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Report of The Early Music Net Campaign 19.3.2010

Background and Methods

In 2009, Music Archive Finland launched a campaign called The Early Music Net. It aimed to collect Internet materials that were related to Finnish music life and were published before 1997. Why the case of Finland and why before 1997? The reasons for this were mainly practical. Finland was chosen simply because the collector, Music Archive Finland, focuses on Finnish music life and history in its activities. Whereas this was a somewhat self-evident choice, the other context, that of the time period, was a result of three kinds of reasoning.

First, the time period was chosen because of the project resources. It was reasonable to focus on the time before the Internet boom started. With two regular employees, Music Archive Finland had no resources to do the exhaustive research and mass-harvesting. The Finnish Performing Music Promotion Centre ESEK granted the project 5000 euros which enabled us to hire a project assistant, Jouni Eerola, for two months. Apart from that, the tasks were implemented as part of the archive activities. Second, the campaign was a test project if not even an experimental effort for future projects. In Finland, at least, no one had systematically collected old web material before our project. Finally, the archive was interested in the early stage of the Internet history. We thought that the time had come to explore what really happened and who were in the frontline when the Finnish music life found the Internet.

To launch the project, we designed an electronic questionnary that was placed in our website. In the form, we asked the contact information, the information about the web page or site in question (name, date of origin, designers and other people, url address, software and hardware, and extra information such as stories behind the site, cooperation, feedback, problems, copyright issues, and so on). We also asked people to send us zip files that would contain original pages, pictures, graphics, and other materials such audio/midi files. At the end of the form we gave four options on what the archive was permitted to do with the collected materials.

To raise the public interest, we decided that the campaign should be spearheaded by the ‘First Home Site’ competition to find out who was the first Finnish performer that truly conquered the Internet. The creation of the rules for the competition proved to be a challenge. How to define the home site? What kind of music performers are accepted? Do we accept recorded artists only or also amateur musicians or even musicians that never performed anywhere? What about genres outside popular music? And, finally, what do we mean by “Finnish”?

We decided that the perfomer here meant artist or group that had actively worked (e.g. had records and/or performances) in Finland or, had the activities been taken abroad, that the perfomer had Finnish background. We stated that the home site should have had own www address or, alternatively, it could be perceived as independent entity. Other criteria included html language and public availability. Provable date of origin was needed. All kinds of music genres were accepted.

To attract other web activists than those seeking for the first-ever prize, the archive announced that it would grant the Net Pioneer prize for the person or institution that had a grand work within the area.

Results of the Campaign

The campaign started in April 2009. We still collect old Internet material but the most active phase ended in October 2009 with the closing of the First Home Site competition.

Results were a disappointment. We received information about the designers of the early music Internet but when it came to “concrete” materials, we only had few kilobytes in our hands. When launching the campaign, we asked people to send us discs, photographs and other physical documents. We received nothing. What went wrong?

We thought that the campaign was the coolest thing on the archive world and music life in 2009 but apparently we were left alone with our thoughts. We tried to inform different kinds of media (music, information technology, general), music organizations, musicians, researchers, and music fans. Some papers published our letter and the Radio One of The Finnish Broadcasting Company made a report on the campaign but, generally, not much happened. We did not manage to attract the media and music life.

Another reason for the failure might be that the starting point of the project was out of focus. We expected people to send us material when instead we perhaps should have proceeded in the manner the past collectors of folk songs would have done were they alive. We should have packed our laptops and microphones and hit the road of the interviews and true collecting.

Maybe we were lazy but maybe there was something wrong also at the other end of collecting process. Towards the end of the campaign we sent lots of email messages to people who had been active in the field some fifteen years ago. We received stories and memories but it also appeared that many of those who had been pioneers of the music Internet in the mid-90s were now busy middle-aged enterpreneurs who no longer had time or enthusiasm for the things that once had been exciting. The past activities were not considered important. Many informants told us that the first web pages were simple and rough, nothing like the flashy Internet of today. The old sites were seen childish if not even embarrassing.

The last reason for the lack of material is obvious: it has disappeared. Even though the rise of the music Internet is in historical terms relatively close, the documents are already gone. We have lost the original data and information. In this sense, it was not the campaign that failed. The campaign merely appointed the state of things, implying that we need a more exhaustive research programme if we want to know what happened with the early music Internet.

An Analysis of the Results: Too Early to Go back

Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai was once asked about the significance of the French Revolution. He replied: “It is too soon to tell.” With the rise of the music Internet, it is both too soon and too late to tell.

It is too early in a sense that in the field of music Internet there is not much interest in the past activities. In the face of contemporary music culture, this is somewhat confusing. I have elsewhere written (see Mäkelä, Janne 2009: “Comeback. Reunions of Music Groups as a Memory Industry.” De-Canonizing Music History. Ed. by Vesa Kurkela & Lauri Väkevä. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 127–138.) how the continual dialogue with its own history has been integral to popular music. Recently, this has become more evident as nostalgic elements and living traditions increasingly characterize practices and discourses of pop, rock and other forms of music, in Western countries in particular. The uses and fabrications of the past have become so distinctive that it is possible to talk about the memory industries of popular music. The term memory industry here refers to commercial yet also to non-profit enterprises catering to the revivalist markets. What is common to the activities associated with the memory industry is the explicit sense of history and the instrumentalization of the past for the purposes of the present.

The music Internet is the only major category that seems to refuse this development. There is no denying that new technologies of databases, communication and digital distribution have played a crucial role in the contemporary celebration and excitement of music history. The Internet technology in particular has enabled the new kind of availability of music traditions. The paradox here is that the music Internet enables us to go back to the history but the technology itself refuses to travel in time. Whereas the contemporary music culture tends to look back, the practices of the Internet face forward. It can be argued that ’the state of continuous updating’ has been the main dynamics in the practices and production of the Internet. One result of this has been that the Internet is seen as a tool that makes music and history available. It is not understood as a phenomenon of music culture.

It is too early to go back. Take, for example, home sites. They used to represent fashionable practice in marketing and distributing music and information about music performers but now appear as ‘has-been new media’. The home sites have more or less been replaced by YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and other forms of social media. The golden age of the music home sites can be limited somewhere between 1995 and 2005. It could be argued that, from the point of view of cultural appreciation, this period is too close. The time is still to come for the early Internet to provide nostalgic value.

An Analysis of the Results: Too Late to Go back?

Unfortunately, as implied above, it may also be too late to go back. The competition for the First Home Site is a telling example. When the competition was launched, many people contacted Music Archive Finland and argued that their band probably had the first site or that they know someone who was there among the first ones. We then asked these people to send us the sites or related documents. The standard reply was that they don’t exist anymore. What we received was more or less coherent reminiscence, personal recollections and oral histories about ’pages there once were’.

Because of the lack of the documents, the Jury (Janne Mäkelä from Music Archive Finland, Tapani Moisio from the National Library, Jaakko Suominen from the University of Turku) did not grant the first prize for the competition. Instead, we created TOP 5 of surviving pages. Naturally, the list will be re-evaluated every time we receive new material.

The early history of the music Internet appears as history of fringes. Many people told us that sites can be found in the Internet Archive which has stored Internet pages since 1996. Yes, there were some pages left there but none of them dated from the pioneering years.

In addition to this, we were served with survived traces of earlier pages. A member of Finnish rock group CMX informed us about the first-ever fan posting that had been left in the band’s discussion forum in 1995. Unfortunately, this forum was no longer in its original form but had gone through various metamorphoses and updatings during the years.

Furthermore, there were ‘meta-media’ evidence about the early sites. Finnish humour group Eläkeläiset was apparently among the first ones but what had survived from their early pages was a screen capture in a music magazine in June 1995. Then there were sites that did not quite meet the criteria of the competition. One informant sent us a page of Finnish punk rock band Klamydia. Even though the page arguably was in its original 1995 form, it was impossible to give it a credit for the first independent home site because the page had been a part of the larger band portal called Rockdata (which could be credited as the first band portal in Finland). This is where the problems of how to define the ‘home site’ truly materialized.

The original pages had disappeared. There are several explanations for this. The main reason is that the idea of originality did not play a significant role in the early music net. Perhaps first pages were seen as another form of the band newsletter. The web technology and the forum of publicity might have been new and exciting but the contents of the early home sites followed the standards already established. In this sense, early music pages were just an extension to the press releases and music industry newsletters. They did not include sounds, photograps or other related materials. Thus, they were not seen worth preserving. Typically, when the site was updated, no one cared to save the previous version.

Second reason for the disappearance of the pages relates to the errors of computers and human mind. In the mid-1990s, it was not unusual that personal computers sometimes ‘collapsed’ or became corrupted. These errors often resulted in the irreversible loss of data and information – particularly so if the user had not made extra copies of the files. At least two informants told us that some of the lost pages might still be lurking somewhere if they only knew where the ‘lost’ hard disk or floppy disk might be.

Arguably, there still are lots of sites somewhere – as abandoned hard disks in the closets and scattered floppy disks in desk drawers or as electronic url fossiles that became buried deep under the lava of digital information and perhaps still are somewhere in the forgotten Internet servers. In any event, whether the blame is put upon the lazy collectors, the indifferent media or the careless net pioneers, the conclusion is that the first music sites did not carry enough cultural significance to re-appear in 2009.

In Search of the Web History

The case of the early Finnish music web is very characteristic in new media historiography. It reveals that the new media is not usually recognized as important and worth of preserving before it is too late. But perhaps, after all, it is really not too late.

The lack of original material does not mean the lack of history. Take the histories of sound recordings, moving film, radio broadcasting or television – or the early history of the Internet in general. The story is identical with the music Internet. The first documents are no longer available but this has not prevented historians and other researchers to provide stories with reasoned arguments. The lack of original sources has meant that the early histories of different media have often been reconstructed by recollections, reminiscence, oral memories, written documents, and other ‘second-hand’ sources.

The history of the Internet is relatively young and still very much part of the living memory. Apart from the lost sites, there are abundantly other kinds of sources waiting for researchers to make the story of a new media alive. And when the story comes alive it often means that the story becomes approvable. And when the story is taken seriously one result might be that people go through their hard disks, floppy disks, files, desk drawers...

© Janne Mäkelä
I want to thank for professor Jaakko Suominen for his valuable comments.