catalog lasts very long, if all goes according to plan. We’re taking submissions now, and eagerly await releasing your music. Send submissions to email@example.com.
Also, the first Vaporcake release is a split EP by The Kendal Mintcake and Vapor Lanes. Limited to 10 downloads, then we remove the bandcamp tracks and delete the files from our hard drives. Look for it here: vaporcake.bandcamp.com. Cheers.