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Acid Seven: The Digital Archive

I consider the history of recorded music a history of our relation to objects. I don’t think this is unique to me, but it’s definitely acute given the strange trends through which I’ve lived: the vinyl record has returned from its late-80s grave to outsell the heavy-hitter from before my time, the CD; the cassette seems to be in ascendance as a preferred form of affordable media; YouTube and Spotify take up a considerable amount of space in the music marketplace, with their algorithms shaping more and more of our listening habits; and Neil Young, of all people, is leading a charge against compressed mp3 audio, the file format used by the aforementioned services. In the middle of all of this, though, something has always been bubbling beneath the surface -- it certainly wasn't a market.

My earliest memories of listening to music on my own were on my brother's Sony Walkman CD player. If it wasn't from the music store, it was a CD someone in the family had burned. To do this, of course, the family computer was subject to the various ills of LimeWire, the malware-laden peer-to-peer* (p2p) software. To make matters worse, songs from LimeWire were often of incredibly low quality (anywhere from 32 to128kbps), or sometimes just that one recording of a guy impersonating Bill Clinton. Already, a whole set of features, a whole micro-culture surrounds my history with the compact disc. But mine isn't really an object history of the CD; instead, it's more like an object-less history of the internet.

For me, CDs had never existed as discrete objects. They were little receptacles – physical objects into which files from the internet could flow. The mix CD was the most ubiquitous: a disc bearing a Sharpied-on track listing whose handwriting got progressively smaller towards the end. At this point in the lifespan of the CD, it was hanging on only by its physical utility; it attached itself to the then-novel technology of downloadable music as it was gradually phased out. Before the dedicated mp3 player, this was the most convenient way to listen to digital music files. For me, though, the usability of any device was its function as a downloaded music player.

Years on, I ditched the CDs, but continued digital album-hoarding. Following a court order, LimeWire fell from grace along with all of its sketchier clones (or 'forks'), closing off the prospect of a centralized source for (free) music. The landscape was diffuse and confusing; googling "[album] torrent" or “[album] mp3 download” brought up any number of shoddy websites in rotation to be shut down, and a lot of these were fake: automated posts on forums unrelated to music, clones of the Pirate Bay, or even entire dummy websites complete with fake comment testimonials. (Believe it or not, these are all still quite common). It took a considerable amount of work to find a source, both for newly-leaked music and albums that had been in circulation for years. I kept seeing comments, like digital whispers, of an archive for these things.

The only way you could get in was through an IRC (chatroom) interview, or via invite. The mysterious archive in question was called What.CD. Visiting the website took you to a sparse page with a logo, home and login button, and the following message:

You’ve stumbled upon a door where your mind is the key. There are none who will lend you guidance; these trials are yours to conquer alone. Entering here will take more than mere logic and strategy, but the criteria are just as hidden as what they reveal. Find yourself, and you will find the very thing hidden behind this page. Beyond here is something like a utopia – beyond here is What.CD.

This is a mirage.

Believe it or not, this sounded really cool to me at the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone who could invite me, so I opted for the interview. I failed the interview.
I came to realize that these people, whoever they were, took this ‘archive’ VERY seriously; some of the questions on here were actually quite difficult – how was I supposed to know the difference between CBR and VBR mp3s? Determined, I studied (you can actually still find the study website here). A lot of the rudimentary knowledge of digital audio that developed into my full-blown obsession started here. After waiting a few days, I took the test again, and passed.

I went nuts. What.CD ran on a peer-to-peer network like LimeWire, but its exclusivity and high standards created vastly different results. There was more on here than anyone could reasonably consume in a lifetime, and the community, it seemed, was constantly churning out lists of obscure stuff I'd never heard. To this day, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. I realized I didn't have much to offer, though; most of my collection was either already there or in obscenely low quality (they didn't accept anything under "transparent" quality recordings (192kbs). I did have one coveted offering: VIGO 110 and 111, the Beach Boys' Smile bootleg CD from Vigotone. In return, I found the 'best' master of Pet Sounds, the 1972 LP re-release.
Something you can't find anywhere else: rips of this many variations of a single release.

It wasn't necessarily the high fidelity audio that excited me the most, though – I didn't have stellar equipment to appreciate that anyways. Instead I was drawn in by the staggering collection everyone had contributed to at What.CD; by some accounts many of the rarer recordings have yet to be found elsewhere. Hell, before I joined somebody scanned three unpublished stories by JD Salinger from the Princeton library (which then circulated to the rest of the internet). More than anything, it felt like What.CD was the real horizon of the internet; it was free and open for all, completely decentralized, and seemingly operated outside of the law -- not to mention it was entirely user-generated. It was more than a relation to an object; it was a relation to the music shared by any user at any point, so long as you could share your own. This was a beautiful thing.

I don't think I saw it in this way back then. I didn't take full advantage of the rare recordings, staff picks, and forums. I see now that I took it for granted treating it as ordinary. As the year went on, I moved out. I left the hard drive full of music behind and got a Spotify subscription. Now and again, I'd pop over to What.CD to offer up a vinyl rip or hear a new leak, with plans in the back of my mind to take another deep dive into the obscure stuff, or to join one of the forum book clubs.
            But then, in November of 2016, another message was posted to the homepage:

Due to some recent events, What.CD is shutting down. We are not likely to return any time soon in our current form. All site and user data has been destroyed. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

The What.CD servers were raided by French authorities. That utopia, what may have been the world's most complete music library, was completely destroyed. I and others who had planned to dig around for records that could be found only on What.CD would probably never get that chance again. It sounds dramatic, but this was just as much an cultural depository as it was a music sharing site. It contained over a million releases -- almost nine-hundred-thousand of these were in 'perfect' lossless format. Admittedly, I didn't spend enough time on the site to really understand the scope of what was lost, but We Dig Records had a great write up after the closure:

We didn’t lose our freedom to discover new music, we just lost access to music that no one is offering [...]  because they have no economic incentive to do so. Unearthed Nigerian LPs are once again lost [...] Forgotten soul records will continue to be passed around among small, knowing circles of people who are desperate to enrich the lives of others through music, that is, until a fledgling record label can afford the license to press a small batch of reissues.

That sentiment is precisely what I found to be the most important thing about What.CD: it wasn't operating on the same rules of the capitalist production of music. It was a community of people whose curiosity for new music was insatiable, and for whom documenting every cultural artifact, big or small, was an important task. The distribution of the music didn't depend upon its marketability – even the least profitable or most out-of-style record could be discovered as though it were brand new. The urge to present a market audience with something familiar was circumvented entirely, and music from a diverse range of cultures and historical periods was there for anyone to enjoy. Come to think of it, this really couldn't have existed for long. It was too good.

Part of me wishes I still had the urge to store music on a hard drive, just for the satisfaction of having an eclectic, well-curated library all my own. After all, from after the dissolution of What.CD to today, I'm told some alternative websites have sprung up. Some say – and I'm sure they're right – that these sites are pretty good. Not as big, of course, and not as many users, but still good. For me, though, the dream ended that November. It feels like the cultural gestalt that made it possible is gone now. There will never be another What.CD.

When I met one of my favorite musicians earlier this year, I discovered that even my knowing about their music was because of What.CD; they had posted their record there before its official release. When they told me this, they did it with a knowing smile – as if they were saying oh, you too, huh?

*Peer-to-peer file sharing is a networking model based on interconnected nodes. Each user (or “peer”) in the network shares resources among the others, instead of having everyone connected to centralized server. It was popularized by the music application Napster, which created one of the first networks in which users alone created an independent virtual network.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter. 

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