In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on new, emergent, underground music—addresses how the framing of music can radically redefine it. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
“Is ‘Internet Music’ the New ‘Lo-Fi’?” With a title like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m about to make a pretty boring point, one that I have already touched on a few times before. Upload-it-yourself is the new do-it-yourself! The Bandcamp/Soundcloud underground revolution is the new bedroom cassette revolution! A cracked copy of Audacity or Logic is the new battered four-track, and photoshopping jpegs is the new hand-painted cover art. This is all true, and to be honest it is quite exciting actually, but it’s a point so obvious it doesn’t need to be made. I’d like to make a slightly subtler point, because when you look up close and see the pixels or strain to filter out the tape-hiss, neither ‘internet music’ or ‘lo-fi’ are quite what they seem to be.
Ask anyone, especially ten years ago, what an indie approach to music-making looks like, and they’ll describe the ‘lo-fi aesthetic’: well, it might be a little bit retro or a little bit folky or a little bit twee, and maybe the sound would be a little bit muddy, hissy or woozy, the playing would be a little ragged, but it would be warm, intimate, minimal, gentle, like a hug from a bearded man in a charity-shop woollen jumper with a kind face. After all, this is what comes out when you make music outside of the commercial studio system, right? People have to use old, cheap recording equipment in a slightly unprofessional manner, have to wear cheap, old thrift-store clothes, shy away from modernity and take on the innocent atmosphere of a world where MTV doesn’t exist. Quaint, charming.
Aside from the fact that the march of technology has made this picture all but obsolete other than as an affectation (and one that’s actually far from the cheapest option these days), this association between independent music and the lo-fi aesthetic is not a necessary, inherent or permanent one. What this association is is a shrinking of the aesthetic possibilities of a new medium, a whole new mode of creative production, down to a caricature.
When home-recording and the cassette medium first turned up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, few musicians or writers regarded the medium as ‘lo-fi.’ In fact, at the time, that term meant nothing more than ‘poor sound quality’. What independent music magazines at the time recognized in the cassette was sheer potential itself—now anyone could make whatever music they wanted and send it anywhere that had a mailbox. Within a few years, the cassette medium had been adopted by fringe and avant-garde musicians in the industrial, experimental and electronic underground and the production of modern-music recordings was radically decentralized. Magazines ran columns reviewing cassettes of any and every kind—punk, experimental, new age, jazz, folk, ethnic music, classical, improv, spoken word. One cassette artist even sent in a tape featuring recordings of rivers from all over the world. In hundreds and hundreds of cassette reviews the term ‘lo-fi’ is only mentioned a handful of times. Sound quality or other relationships to convention, inverse or not, simply weren’t the point—the point was the endless possibilities of the cassette itself.
The lo-fi aesthetic is a concept invented in the early 1990s, not something that comes as a natural and inevitable result of an independent recording context. It developed out of a particular kind of response to punk and independent music’s call for the destruction of all corporate pop music’s conventions. Rather than wipe away all the conventions of musical taste and begin again with a clean slate (“rip it up and start again”) an increasingly dominant aesthetic strand within punk and post-punk came to believe that the best way of rejecting musical conventions was to do the precise opposite of musical conventions. Instead of ripping the picture up and starting again, they kept the picture but turned it upside down. This approach became popular because it was much easier to understand than a world with no musical rules, no compass. If the compass had been pointing north, this dominant aesthetic said, “Fuck the compass!” But instead of the going in any direction it wanted it, the most popular direction became south.
Eventually, this would develop into the lo-fi aesthetic, after a number of prominent acts— Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese, Sebadoh—had resonated so perfectly with it. When lo-fi reached peak hype in the 1990s, the indie scene had almost entirely forgotten that it was founded on the endless possibilities of independent, do-it-yourself methods such as the cassette. And lo-fi stuck around, with seemingly every independent band—or, as they were now called, ‘indie bands’—having the affliction to some degree. Soon enough, it was taken for granted that home-recording and lo-fi—a sloppy, hissy, amateur folk rock sound—were one and the same thing. But home-recording and lo-fi are not the same thing. Note that nobody calls Aphex Twin a ‘bedroom’ musician anymore, even though technically he was—bedrooms just don’t sound like Aphex Twin, do they? They sound like Ariel Pink, or John Maus, or Nite Jewel.
Don’t get me wrong, I like lo-fi artists—the aesthetic can be a very interesting position from which to make art. But the category, expectation and golden rule that is (or was) ‘lo-fi’ is a patronizing caricature of the very amateurs it was meant to empower and the very medium that was once meant to offer the ultimate in democratic creative possibilities. In not ripping up the picture and in not truly ignoring the compass, lo-fi was a reactionary maneuver. In the end, you might even say that lo-fi was a strategy by conservative vinyl labels and then corporate labels that served to keep amateurs and cassettes in their socio-cultural place—a place that mainstream aesthetics now calls ‘quaint’ but knows is wretched. And if you think all this is no more than a matter of sonic tastes, ask yourself why coffee chains and mobile-phone adverts love indie warmth so much, or why the super-wealthy, David Cameron-anointed Mumford and Sons dress up like the Victorian working class. One of the most common terms you see in description of lo-fi music in the early 1990s is ‘charming’—a backhanded compliment. Negative mainstream notions of the context and the medium begin to tar the music and disguise its potential, replacing ‘independent’ with ‘indie’ and the cassette medium with a set of specific, pre-conceived sonic notions about ‘cassetteness’.
Why do I bring this ancient history up? I bring it up because the same thing that happened to the cassette revolution is happening to the online music revolution—because ‘internet music’ is going to be the new ‘lo-fi’.
Underground new music is beginning to separate from ‘lo-fi’ and ‘indie’. Ask Laurel Halo, Oneohtrix Point Never, ADR, James Ferraro, Autre Ne Veut, 18+, Fatima Al Qadiri or Arca. Ask any number of exciting new labels, blogs, Tumblr accounts and younger artists. I thought that modern music-tech was so accessible, so powerful and so hi-fi that this music couldn’t be backhandedly tarred with the negative connotations of its medium like lo-fi was, since the medium was no longer audible or constrained. Some 16 year-old punk can render up a debut EP with sound and production qualities that would make a 1980s studio tsar blush. Fewer and fewer amateurs sound ‘garage-y’ or ‘bedroom’ and what’s more, their music is unbelievably accessible by 1980s standards—people used to have to pay hundreds of pounds to press hundreds of records, or duplicate cassettes one by one and mail them to people following a correspondence. But naturally, there are other ways to caricature a milieu as potentially revolutionary as the online and digital world —the negative connotations and reactionary aesthetics of the internet itself.
The aesthetics of the online or digital world that has resonated most with people so far— and online music is no exception—is a bemused aesthetics that sees the internet as a quaint, charming place. A place where, precisely like lo-fi aesthetics, things go charmingly wrong. A place whose once utopian promise now looks quaint and a bit silly and inhuman, where websites go out of date and look silly, a place where computers and online user interfaces look a bit silly and inhuman when things go wrong, a place where weird and silly and inhuman juxtapositions and over-the-top mishmash are made, a place where silly people with silly animals and the silly lower classes and silly foreign people upload silly photos and silly art and have silly commodities and say silly things that end up ‘subverting’ what the digital age was ‘supposed’ to be about. LOL! The internet! What are you like!
This is a reactionary and patronizing take on a new form of human—yes, human—cultural structure that might be so serious, so powerful, and so new that it’s frightening, that it’s too much and needs to be reduced to a quaint, charming place. This reductive maneuver is the lo-fi of the 2010s—it could be called ‘internetness’, in parallel with the ‘cassetteness’ of lo-fi. Moreover, a vague concept of ‘The Internet’ has become a clumsy shorthand for all kinds of technologically mediated modernity and uniquely contemporary scenarios, and it takes the blame for every conceivable kind of modern ill. Many of them have origins distinct from or much older than Web 2.0 (deprofessionalization, social alienation, the hyperreal, piracy, risks to children, the decline of various media, the decline of the attention span and the overall depthlessness of culture were all concerns in the late 20th century too, but blamed on other novelties such as late capitalism and television). And there is a common type of person—often a music fan—that only sees the banalities and drawbacks of the internet, imagining and thus hearing little of its creative potential—“faceless internet bollocks,” to adapt what they said about silly, inhuman techno and dance music.
So if the cassette revolution shrinks down to lo-fi, what does the online music revolution shrink down to? You’ve probably seen and heard it, or you’ll know it when you do. Sometimes it’s called ‘internet music’ sometimes it’s called ‘net music’. It’s that weird, disposable stuff that people do on the internet. Not proper music, not like vinyl or CDs or music from a label that pays a distributor. It’s that stuff with the silly names—what was it, vaporwave, seapunk? Or is vaporwave the next seapunk? It’s difficult to keep track of the Tumblr generation and their weird new memes! It has that tingly hi-fi sound, and sounds a bit weird, maybe there’s a naked 3D virtual woman on the cover, floating above a blue watery backdrop or something, maybe it’s a little kitschy. I heard some of it’s quite fun! Y’know, in a wacky, eye-rolling sort of way.
Now again, don’t get me wrong. I love ‘internet music’. I’m more intrigued about this weird new hi-fi strain, its imagery and its online crucibles than I have been about underground music for quite some time. And I love the portion of it that really is dealing with the idea of the online and digital world and its new forms of music, and experimenting with some of its signifiers—vaporwave is a great example. But not all of it is ‘internet music’ in this way. Musicians like E+E, Karmelloz and Contact Lens are not—they are artists whose work is strange, surprising, alluring and hi-fi, but I don’t see any real way in which it is conceptually or essentially involved with the internet specifically, other than in the most vague and superficial sense that they’re a bit heterogeneous and pluralistic, you know, a bit “internet.” This is simply reading the music by the medium and not reading the message, too. In the same way, I’ve seen people assuming that, like ‘internet music’, the terms ‘seapunk’ and ‘vaporwave’ will refer to any form of online new music with a certain, very general flavor. Seapunk and vaporwave are just two of many, many different kinds of music out there in the online new music underground. And then, of course, there’s all the other music online, not necessarily part of underground new music—just like the cassette, anything you want to upload as a sound file today you can. There are no sonic or stylistic constraints, no proscriptions or predilections inherent in the medium, not even that overall vague sense that the music is busy, weird and confused that many people are blaming the internet for.
What I’m afraid of is the way all this music is being consigned to a category of ‘internet music’ that might not be a full-blown insult but certainly can be little more than a backhanded compliment, and if the longevity and dominance of the lo-fi aesthetic is anything to go by, it might be kept in this place for a long time. I love vaporwave and ‘internet music’, I really do. At its best it’s a provocative, complex and highly modern statement—but can you imagine it getting stupider, then more commonplace, then sticking around for more or less a decade? And towards the end of the decade, a well-meaning ebook gets published called Internet Music: The Weird and Wonderful World of Online Sounds, its title all spelled out in unicode characters and a naked 3D virtual woman floating above a blue watery backdrop on the cover? Wouldn’t you want a more exciting decade?
And in exactly the same way that the cassette revolution failed to catch on with much of the larger music press except in its limited, stunted form as ‘lo-fi’, the bandying about of terms like ‘internet music’ is hardly a good way of getting larger, older underground music websites and publications to take online music and its genuine breadth seriously. It permits these institutions to keep online music in its place, its silly, charming place. It can’t be allowed to happen again. What would I call ‘internet music’ instead of ‘internet music’? Easy: ‘Modern music’.
Lo-fi is over, but home-recording is just getting started. It isn’t just internet music, it’s the future.~
Adam Harper is the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. You can read previous editions of Pattern Recognition here.