Is now a good time to say I don’t have a Spotify? It’s not just because of the chill/wave easy listening takeover that is the trademark of the industry nowadays, but also, my lack of an account is also due to the politics of the platform that continue to plague the brands reputation and their relationship with the artists and musicians. As playlists of music crop up on youtube and spotify akin to local anesthetics, the label of underground comes up in common vernacular as a response. And while not all underground music is put onto a tape, the urgency in this act remains provocative and encapsulates a broad subjective ‘underground’ ethos, as if a musician could give a stick and poke tattoo to time itself.
The music and labels I focus on in this piece all seek to, in their own manner, augment time and memory and employ nostalgia as a tool of craft. Much like a tattoo, a song or album off your greatest hits is tied with nostalgia, and your relationship to that first exchange.
As neo-liberal commodification, like a winters chill, creeps into every crevice of contemporary life, to what extent is the relationship between tape-label head, musician and listener politicized? Musicians more often than not don’t want to talk politics. However, if the alt-right internet based appropriation of vapor-wave into ‘trump-wave’ or ‘fashwave’ is any indicator of underground music’s political weight, then in my view, this invites a criticism and a broad analysis of what it means, in a social way to make a tape in 2019, especially one that errs on, or reacts to a vaporwave sound and aesthetic.
At first I was a little put off by vaporwave itself because I thought they were stealing samples, but if you delve deeper, probably 30% is really great stuff. The rest… there is just no creativity… that’s why I release what I release – something that I can see can be something. – Josh Rogers
To push this notion further still, the two main vaporwave bogey-men and that of its progeny genres, are represented by the usage of nostalgia, and for better or worse, the seeking to culturally combat the very tools of that nostalgia; or put another way: cultural appropriation. While I am not a copyright lawyer and cannot speak to the particularities of the field, to hone my critical perspective through an artistic perspective, I have taken to preparing this writing by collaging. This is so not just because I enjoy the act, but also as anyone who has wandered into a Goodwill can tell you, there are literal tons of cheap, free mediums that can be ‘reclaimed’ in a piece across artistic boundaries.
As Josh Rogers can tell you: ‘‘I’ll go to thrift stores and Ill find the old mixtapes and you can re-record over those…’
‘Where would you buy them?’ I ask.
‘If you go to the mom and pop thrift stores, they usually have piles of cassettes… what I do is if they have a bunch of cassette’s, I’ll just make them an offer.’
But before I can broach music reclamation topics with more weight, I take you to my humble beginnings as an imbiber of music on cassette tape.
The first tape I remember listening to, embarrassingly enough, is Hanson’s ‘MMMBop’ and; I don’t think I’ll ever forget this moment where, even if it was B-radio pop from the 90’s, I could listen to and have a relationship to music. No piped in department store soundtracks, no disc jockey at the end of a radio hour, four year old me was the DJ and the world was ‘MMMbop’. In my childhood in the late 90s and 2000s, cassette tapes were quickly replaced by the compact disc in a time where mix cds in high school still had some sort of sentimental, but also practical value in an emerging digital landscape where sharing music with your friends sometimes became limited, lost somewhere between mix cd’s and the ever-evolving iTunes sharing policies.
Before you needlessly defend your music buying selection this piece is not so much about what type of music you buy or where you buy it, as it is how you buy music, if at all.
Amidst the shared public ecstasy of the proliferation of digital media of all kinds in the early 2010s, vinyl with its ‘warm’ sound, tangibility, and a piece of that ‘DJ feel’ made a resurgence in music stores, and then just years later, places like Urban Outfitters and department stores like Target. Between the ‘tweenification’ of vinyl and the characterless purely digital landscape, the tape has been a stronghold for DIY communities in the States, Europe, and elsewhere almost since its invention in the early to mid 1960s.
I’ll go to thrift stores and Ill find the old mixtapes and you can re-record over those’ and most of the time, the sound is not perfect, you get a little bit of a warble… to me that adds character… so I thought why don’t I just take new albums — and put them on cassette.- Josh Rogers
This remains so today in large part due to the fact that tapes are cheap to make and generally easy to use. But, it takes a very special person to desire to make them, which to me is something that goes beyond making music and enters into the realm of cultural aesthetic making and to quote myself throughout the course of interviewing for this piece some, ‘entrepreneurial ass shit’…
Enter Josh Rogers of Illuminated Paths, label head, musician, visual artist, video maker (and an all around stellar dude). He is the owner of Illuminated Paths, a Florida based tape label which is a prolific label that has for too often, been lumped in with the ‘vaporwave’ schtick after boosting the career of, most notably Skylar Spence FKA St. Pepsi. This pigeon-holing, however un-coincidental, has over the research for this piece, lost its flavor for me where the term vaporwave in accordance to Illuminated Path’s catalog has proven unsuitable to appropriately realize what one person in an active music community is capable of achieving.
Previous incarnations of this piece included this rough thesis: the mainstream music industry press projected their death onto vaporwave not because the music industry was being democratized, but because music criticism in and of itself was democratized. While this writing is not that piece, it does assert a premise as a response to all Conde Nast publications, including Pitchfork and Them. which will be going behind a paywall in 2020. (The Hassle is, for the time being is an ad-free arts publication)
In the endless slew of data and media, where can artists turn to for meaning? Looked at from this perspective, the cassette tape serves as ‘a sort of digital stop gap’ asserts J Bagist of Property Materials, ‘to stop the music from getting lost in the digital realm’.
Property Materials, if you are unfamiliar, is a Boston based electronic label and zine producer run by J Bagist and Deb Step. Their aesthetic, while steeped in the digital realm, has as a foundation not only a tangible product in tapes and zines, but also, a physical community. As J Bagist asserts, ‘I put out most of my friends music… I record it either at home or send the tapes out.’
As for Illuminated Paths and Josh Rogers, I spoke with Josh after a weekend he spent working shows as a visual projector. I spoke with him about his label, his music, and about spotify and other digital streaming platforms. While he maintained pliability in his conviction, his aesthetic and ethos speaks more to the evolution of artists in this musical landscape than what one may draw from listening to their music. In this regard, the endless amount of interpretation of not only his label’s music, but his baffling and absurd packaging, represents his spatial movement in and around Florida the musical community of which he is proudly apart of.
Founder of Boston based label Erased!Tapes, Sundog is a performing musician who has also put out records by Kevin Wynd, Birthday Ass and other New England Conservatory grads in his loose knit contingent. Opposed to purely being behind the camera or splicing together audio records, Sundog takes the stage front and center, often times offering a stripped down sets of solo songs and heartfelt covers.
He asserts ‘to maintain a critical perspective, you need to consider that its not all that good of an idea to start a tape label.’ I laugh but can tell he is serious. ‘I’ve slowed output with Erased! because the time and money aren’t there.’ Sundog states his motivations in starting the label were to be a friend through which his friends could put out music and have a physical release.
Josh Rogers on the other hand says he has a ’24 hour a day schedule’, that he ‘never sleeps’ and is one of the few fortunate enough to be successful enough not to have a day job. ‘I don’t really need the publicity or to do interviews’ he urges. While I thought this piece was the beginning of his coming out of the underground, going aboveground, he has already taken part in a podcast interview last year following his label receiving notable press from the likes of Fader and Tiny Mix Tapes in years previous.
‘Most of the time I say no. I’m not trying to be an asshole, I just don’t need the publicity.’ Stating in our emails previous ‘developing a thick skin, putting up walls from the outset these days.’ seems to be the name of the game across the board as the internet critics (and real critics) jump out at the seams to get a piece of, or reclaim their own sense of closure with their past.
‘The problem is all these kids have assumptions… they’re just blowing off steam.’ Rogers says about, most specifically, the Reddit r/vaporwave threads.
The irony has not escaped me that I am writing this on an internet publication, with these words probably never being impressed with oil based ink onto paper. What I’ve found tantamount in this piece however, is the apprehension towards the web, a technology not without its downside that is most directly manifested in the surveillance state. It is this apprehension I view art to come out of. In fact, one could go so far as to say culturally permeable art can complete its purpose (and continue to) by industrializing one’s sense of space whether that space is Boston, Croatia, or the internet itself.
‘if you think about it there’s nothing original in music, it’s all just influences they’ve (musicians) had over their lives, to me vaporwave is a reflection… they’re using samples as their instrument… the creative artists make their own palettes – Josh Rogers ’
Oh, the internet, a subject that leaves real critics, musicians, and artists speculating wide eyed at Irish pub houses across the world. Not just the internet, but all that data and the collection of which makes our friends without smart phones seem a hell of a lot smarter than those without.
This isn’t the realm of tin-hat conspiracy any more nor an aspect of Marx’ waves of vapor (where vaporwave gets its name) but is, to me, an aspect of the prolonged social problems that vaporwave came as a response to in the early 2010’s when of all things, Occupy Wall Street settlements were popping up and being taken down across the country. These problems are here to stay and are only rapidly changing in their exponentiality.
Books writ on this subject ultimately miss their mark by the time the book hits their printers. Blog comment sections are only worth their weight, so this is why the most urgent and political act is one in an active community that promotes being viewed and heard. One that thrusts interpretation into the viewers hands and forges a feeling in a world devoid of honesty.
50% of the stuff I create is not usable because it just becomes too muddled, too broken fractured to be listenable… I could get digital… to me that just muddles it down… I like the look of a busted VHS tape projected onto an artist performing. I like the fact that it only has a couple more plays … it’s just like life, everything is finite. – Josh Rogers
This broken aesthetic is attached to the Distroid aesthetic that took the internet over like a contagious virus in the early 2010’s as a precursor to vaporwave. The tendrils of accelerationist art are currently, peering deep into the future, and pushing the post-modern limits of what a social being can be. Yet this dynamic in art, a longing to be light years away from the present, or 30 years in the past takes a back seat to a creative’s individuals assertion of vision.
But what does a post-modern community look like, is it only based upon a small digital interchange of money and goods, while in online chatrooms, they seek to digitally devour their invisible opponents?
Over the course of this writing I have found that not only do underground musicians posit themselves against the mainstream music industry, but they are forced to posit themselves against the online sphere. In this way, as online chatrooms and memes build and destroy new cities daily, the permanence of musicians and artists seek to overcome even that.
Featured Image: Nick Volpe, Cover Art of album Rock of Cashel by At Night, Outside
Chris Hughes-Zimmerman //// is a poet & writer from Boston, Ma & music editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at [email protected] or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.
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