And Turns 20 Years Old

Looking back on two decades of self-publishing

Twenty years ago today I purchased the URL Twenty years. Twenty. I’ve seen this anniversary coming for some time, and pondered things, big and small, to note it. For today, the plan is simply to look back. Some bigger plans are in the works, but for now I want to briefly reflect.

There’s some small irony — a kind of archival verisimilitude — to the fact that the anniversary occurs a few days into my semi-annual social media pause. I’m off Twitter and Facebook until January 5, which will mark the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Disquiet Junto, the weekly music-composition prompt series that I moderate. The site launched, back on December 13, 1996, long before our current age of pervasive social media — several years, in fact, before the word “blog” (from “weblog”) came to describe, retroactively, what I and many others had been up to in those initial, heady post-Netscape years, the first broad taste of an Internet with a browser for a front door.

I won’t be noting the anniversary today on Twitter and Facebook, which is for the best, because it suggests a semblance of the period in which was first launched, a period that felt rambunctious in its own way, the dawn of the consumer Internet — and like all revolutions, that seems quaint, somehow, when contrasted with the rambunctiousness of our current day. A period that was, in retrospect, quite quiet, quite sheltered, quite remote, largely free from the instant feedback and parallel, asynchronous-yet-insistent conversations that dominate our attention today.

When I bought the URL, I’d only recently moved to San Francisco from Sacramento. I was maybe a month into my first apartment in the city’s Richmond District. I live in the Richmond District today, though from 1999 to 2003 there was a spell in New Orleans, Louisiana. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans I had reason to call the office of one of the two senators that Louisiana has in Washington, D.C. The receptionist registered my message, and then asked where I was from — not where I lived, but where I was from. And I responded, without thinking, “Uptown,” which in New Orleans is both a neighborhood and an act of micro-regional identity. She replied, just as quickly, “You really are from New Orleans” — which is to say, not from Louisiana, but from a city that, as far as it might be concerned, just happens to be in Louisiana, much as it just happens to be in the United States.

Perhaps I go native quickly. I went native in San Francisco, and thanks in part to, I went native online. The term “digital native” is often reserved for folks a decade or two younger than me, folks who grew up in an already digital world. Though I predate them by a generation, I like to think my early activity gets me grandfathered in, so to speak.

When I moved to San Francisco toward the end of 1996, I had just left Pulse!, the music magazine published by Tower Records. I joined Pulse! in 1989, a year out of college. I did many things at Pulse!, including introducing comics to their pages, and co-founding the classical magazine Classical Pulse!, with my friend Bob Levine (Robert Levine if you’re reading one of his pieces of music criticism), and founding in 1994 the email newsletter, epulse, which continued publication for a decade, right up until Tower’s completed bankruptcy finally ended its run. I learned an enormous amount at Pulse!, and glimpses of its legacy still pop out once in awhile. Just last week I received the great thinker Michael Jarrett’s new book, Pressed for All Time (The University of North Carolina Press), which is an album-by-album study of the production of classic jazz recordings, and which originated as an article in the magazine.

After seven years at Pulse! I moved from Sacramento, where Tower was founded and based (well, based in West Sacramento), to San Francisco to join what at the time was called a dotcom, and today is called a startup. My sense of identity was shifting. I was the editor-in-chief of a local website, and while music was part of its purview, I had no time to be its actual music editor. Launching provided a means to maintain a specific space for my music thinking. When I’d joined Pulse! the main thing that attracted me was that the magazine covered all sorts of music — not just rock, pop, r&b, and hip-hop, not even just jazz and classical, but Christian contemporary, and world music, and new age, and film scores, and musicals. We had columnists assigned to each of those genres, and more — and we had local reporters in a dozen or more cities providing glimpses into local scenes.

When I left Pulse! it was partially because, after seven years of aspiring to as wide a set of ears as I could, I’d come to recognize that I was interested in technologically mediated sound. I might interview a country singer, but what I wanted to ask her about was what it meant that she also sang all the background vocals in a song’s chorus. I might interview a classical composer, but it was in part to find out what it felt like to be sampled. I might interview a jazz musician, but it was largely to explore the tension between live improvisation and the amber confinement of a completed commercial recording.

And so I launched in that aesthetic-philosophical juncture — at the intersection of sound, art, and technology. At first the site was simply a place to post old articles. Occasionally I’d receive emails from people asking when I’d post something next, and my reply was along the lines of, “Well, as soon as someone assigns me an article for a magazine and then enough time passes for me to post it online.” And then it occurred to me to write something simply to appear online, something digitally native, and I proceeded to. And then some time around 1999 — I’m purposefully writing this without using any reference material, just from memory, because it’s about memory — a friend, the great illustrator Jorge Colombo, suggested I add date-stamps to my articles. I wasn’t using a content management system, you see. I was updating entirely by hand, including the index page. In fact, up until 2007, I was even coding the RSS feed by hand. In 2007 someone — a coder in Pittsburgh named Nathan Swartz — helped me port my hand-coded HTML into WordPress, and then a few years later a friend, Max La Rivière-Hedrick of Futureprüf, helped me get that WordPress theme into “responsive” mode, which is to say it automatically adjusts to phone, tablet, and computer dimensions.

The biggest change in 2007, though, was the addition of images. I was very straightedge about my music criticism. I virtually never asked subjects about their personal lives, just about the music. On, I almost never posted images, except for the occasional album cover. Then as now I had a singular focus: listening closely in order to explore how things functioned, not how they were made, not how they were composed — how they functioned. But in 2007, the same year I joined Twitter, one thing did change: I broke free of the text-first approach, posting images from trips — the first being one to Japan — that represented sound, or that fleshed out ideas explored in my writings or interviews.

At the time the images and WordPress implementation felt like big changes, but in retrospect the biggest change had occurred the year prior, when in 2006 I had invited a bunch of musicians to contribute to a freely downloadable compilation album titled Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet. Brian Eno and David Byrne had just made stems from their album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts available for remixing and I invited musicians to have their way at them. What followed over the years was a series of such compilations, musicians responding to a musical prompt I’d develop. The projects were tightly controlled, maybe a dozen participants. In 2011 I challenged myself to open the project planning wider, and ended up with 25 musicians contributing to Insta/gr/ambient, a compilation in which each of them took one another’s Instagram photos and imagined them to be the cover of their next single — and then went on to record the single.

Insta/gr/ambient garnered a lot of coverage, but for better or worse I focused on what I perceived as negative commentary, in particular a suggestion that we’d simply benefited from Instagram’s own growing popularity. I disagreed, and felt that what really fed the project was the musicians’ mutual consideration of other musicians as their intended audience, combined with the energy of such an expanded number of participants toiling on the project at the same time, aiding and abetting each other on social media, not just with Instagram photos of their activity, but with comments on Twitter and Facebook.

And so, to test my communal music-making theory, I created the Disquiet Junto on the first Thursday of January 2012. I sent out a simple prompt — record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it — not knowing if anyone was even going to come to the party. We had fifty or sixty participants, as memory serves, and it’s been going weekly ever since. This coming Thursday’s project (the 259th) will involve a collection of horror stories that invoke sound. In two weeks we’ll do a year-end wrap-up, and on January 5, 2017, we’ll celebrate the anniversary by returning, as we do each year, to the ice project that started it all. As of today there are 1,100-plus members of the Disquiet Junto email list.

There are as many subscribers, more or less, to the email list, which I don’t send out as often as I’d like, or as often as I once did, but I do love when I have time for it. I try to write at every day, and plan to continue to. I often quiet down toward the end of the year, making plans for the one to come. Another year lies ahead, a year of more daily recommendations of online listening, of interviews with musicians, coders, and artists (three categories that exist in combination far more than they did in 1996), and field notes. If you’ve read this far — by which I mean this article, not for two decades — I just want to say thanks. It’s a central pleasure of my life.

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