Though sometimes I am a little dismayed at the online/digital environment for music, it has occurred to me lately that I have been using the internet to learn about music for a long time, basically for the past 11 years or so. I am actually reasonably well-qualified to offer a historical perspective on music on the web.
My current methods of learning about music (among other things, you’ve got your pitchfork and your last.fm and your long list of favorite mp3 blogs) are the direct descendents of some of the services I used five to ten years ago. And honestly, all the new methods are way better than the ones I used in the past. But I still harbor a lot of affection for some of the long-disappeared or long-inactive corners of the web. Today I’m posting a kind of a tribute to them, the ghosts of a lost internet era, the clunky pioneers of today’s digital media universe. Am I the only one nostalgic for Web 1.0? (Or maybe it was Web 0.9??)
I was only peripherally aware of usenet, BBS, newsgroups, etc. I never used the internet before going to college (in 1995), and never had my own computer during college, so most of my time online was either at my work-study jobs or else at campus computer labs. To me, aside from email, the internet basically meant the web, and browsing the web meant firing up Netscape and playing around on Yahoo until I found something interesting. Back in those days, there were no good search engines, so you had to go to a human-edited category of Yahoo to see what their editors recommended, or what interesting websites people may have submitted. Today, it took me a while to even figure out whether or not Yahoo still had the old directory structure, but well well well, here’s an old friend I haven’t seen in ages.
I assume that it was Yahoo that led me to the late, great Addicted to Noise. The site is long since shuttered up, but it was originally hosted at addict.com (back in the ’90s, you had to remember URLs, because there was no google and were no services like del.icio.us… a lot of tedious work could go into remembering how you found a website a few days before). You can get a taste of it (or a jolt of nostalgia) at this partially-working Addicted to Noise archive.
Addicted to Noise was great. Prior to my discovery of ATN, my only sources of music news were magazines like SPIN or segments of MTV news. Suddenly with ATN, I had a reliable source of news and album reviews, one that didn’t disappear or get trashed, with linked-up articles and segments. It was like having one of those huge music encyclopedias that they (used to?) sell in bookstores, but continually updated. It was what the internet was all about.
ATN merged with another group called SonicNet, and eventually the whole thing was bought up by MTV and later phased out of existence. The story is pretty interesting, and it’s been blogged about elsewhere, check it out. Alas, poor ATN. It really was my favorite website for a few years back around 1997 – 1998. ATN taught me a lot about what was still known as “alternative” music, mostly the same type of stuff that showed up in SPIN or on 120 Minutes, but with more depth and insight. As I was in college at the time, meeting lots of people with different tastes in music, ATN became a source to flesh out a reference that I’d picked up or to read an interview with a new favorite band (e.g., Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Mogwai). As a webzine, rather than a modern daily-updated blog-type-site, it provided focus on the artists that it highlighted. Its present-day successor, pitchfork, is more of a bloated behemoth, full of too many (none-too-reliable) reviews to ever read, too many (great) recommendations to really process. ATN lacked the snark of pitchfork: it was more of an attempt by a bunch of music fans to spread the word. In hindsight, it was somewhere in between “old” and “new” media, a brilliant attempt to exploit the best of the traditional music writing in a new format. It was reliable, it was useful, it was doomed. Chewed up and spit out by MTV, it also provides a nice metaphor for the whole first wave of internet insurgency of the late 1990s. I know I for one never felt the least bit interested in Pets.com, but I honestly felt like Addicted to Noise was changing my world.
Speaking of dead webzines, I also need to send a shoutout to the fine folks who once ran the DC-centered zine Held Like Sound. Unlike ATN, Held Like Sound has pretty much vanished from the face of the web without trace. Also unlike ATN, HLS was pretty punky, based on a real-life zine about DC music and other late-’90s punk. It was run by John Davis, soon to play in the semi-famous Q and Not U, and with whom I was once in the same social circles, but not during the era of Held Like Sound. The site (once hosted at heldlikesound.com) was nothing special, but was all about the content.
Reading Held Like Sound was a great introduction to the DC scene. Outside of a few magazine articles I hadn’t really known about underground music until I was in college and met people who listened to local and indie/punk music. Soon, though, I was going to the Black Cat and shopping at Smash! HLS helped me to get a little context for my DC music fix, and to read about the great bands that I might have happened to catch at the ’Cat. I wish I could find some more info online still, but I recall HLS having interviews with folks like Darren Zentek or Shelby Cinca, and record reviews, of course. This was around the time when I was rocking out to bands like Jawbox and Kerosene 454, and HLS fit those types of interest perfectly — the whole post-punk thing. If any of the people who were once involved in Held Like Sound happen to see this, let me know if any of it is still around, perhaps sitting on floppy disks in somebody’s parents’ house…
Another interesting service of that era was Firefly. Like Addicted to Noise, Firefly vanished into a huge corporation and died off in the late ’90s, but it was a pretty cool service and I absolutely learned about some bands that I loved because of Firefly. Basically it was an exceedingly slow (in retrospect) version of a service that still exists on Amazon and lots of other sites, where you could list your favorite artists, and fill in boxes explaining how much you like or dislike a certain band or album, and it would spit back recommendations of bands you might like based on other users’ choices. It was a totally obvious concept, but not one that I was aware of previously, and it worked fairly well. Firefly consistently recommended that I check out My Bloody Valentine, and eventually I gave in to its advice and bought Loveless, and that was a pretty huge thing for me at the time.
Oh the old internet: so primitive, and yet so promising. Am I forgetting anything?