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Behind the 8bit

When Thorsten Sideboard founded 8bitrecs.com, an online label consisting entirely of free MP3 files, his role model wasn't Matador Records or Def Jam — it was a computer database.

By Marc Weidenbaum

By mid-May 2003, the small British electronic music label named 8bitrecs had released almost ten dozen tracks by some 50 acts. Visitors to the label’s website, 8bitrecs.com, had downloaded over 30,000 MP3 files, entirely free of charge. And the company had not sold a single CD.

But to Thorsten Sideboard, who founded the label in February 2002, 8bitrecs was still a success.

Why? Because 8bitrecs doesn’t traffic in CDs. Sideboard founded the label simply as a place for free MP3 files, a place to promote adventurous electronic music. Nothing is for sale on the website (though he does link to another label that he co-runs, Highpoint Lowlife, which produces actual CDs for sale). The 8bits roster boasts several acclaimed musicians who have recorded for prominent, traditional labels, including Greg Davis, Janek Schaefer and Rothko.

By making this music freely available via the web, Sideboard sidestepped a long list of music-industry disgruntlements. He sums up these succinctly: “The whole cycle of distribution, publicity, sales and money can get pretty overwhelming and disillusioning.”

Sideboard is not alone. There’s a growing number of organizations similar to 8bitrecs, making music available entirely for free to anyone with a computer and Internet access. Some are side projects of traditional labels, such as Term, which is an offshoot of 12K, the San Francisco-based electronic-music label run by musician Taylor Deupree.

Red Antenna, the New York-based record label, has released a series of free “Online Objects,” collections of MP3 files housed on the label’s website.

Fallt has published some 24 sets of files in its “invalidObject Series,” from artists such as Scanner, Steve Roden, Richard Chartier, Pimmon, Kim Cascone, and even the Term label’s own Deupree. These collections are available for sale as limited-edition 3″ CDs from fallt, but the label puts the files online for free.

And a label called No Type, arguably the granddaddy of free online electronic-music labels, has released almost 100 albums and EPs since 1998.

That these labels are proliferating during a crisis in the music industry cannot be ignored. Record sales are down — perhaps due to rampant sharing on such peer-to-peer systems as Kazaa and Soulseek; perhaps due to the artistic failings of the corporate major labels; perhaps due to the increase in popularity of expensive videogames among the record industry’s main customers: teenage boys.

Major labels have vociferously singled out the Internet as the source of its woes. Labels such as Sideboard’s 8bitrecs are intriguing, not only because they are sources of great listening material, but because they suggest a whole other way of distributing music, if not a whole other mindset. Many musicians have proven perfectly fine with making their songs available for free — perhaps with the hope of gaining commercial opportunities down the road, perhaps as a means of building an audience, perhaps simply as a chance to participate in the global community.

Sideboard agreed to talk about his label at length with Disquiet.com. A look at the workings of 8bitrecs provides a glimpse at an innovative province of the record industry that is, in Sideboard’s words, “hobby-driven and genuine.” To some extent, the 8bitrecs.com format resembles a “blog,” a chronologically ordered collection of online material. It also brings to mind McSweeney’s, the literary journal edited by Dave Eggers, which manages to produce a compelling whole from material that is often understood to be scraps, drafts and rejected writings by established and up-and-coming authors.

Particularly recommended from among recent additions to the 8bitrecs site are Crashed by Car’s “Elizabeth, Did You Ever Heard?” which modulates orchestral woodwinds over a static-laden beat, and Tigrics’ “Ebeck 1/30,” which splinters a pleasing melody and percussive riff with delectable ingenuity.

Sideboard came to his indie-mogul role via a circuitous route. He was born just outside Glasgow, Scotland. Following high school it was youth culture, not the academy, that provided his education. “I had all these plans for art college and aspirations to be a comic-book artist,” he says, “but at the age of 16 I was quite heavily into skateboarding, and all my friends had left school a year before me and were working jobs, bringing home enough money to finance skate trips and buy equipment as needed. I decided I’d rather go work and finance my hobbies, somehow fell into a computer sys-admin job, and had to quickly teach myself along the way.”

Sideboard’s work in computers involved him in the mid-1990s Internet economy — and after that bubble had burst, he co-founded with a friend a small record label, Highpoint Lowlife. (The label recently released its third album, DoF’s If More Than Twenty People Laugh, It Wasn’t Funny.)

Eventually he returned to the U.K., and it was while working for a content-management company in London that 8bitrecs was born. The philosophy of the enterprise — MP3 files, free for the inquisitive — was a salve after the disillusion of running a “real” label.

“One of the things I quickly learned from Highpoint Lowlife,” he says, “is how much of the music industry is not about the music, and in a lot of ways comes down to who you know, popularity and hype.” And the development of the 8bitrecs website allowed him to hone his skills at his new job, in particular to come up to speed on the company’s database system.

Not bad for a guy with no higher education, or formal musical background. “My family aren’t very musical, no, although my father did run off to Blackpool when he was 16 to become an Elvis impersonator,” says Sideboard. “From what my mother says, he had quite a good voice, but all I can think about are the photographs with the totally killer suit and haircut.”

He’s proud of the number of files downloaded from 8bitrecs. But in a characteristically low-key comment, he jokes about his attention to user data. “The logs are quite interesting to look at,” he says, “especially when you use a program to make pretty graphs from them.”

Over the course of a week in May 2003, Sideboard corresponded with Disquiet.com via email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. He talks at length about the learning experiences that led to 8bitrecs, the state of the record industry during the age of peer-to-peer file-sharing, and the nature of the online electronic-music community.

Marc Weidenbaum: You have two record labels: 8bitrecs.com and Highpoint Lowlife. 8bitrecs is a website that collects MP3 files by a variety of musicians, and organizes them into sets that are sometimes along the lines of albums. Highpoint Lowlife, on the other hand, releases actual CDs of songs, some MP3s of which are available on the site for free. Is that a proper summary? Can you talk a bit about how these two labels relate to one another?

Thorsten Sideboard: Highpoint Lowlife came along first. My friend Joey Hurt and I had often spoke about starting a label together as we had really similar taste in music, and suddenly couldn’t think of a reason not to. We put out our first release, which was a double compilation. The compilation was one disc of indie, shoegaze and art-rock bands, and a second disc of more experimental electronic music. It came together really well, with loads of local acts willing to get involved — Stratford 4, Jim Yoshii Pile-up, Boxleitner and Sappington all on the first disc, and on the second disc there were solo projects by all the members of Tarentel, contributions by Broker/Dealer, Wobbly (recording as Brindle Spork) and a whole bunch more.

The compilation was an experience — didn’t exactly sell well, as we had no idea of how to do publicity, or really what to do with the record when it was finished. 8bitrecs.com came about shortly after I moved to London. Highpoint Lowlife was sort of on hold, with both of us short of money due to relocating; 8bitrecs came about due to a couple of reasons.

I had just started working at a company who specialize in content-managed websites within the music industry, usually for small independent labels (the company is called State51), and they have this really cool database system for adding and manipulating content. I’m the system and network administrator for them, which is something I have done for years. However, I hadn’t done too much Perl coding, nor database work. So 8bitrecs.com started almost as a pet project to get up to speed with how a lot of their systems work, like a much smaller version. (For an example of their system, have a look at sonomu.net, which is a community-based alternative music reviews and news site.)

One of the things I quickly learned from Highpoint Lowlife is how much of the music industry is not about the music, and in a lot of ways comes down to who you know, popularity and hype. The whole cycle of distribution, publicity, sales and money can get pretty overwhelming and disillusioning. Putting together 8bitrecs.com, I got a few of the Highpoint Lowlife artists involved for the first content on the site. It all came together very easily, there was no time lag between getting the music and making it available, there was no stress involved over money, and suddenly you had the artist, music and a listener, with nothing in between. It’s nice that it’s that simple and immediate.

There is no real correlation between the two projects. Highpoint Lowlife is the shared vision of my friend and I, whereas 8bitecs was my own personal project, although there is some obvious crossover in what I bring to Highpoint Lowlife — the label’s most recent album is by DoF, who was one of the early 8bitrecs contributors, and also there are currently a number of albums in the works for Highpoint Lowlife from artists appearing on 8bitrecs.

Weidenbaum: You’re involved in a wide variety of projects. I want to focus on 8bitrecs, but could you provide a bit of background on what else you’re involved in, professionally and culturally?

Sideboard: I’m actually from Glasgow in Scotland. I met my friend Joe during the whole dot-com boom. We were introduced by a common friend because she knew we were both into Built to Spill. Anyway, we started hanging out a lot, going to shows together, smoking out, listening to music.

Our first venture together was this badly attended club we ran called Shoegazer. It went nowhere and we shelved the idea for a while. A few months later we had discovered this other little dive bar. It looked so sketchy from outside, with its neon cocktail sign and loitering junkies on the corner. Once you were inside, it was completely different — large anime paintings, two game consoles and your choice of games, large TV screen showing Powerpuff Girls cartoons. This place was amazing. We got on well with the barmaid, handed her a mix CD, and we got ourselves a regular weekly, which was called “:node.” We had different guest DJs down every week, which was a mixture a friends and local musicians, some of the more well-known names were Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, O.S.T., Kit Clayton.

Since moving to London, the past year I’ve been running a night with a friend from work. It’s called Not Clickable. We always have at least one live act playing and my friend and I will DJ in between. It’s been an irregular bi-monthly event, usually hosted at the Foundry, which is this crazy pub that used to be a bank vault, so downstairs you have these strange large rooms they use for art and sound installations. We’ve thrown four of them so far, and have had guest performances by LJ Kruzer, Leafcutter John, Slub, Donna Summer, and Rashamon.

London has this great little scene at the moment, with a few groups of people all doing similar kind of events, or making music. There is Sprawl, which has been going about seven or eight years now, the MidRange nights by Coombe Records, and the Slow Sound System, with everyone involved just really open and excited by the music. There are others, but these are the guys I have discovered and been impressed by in the past year. We all come out and support each others events and have this cross-pollination thing going on, which is really inspiring and fun.

Weidenbaum: Are any of the various 8bitrecs contributors a pseudonym for you?

Sideboard: Maybe! Put it this way: I have a bit of a superhero fetish!

Weidenbaum: Are the musicians you work with on 8bitrecs generally comfortable, right off the bat, with the idea of their music being available for free on the web? Clearly Greg Davis puts up his own files regularly on Autumn Records, and Motion has recorded “free” material for 12K’s Term line.

Sideboard: Yeah, everyone has been completely comfortable, although there are probably differing views regarding MP3s. I think a lot of the artists see the MP3 format as a viable means of promotion, very useful for people to hear your music when you are a small label or artist, and for raising your profile somewhat. For others, it’s their chance to put out the tracks that are maybe slightly different from what they release, bit and pieces, small favorites that fell through the cracks and didn’t make it onto a record, or a chance for them to try something new.

It’s weird how controversial the whole MP3 thing is for some people, but I guess it really does change the face of the music industry, and established models of distribution and promotion. I love it. I guess I just like the fact that it totally fucks things up, completely muddies the water and makes the major labels sweat! My own view is that there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Digital file-swapping is here to stay. Even with Digital Rights Management software, and secure media delivery type systems, there is always going to be a way to circumvent or bypass it, which people are going to use. There is no way it is going to kill the music industry, the music industry is just going to adapt to it in some form or manner, and I think it’s quite an exciting time to see how it does change.

Weidenbaum: Was there a role model for you for 8bitrecs when you started it?

Sideboard: As I mentioned, the database model developed at my work was the technical model for it, but aesthetically and musically no, there was no model. It just sort of happened.

Weidenbaum: Can you describe the month or so leading up to and the month after the launch of the 8bitrecs site — how it all finally came together, what it feel like to you as the project came to fruition?

Sideboard: Well there was never any plan laid down beforehand. I got the idea for it one night, started programming on it a night or so later, and probably had a working model within a week, then emailed and asked some friends to contribute music. I thought it was a fun little project but didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but it just kind of grows, and has attracted some really great music. There was never really any sense of fruition as such, as there were no real goals to start with, but I do get a sense of accomplishment when I hear from someone enjoying the music, who has maybe discovered a new artist, and especially when I hear that someone has made a connection through the site, like one of the artists being contacted because their music was heard. That to me is the payback, if I have provided a forum or platform for something to occur for someone, to facilitate.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting to learn that 8bitrecsis run on a database. The site is so elegant, one might have imagined it was simply a set of hand-coded HTML pages. Have you been concerned at all about bandwidth costs? What are you up against, as you try to maintain it on a regular basis?

Sideboard: I pretty much tried to keep the design simple. Actually that’s a lie, it’s just that I have very basic HTML skills! There are a few tables, and a CGI script calling database reads, and it just prints the rows of the table. The database has all the artist info, track info, file locations, oh and the front page, the kinda blog/news section. The site pretty much just takes you straight to the music. At first it was run on a Solaris box that I left with friends. It was just running from a home DSL line, which was fine to start with, however their ISP would always have at least 8 hours downtime a month. I think it must have been scheduled maintenance as it was always during the night in PST, but for me in London, it was the whole daytime, which was really frustrating. As more files were added and the site grew in popularity, I started to worry about the bandwidth usage on these poor guys who were doing me a favor hosting and taking care of my box, so I finally moved it onto the machines at my work. As we are a service provider of sorts, we have a co-location facility with a good deal of bandwidth, so it’s not really a problem anymore. We handle so much traffic already, that 8bitrecs barely makes a dent.

Weidenbaum: I appreciate your description of how quickly 8bitrecs came together, once you had the idea. What have you learned along the way, and what do you do differently today than you did in the first month or two of the site’s existence?

Sideboard: When I first started the site I originally had discussion boards and a calendar system, hoping it would foster a small community and have artists post local shows. That never really took off, there were very few postings on the boards apart from myself, and it was as if there were tumbleweeds rolling through — you could hear the lonely wind howling. The calendar, also, was only me posting London shows, and kind of irregular at that. I decided to go with the Unix philosophy — keep tools simple, one tool for one job — so I simplified the site so that it was just music, and I think that’s been good. It means I have less maintenance to do on the site. Adding an artist to the site is a one-step process.

Weidenbaum: Are you in touch with other free, online MP3 labels, such as Term and No Type? Do you listen to their music?

Sideboard: No, I’m not in touch with any of the other MP3 labels. I actually keep thinking about that, but never seem to get round to it. When I discovered there were other MP3 labels our there, I went and explored the ones I could find, and was very impressed by how long they had been going, technical features of the site, and most importantly by the amount of and the quality of the music. Most recently I have downloaded the Super Science tracks from monotonik.com, which are amazing!

Weidenbaum: I can’t help but note the possible correlation between your two labels, Highpoint Lowlife and 8bitrecs, and the moment at which they came about. Here’s what I mean: Highpoint is a traditional label that makes CDs, and it was launched at the height of the Internet bubble, when many folks who were making money were spending some of that money on creative side projects. 8bitrecs, which is entirely free to anyone with Internet access, started after the tech bubble burst, and lots of folks were out of work.

Sideboard: It actually turned out kind of reverse. Summer of 2001 when we started Highpoint Lowlife, the bubble was already in mid-burst. I has suffered my first lay-off, and had plenty free time, but not too much money. My friend Joe had some savings, which weren’t Internet related, and that what was how we financed the first release. 8bitrecs was created after I started working in London, so the building of that was all squeezed into my after-work hours. I really see your point though, because I know I used MP3 file sharing services pretty heavily when I was out of work to keep up on new music. I should mention, my disclaimer, I have a guilty spot about file sharing, and I always try and purchase music when I have money. I use Soulseek a lot to listen to a lot of releases that I’ll read about, and when I do like something, I’ll go out and buy it. Most recently with the Opiate and Styrofoam full-lengths on the Morr Music label, which I should mention was also a major inspiration for starting Highpoint Lowlife — if you notice the packaging for our first double Cd compilation, the digipack is the exact same layout as the Putting the Morr Back in Morrissey compilation!

Weidenbaum: I wonder about how inherently organic it is to access electronic music, in particular, over the web. Do you think there’s anything to the suggestion that much electronic music is produced on the same technology one would use to build a website?

Sideboard: I would totally agree with you there. It’s much more natural for music made on a computer to appear so quickly on the web. There are less guitar bands and performers on 8bitrecs than I would like, and I think it is to do with the amount of work involved in recording a live band or real instruments. With electronic music, recording is just part of the whole process. You record and you go back and edit, and when you are finished, or you are taking a break, you have a recorded track there already. It’s very easy and straightforward for you to export your track as an MP3 for further listening, and just an extra step to either post it your site or email it to a friend.

Weidenbaum: There’s so much corporate hand-wringing about the impact on record sales by grey-market music sharing online. I wonder about the impact of free MP3 labels on traditional labels — if there’s so much good music available online, in streaming format and downloadable MP3 files, then who has time, or need, to listen to music you have to pay for?

Sideboard: At the moment there aren’t nearly enough Internet MP3 labels to have much impact on record sales, and of all the labels out there, all of them that I know of are electronic-specific, so it does seem kind of niche. It wouldn’t be beneficial for the artist or labels if there were no need to buy music, and if the music business started using the net as its main distribution media, you can bet the online outlets would have some kind of access fee. That could mean a whole paradigm shift in the industry, from paying for a product, you could perhaps be paying for some kind of subscription service, so I can see how the prospect of so much change would be very scary to the majors.

For a smaller label starting out, the idea of a small donation web fee for downloads based on the honor system could be very nice. Listeners could be under no obligation to pay for anything, but if they liked the service, you could use PayPal or an online store. I had one idea for a fee based project — when I was toying with the name of Foiled by a Science Hero, I thought about inventing around ten super-villains, writing and drawing a small origin/story for each of them, and then getting a musician who could be suitable for doing music fit for super-powered people — I wanted to ask people who make fucked-up, big music – Hrvatski, Kid 606, Knifehandchop, Hellfish + Producer — that kinda artist, and make it a fee-based entry, like $5 entrance to the page, you could download PDFs of the storylines, and the ten MP3s, all encoded at a high bitrate. I like the amount of free labels out there and the stage it’s at, where they are all just hobby-driven and genuine. If the net/mp3 labels turn out to be some kind of phenomenon and receive too much attention, it would probably detract from the enjoyment. I think there is a feeling of having found a little untapped goldmine when you come across good net labels, which would change. I often wonder about how to stop things from growing too large — you know, like a club that starts to get too busy and kills what was special about it to start with — trying to maintain a balance of intimacy and keeping it personal.

Weidenbaum: I understand what you’re saying about your “guilty spot” in regard to using Soulseek and other services to downloaded files. Have you seen 8bitrecs material distributed illegally — posted, for example, on someone else’s site?

Sideboard: No, I’ve never come across that at all. I do see things turning up on Soulseek occasionally, but that’s about the extent of it.

Weidenbaum: I like the idea of your having based an album design at Highpoint Lowlife on the Morr compilation you mentioned. Along the same lines, I like how the typeface and colors on 8bitrecs.com reminds me of my early computer experiences — I can’t help but see 8bitrecs as a kind of wish fulfillment for wishes made, perhaps subconsciously, when we were just teenagers. Can you recall your early experience with computers?

Sideboard: My first computer was a ZX Spectrum 48K back in about ’83 or ’84, I guess. Countless hours programming games into the computer from the pages of a magazine, which never bloody worked! At school we used BBC Micros a few years later, and then when I started working I got a shiny new DOS-driven 386. I went on to do Novell and Windows support for a few crap years, but it wasn’t till I discovered Linux that I really threw myself into computers and their history and lore. I sort of started a small museum collection myself with a few old Mac SEs, a Commodore 64, and a dot matrix printer. It never got very far. I took a trip to Bletchley Park, the home of the WWII code breakers, and at the end of the tour they have a great computer museum, where I finally got to see a real PDP-11! I was stoked. So yeah, I guess the 8bitrecs imagery comes from that fascination with old machines and their monochrome displays. I work in a console terminal all day long, so it’s just sort of familiar.

Weidenbaum: I often feel like I’d be happy if the Internet never got any better — if ISP connections never got faster, if file formats never changed. The current state of the web, with the ease of producing text and sound and making it freely available, could keep me satisfied as a reader, a writer and a listener for a very long time.

Do you mean you don’t actually want things to get better, or just that you are satisfied with how they are at the moment? I still get frustrated with network speeds when I am copying around large amounts of data, but in general I would agree the current conditions are definitely ample for most tasks.

I mostly mean that the current state of the web is more than sufficient for most tasks, and that too much time and money is spent “improving” the system rather than refining the currently available tools. Anyhow, is there something in particular that threads through the various music you represent on 8bitrecs? I think in particular of the electro-acoustic element, of the mix of clearly earthly sounds with electric percussion.

Sideboard: The music is quite mixed, but I do believe there is an overall coherence when all of the music and artists are taken together, perhaps from the attitudes and ethos of the artists themselves. I think there is something of a community network feel to it. Although there are people who I have contacted directly, a lot of the artists have come to the site from word of mouth. One example would be after Si-cut.db contributed a track, he mentioned 8bit to a few others, one of whom was Motion, who is in contact with a lot of Italian sound producers, so he told some of his friends, and I was contacted by Mou, Lips! From there, whether because they were friends of Mou, Lips! or just aware of them, I was contacted by quite a few Italians, who are now well represented on the site. There is something of a global feel to the artists. The States is pretty well covered, there’s quite a few from London, a few from Scotland, contributions from Italy, Israel, Australia, Sweden and Hungary.

Weidenbaum: That’s interesting about your having originally had broader plans with 8bit, and then having narrowed down to a specific thing: putting up MP3 files. Now that you’ve refined the goals for the site, what plans do you have in the next six or 12 months for it?

Sideboard: I think I’m going to have to do something with the navigation of the site at some point. As more artists are added, I think it’s unwieldy to scroll through the list of all the artists. The streaming could do with some work. It’s quite nice how it works at the moment where it downloads the playlist to your MP3 player, which means you can delete, rearrange and skip through the playlist without having to listen to a predefined stream, but I would like to have some kind of filter — something like, play all tracks added in the past week or month, and so on. I’ve been working on it steadily, just rearranging things and doing changes as needed, for the past year now, to the point where it’s quite nicely stable and easy to maintain, so I’ll leave it how it is for the moment and see how it goes.

Related links: The 8bitrecs webpage. The Highpoint Lowlife webpage.

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