Arts

With data uncertainty, archiving the sounds of Internet communities is necessary

Digital music archives, like that of Myspace, are threatened by the evolving nature of technology. 

One of my favorite mixes of the last few years is WHY BE’s "Juice Infinite (YB Myspace Mix)." Every song in the 45-minute set was ripped from Myspace pages dating as far back as 2007, when the website was considered one of the leaders in both online music and social media. While the scope of the mix isn’t even 10 years away from present time, it sounds almost scarily dated, undoubtedly sending some listeners into flashbacks of their days pursuing Myspace under questionable web handles.

The mix is filled with both digital and cultural artifacts. Each track sounds like it’s been ripped a thousand times over to the point that its low-quality audio becomes part of the identity of the song. The songs themselves are also remnants of a bygone internet community, eradicated by Myspace’s desperate attempt to scrub their reputation of being a wild-west social network of erratic web pages and debauchery.

A subset of this community was the mid-2000s southern club rap scene, home to the artistic careers of musicians such as Soulja Boy and D4L. The majority of the tracks in "Juice Infinite" fall into this category, with FL Studio synths, minimal trap beats and auto-tuned hooks becoming the defining markers of an era that begat smash hits such as “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” and “Laffy Taffy.”

It’s possible that WHY BE’s mix might be the final refuge of existence for these artists. A Google search of several lines of lyrics from each song fails to yield a even a single source, and the mix itself lacks a tracklist, which I’m sure WHY BE would be hard-pressed to assemble even if they wanted to. In this sense, "Juice Infinite" is a mix, a museum and a eulogy all wrapped into one.

Unfortunately, WHY BE’s isolated dedication to this handful of songs will have to do in remembering the thousands of tracks swept away with the tides of changing technology. While Myspace is still up and running, many Internet denizens would fail to show surprise at the news of its servers shutting down. In reality, most would be shocked the website still exists. There are no guardians ready with hard-drives to save the musical communities from mid-2000s Myspace from escaping into oblivion—only a few lone enthusiasts are left to dig through the archives and reclaim something in remembrance of an entire era.

The potential deletion of Myspace’s music archives is just one case study in the greater problem of data loss. Most people only ever seem to protect their data from malicious hands, locking their photos and words behind passwords and verifications so as to shield them from external threat. Very few wonder if or when their cloud services will fizz out accidentally or financially, erasing their data from the inside out.

It was just last week that 123-reg, a web hosting service in the UK, accidentally deleted hundreds of websites of businesses using its service with no present hope of recovery. Those unfortunate enough to not have a local backup of their data will now face a world in which their businesses have been eradicated from existence. No refuse, no scraps. Just a null void.

Now imagine a disaster of human error like 123-reg’s hitting a musical site like SoundCloud. Loose songs that artists have kept on their profiles for years could be gone in the blink of an eye. Many feared this would happen when SoundCloud lost $44 million last year. FACT Magazine reported an auditor’s claim that the situation was “a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt on the company’s ability to continue.”

SoundCloud is not just a cut-and-dry music storage service, either—entire cults dedicated to ultra-niche genres have started and lived on the platform. Everything from auditory memes to digitally-themed experimental noise tracks have SoundCloud as their one and only home. Numerous online labels assemble album compilations and records to create a sense of community primarily from communication via SoundCloud. A site-wide shutdown would not just negatively impact those who never backed up their music, but also wipe out communities that would have lived and died on a single website.

As the foundational pillars of music communities begin to wobble with the economic uncertainty of sites like SoundCloud, the creators most at stake are those who have no other option for hosting their music. What makes the songs of WHY BE’s mix so great are their inherent Internet identities; the scrubbing data loss of MP3 compression is no longer a flaw, but a natural sound that reflects the time and circumstance of its recording and inception.

The low audio quality of these tracks is no excuse to let them slip into the void. Any track from "Juice Infinite" had the catchiness and potential to catch fire and burst into the mainstream like those of Soulja Boy or Chief Keef. There was a luck factor that led some tracks to be imprinted on platinum-plated records and others to be unearthed in a thematic online mix. To have thousands of similar songs erased off the Internet would be a tragedy as silent and clean-cut as forgetting an early childhood memory.

As of yet, there is no task force for building a permanent physical refuge for the millions and millions of online songs at risk for surprise deletion. It’s damn near impossible to convince humanity to take preemptive action when everything seems fine as is, even when it’s not. We’ve already witnessed hundreds of businesses deleted with a single careless error. It could happen to SoundCloud, it could happen to Myspace, it could happen to anybody. But nobody wants to act until it’s too late.

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