The Wire

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In Writing

Collateral Damage: DW Robertson on trading his life as Ergo Phizmiz for his freedom

January 2016

The gift economy enabled by netlabels and free online music platforms can come at great cost to artists like Ergo Phizmiz, who gave up his name to regain his freedom. By DW Robertson

In Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone teleplay “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit”, human archetypes (clown, ballerina, soldier) at the bottom of a vast metal cylinder find themselves abandoned by reason, memory and time. “Who are we?” they cry, their screams reverberating around the tube that encapsulates them. Who they are turns out to be toys in a street corner dustbin.

For me, the existential crisis of Serling’s abandoned figurines mirrors the fate of information fed into the internet, in which anonymity is compounded by the profusion of surrounding materials. The perfect place, then, or so I thought aged 19 in 1999, to set up my netlabel Gurusid. For the next 16 years I endeavoured to fill the internet with as much music as possible, starting with my first upload of Ergo Phizmiz Presents The Dancing Pig.

No longer tied to the physical constraints of tapes or spinning discs, I could rethink the shape of my music. From 14 hour soundplays to ten second noise epics, or occasionally imaginary but fully referenced recordings, with each link pointing to a different 404, I was free to compose in whatever form or style that suited the moment I was working in.

In the beginning, free music online was a lonely place. In 2001, I was contacted by the Israel based netlabel Kusemek, each of us amazed to discover another Omega Man. By the mid-2000s, however, netlabels were blooming profusely, marking an evolution for internet music. As highly productive as they were innovative, and marked with a passion for the new medium, labels such as UpItUp, Headphonica and Surrism-Phonoethics released a dense stream of artists from across Europe.

In these early days, the netlabel world was characterised by a sense of euphoria and freedom: anti-capitalistic and firmly pitched in direct opposition to the music industry, and detached from monetary concerns. However I found I was also detached from having to create a recognisable Ergo Phizmiz sound.

All of my online work was released with a Creative Commons license wherein the music can be used, sampled, and so on, as long as (a) the third party credits the composer, and (b) the usage is non- commercial. Generally this worked well. It even made money occasionally, when commercial projects got in touch about usage.

Or not. In 2011, I was alarmed to read a Google alert announcing the right wing party “UKIP’s new video, music by Ergo Phizmiz”. I was only saved from this fate by the savvy folks at Headphonica, who pointed out to UKIP that in order to use my music, it must license their work with a Creative Commons attribution, too. Fortunately, UKIP didn’t want to share.

Free from other restrictions, I also found myself unfettered from trifles such as quality and taste. Like a digital extension of Duchamp’s “The Creative Act” or the free market, come to that, the value of my work has always been measured only by its audience. To survive, I had to accept that everything I uploaded held the same integrity, culturally and artistically, as a dubbed video of a cat. I was more than happy to do that, where many more dignified musical souls plainly weren’t, as I believed that a new norm was being created.

At its heart, the netlabel world was a hermetic one, in which artists created for the sake of it, or to surprise and amuse each other. As such, the netlabel was a gift economy in the true sense of the term, in that its aim was to build communities. Indeed I was lucky to meet many likeminded artists and listeners online, going on to form collaborations and friendships that have grown on and off the internet. However, strict adherence to the concept of gift economy has led to netlabel music being completely ignored by traditional media. With nothing to sell, there was nothing to advertise. But, more crucially, netlabels were perceived as hobbyists lacking in self-seriousness. And just as a fool can’t appoint themselves to court, so netlabel music could not even anoint itself outsider art.

Those of us who did make money from being part of this community were those who built concurrent musical careers outside of it. My offline music career, in which I made soundtracks and recorded and toured albums and operas, surely benefited from the good will and keen memories of my early internet audience. Established DIYers such as People Like Us did well from the association, too. But people like Dan Deacon, who skillfully built their anti-capitalism into their brand, did best of all.

The reality of community building is self-promotion, be the builders’ motives utopian or egotistical. As people migrated from site to site, it was necessary to rebuild presence and connections from scratch every time. The end of Myspace, in my experience the only truly successful community building tool for musicians, was a big blow. As each subsequent platform became more honed to commercial success, so netlabel communications followed suit.

By 2015, the netlabel world had become a stepping stone, an outpost you passed through to gain a little cachet on your way to being sold as a grassroots artist. No longer a library, it was now a marketplace, and advertising was the only means of communication. Inevitably, rarity, a singular persona and evidence of toil were what the new audience wanted here – and I didn’t have it. I no longer knew with whom I was communicating. So I stopped.

For a few weeks, I was tempted to ghost, to remove my 200 albums and many other hours of music from the internet for good. I thought I had the power to make the infinite finite again. That fantasy only lasted as long as it took me to realise that, due to all the hard drives I had left for dead, much of my music now only existed in online form. As an internet music composer, I discovered that there was no way to opt out of being online – no way out of the bin. Instead I opted out of being Ergo Phizmiz, abandoning him and his music to the whim of the web.

DW Robertson’s opera The Mourning Show is staged at London’s Sutton House, on 29–30 January. DW Robertson's Ergo Phizmiz archive can be found at Free Music Archive.

Subscribers to The Wire can read Clive Bell speak to Ergo Phizmiz in The Wire 349

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