File sharers uploading rare and out of print records challenge official histories of music by confronting hand-me-down narratives with the source artefacts, argues Mutant Sounds blogger Eric Lumbleau.
If you’re critically engaged enough to be hashing through the contours of this column’s ongoing debate, you’re likely also sentient enough to be wracked by one of our generation’s key psychological afflictions; that internal tug-of-war that we each undertake in order to sustain a sense of deeper meaning or connection with the cultural artefacts that we encounter, despite this ahistorical nowever in which we’re all currently adrift; this vertiginous zone in which every last vestige of our collective cultural legacy past and present exists as freely interchangeable atomized particles with no meaningful breadcrumb trail left to daisy-chain them together. But while every conceivable sonic event now exists a few key clicks away, there is, I assume, still some comfort in knowing that the crème de la crème of a certain rarefied aesthetic is being warehoused at a specified location.
With the lid having already been thoroughly pried off the music-sharing Pandora’s box before I ever wandered into frame at the behest of the Greek collector who had started Mutant Sounds a few months earlier, it never occurred to me when I began my postings that this phenomenon was anything other than a fait accompli. Paradigm shifts are a bitch, but they’re also irreversible, and thus I never felt any real trepidation about the actions that I have taken in making all this obscure and long out-of-print material available for free, as long as we were doing our best to, by our own standards, keep our noses clean and keep in print work out of circulation. Fair being fair, I’ve posted the bulk of my own recorded back catalogue with Vas Deferens Organization, Sound, Tone Float and Jaloppy for free download alongside everyone else’s work.
Four years of postings later, the most notable thing about the response from artists is how little there has been, with only an infinitesimal fraction of those whose work we’ve shared having asked for their material to be removed in the absence of an album being either still in print (in the rare event that something still in print was posted by accident) or being due for reissue. Rather, numerous reissues have come to market as a direct result of those albums having first been discovered on Mutant Sounds and/or made viable enough to reissue because of the increased profile that a previously obscure album has received by being posted on Mutant Sounds.
Despite the sky-is-falling implications of both this column’s name and the sentiments of contributors like Chris Cutler (The Wire 328), there’s nothing preordained about the presumed collapse of the independent record label. In Cutler’s case, a perceptual shift regarding the continued viability of the CD medium and a peek in on Collateral Damage contributor Amanda Brown’s Not Not Fun imprint would offer an object lesson on how some labels have managed to remain viable while negotiating these same waters, and her ability to quickly sell out of handsomely appointed vinyl in small editions is mirrored by my recent experience with the label that I co-run with my bandmates.
I personally conceive of Mutant Sounds as many things: as a Smithsonian Institute of the musical sub-underground and a psychic enema, releasing a trepanned spill of the accumulated arcana compacted in my brain from decades spent feverishly burrowing into forgotten universes; as the Nurse With Wound list of recommendations re-imagined as a living text and as a decoder ring for historically situating networks of marginalia that have previously sidestepped analysis; as a freak fringe music fan’s Pirate Utopia (consider the rectangle around our logo as a Digger Free Frame Of Reference), where the most elitist artefacts are liberated from the closed circuit of heavyweight rare record collectors; and as a seduction to the merely curious to wander outside their wheelhouse and lift a stray rock called ‘French RIO’, ‘Dadaist kitsch collage’ or ‘Beefheartian blather’ and have all their boundaries blown.
But beyond anything else, Mutant Sounds stands as a raspberry-blowing rebuke to the fates that have marginalised some of the most crucial musical information in history. At the time that I began working on the blog and that first lightbulb went off over my head, my feeling was that here, finally, was a means by which the entire shabby and ass-backward script that cadres of careless critics had foisted on successive generations of music fans could be undermined in one fell swoop; all those critic-generated time ellipses and lazily recycled memes that, for instance, sustain the stubbornly clinging nonsense that still allows ‘post-punk’ to be understood as an after-effect of punk (tell that to Suicide in 1972, Devo in 74 or Pere Ubu in 75). If some of our leading critical lights could fumble such a crucial causal relationship, imagine how much other screwy brilliance outside their ken has been left unassessed and dawdling at the margins.
With the advent of my work on Mutant Sounds, information could now meet artefact with a resounding wet splat and this entire hidden history could suddenly be unfurled like a banner and waved to signal the likeminded, and by likeminded, I mean all those that never subscribed to the ‘punk killed Prog birthed post-punk bred janglepop emerged as Grunge’ chronology that demarcates the eras that we principally cover on Mutant Sounds, and which has up until recently done such a bang-up job of bamboozling the masses with its bogus narrative; those who spent their energies hunting for music brimming with queer and outsider energies; those shrewd listeners that feel themselves aligned with Zappa/Beefheart/Krautrock/Nurse With Wound/Velvets/Residents/Eno/RIO//free jazz/electroacoustic/Prog/psych/fusion et al and find in Mutant Sounds’ aesthetic a perfect (funhouse) mirror reflection of their own sensibility.
With some 3000 posts hoisted since 2007, it could be argued that we’re ultimately just contributing more noise to the circuit. Me? I’d rather view it as an accumulation of wild psychic energies short-circuiting surrounding drifts of less meaningful historical data. Profundity served up in slop buckets. Would you expect anything less at this late date?