James Ferraro returns to the pulpit, with songs of pollution, decay and sin.
Albums that change music rarely make comfortable listening; and James Ferraro’s 2011 album Far Side Virtual is no exception. Taking the irony and nostalgia of Eccojams and blending it with midi-sounds, robot voices and Web 1.0 aesthetics. The album was a singular but divisive hit. Even being named The Wired’s album of the year 2011. “Appropriate in a year in which the abundance of choice brought on by digital technology reached such a tipping point as to make genuine consensus impossible.”
While he may have since moved away from the genre he helped inspire, the creativity and futurism of Ferraro should be of interest to any Vaporwave fan. Ferraro is a precociously creative musician, his work stretching back over 15 years at this point. With over 100 releases in his discography under both the Ferraro name and a wheeling list of pseudonyms. His style is diverse, constantly evolving, taking in a sweep of Glitch Hop, Hypnogogic Pop, Radio Rock, Vaporwave, New Age, R&B and beyond.
2019 brings Ferraro’s new offering, Requiem for Recycled Earth. “A 57-minute opus into ecocide and planetary divorce.” The album is part 1 in the “Four Pieces for Mirai” saga, whose prologue EP was released last year. In Ferraro’s words, the sequence promises to be, “a large epic work about civilizational decline that spans across four releases.”
To light his first album Ferraro has returned to his Modern Classical stylings, last seen on 2016’s Human Story 3. Album opener Embryo clues us into Ferraro’s sombre mood. An airlock hiss, followed by a gong, gives way to an arena of soaring choirs- while a web of angular synths crashes around. Everywhere on Requiem the natural world and the harshness of modernity clash. Calming woodwinds on No Future– sweet and tuneful, are pelted with gushes of steam and electronics. Omega Generation even blends these two motifs, with a lush- but synthetic keyboard melody. Also of note is Xerces Blau, with patterns that touch close to Kavinsky’s Synthwave. The choirs on display throughout the album are devotional and elevating. While the electronics at work are richly layered. It often feels like the album is suspended in space, which is no surprise given its scaling, planetary, ambition.
Whether he’s working with samples, keyboards or an orchestra Ferraro’s primary talent is as an arranger. Yet despite how tasteful the audio is, Requiem is a bleak, depressing experience. An underrated aspect of Ferraro’s charm is his cheeky humour. Clearly present on his lovable radio rockalbums, full of camp, Far Side Virtual’s hologram waiters, offering Sushi prepared by “top chef Gordon Ramsay”, and in Human Story 3’s box-headed cover art. When Ferraro critiques, he satirises.
But this wit and flair are completely absent on Requiem. And the effects of it are punishing. This is an entirely earnest, stonily serious, album. Full of millenarian and apocalypse. Despite the guile with which Ferraro previously tackled topics of technology and capitalism, this time, with mankind’s destruction of the environment firmly in his sights, he’s not joking.
While Requiem contains no explicit lyrics to parse, the song titles are blunt. The “Airless Matrix” of choking pollution, a “Deleted Biosphere” brought about by rampant technological process, the Chemical Death of the planet. There are hints of rebirth, opener Embryo, Cyber Seed and Recycled Sky. Still, as the album progresses, it sinks deeper into despair. Gaia Wept Effluent leads into Spawn of Hate, as humanity faces its final judgement.
Requiem clearlyshadows Human Story 3, and not just sonically. HS3 was a meditation on capitalist alienation, with songs dealing with Marketphagia and Individualism. Yet the direct links between capitalism, market growth and climate change make Reqiuem an evolution of that theme. This twisted link was even foreshadowed back on HS3 with the songs, Plastic Ocean and Anthropoceniac. Yet HS3 appears jovial in comparison to Requiem. Maybe Ferraro views the current climate crisis as so serious, so immediate, that it warrants no dilution. No sugar with the medicine.
With this imperious attitude, Requiem for Recycled Earth can lay claim to being Ferraro’s most socially relevant album in years. October 2018 marked the release of the UN’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C; archiving the risks to human society and the planet should the international community fail to halt rising emissions. Most damning of all: the report warned that only by making, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” could the world hope to halt the impending catastrophe. Giving humanity a 12-year deadline to do so.
Once the musical swirls and clashes are settled, the listener is left as sombre as Ferraro. And after the sermon of Requiem, it’s understandable, maybe even necessary, to hope that the rest of the Mirai saga is redemptive. That Ferraro will offer some solace to us. Despite the desolation humanity has caused. Surely the message of the album, and the message of Mirai, is imploring us to change track- to embrace nature and discard vitiation?
Being confronted with humanity’s towering crimes, it’s hard not to pray for absolution, as the 4 Pieces for The Future dance on.
Originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from pixabay.com
Far Side Virtual 4: Chuck Person creates Vaporwave
Vaporwave has always been blessed with Eccojams. Not many albums can claim to have created an entire genre, and even fewer can hold up as well as Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. Springing seemingly from nowhere, fully formed, warbling 80s synths under an Ecco The Dolphin cover. Once Eccojams dropped on the 8th of August 2010, Vaporwave was born. Chuck Person’s tribute to music, nostalgia, and memory continues to provoke and inspire nearly 10 years after its release. And while many albums can claim to have influenced the growth of Vaporwave, from Floral Shoppe, to Far Side Virtual, to Skeleton, only one head can wear the crown.
Eccojams is even more compelling once its backstory is unfurled. Far from being created by a nobody, the man behind the music is actually very experienced indeed. Chuck Person is a moniker of Electronic music producer Daniel Lopatin. Lopatin’s main project Oneohtrix Point Never has created a vast, sprawling, discography. Beginning in 2007 with Betrayed in the Octagon and continuing on through last year’s acclaimed Age Of. The diversity of his output and his willingness to constantly curveball himself has led to Oneohtrix being labelled as ‘Progressive Electronic’. A rather grand title but, in the case of Lopatin, richly deserved. His creation of Vaporwave is merely the crown jewel in an already impressive career.
0PN’s albums often deal with themes of technology, decay and alienation. All concepts which Lopatin would skewer, and then roast perfectly, with Eccojams. 2009’s Zones Without People predicts Ecco’s use of retro imagery and cynicism about technology. Russian Mind adds an abstract, dreamy vibe- and an autobiographical one, drawing inspiration from Lopatin’s Russian émigré parents. While the combination of pummelling noise and rising synths on Returnal – combined with its glitchy VHS cover, bring the same dislocated feeling which would come to define Vaporwave. While Lopatin never explicitly returned to Vaporwave stylings after Eccojams, he did work its spirit into his artistic palette. 0PN’s post-Eccojams work, R Plus Seven from 2013 being a brilliant example of this.
It was a stroke of genius for Lopatin to release Eccojams not under his established Oneohtrix title, but as a throwaway pseudonym. It gives Ecco the lineage and richness of a veteran producer, yet allows the album to be untethered from Lopatin’s broader discography. Leaving it free for future generations to discover, and mythologise as their own.
While 0PN had previously worked with samples on Betrayed in the Octagon, Eccojams engages with them heavy and thick. Drawing especially from the superstars of the 1980s. Toto’s ubiquitous Africa, Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins, Kate Bush and even Janet Jackson. Eccojams is not what I’d describe as a crate-diving album. It’s not trying to impress you with the obscurity of its samples- it’s aiming directly for your musical memories. Ecco also dashes in several 90s cuts, most notably JoJo’s Too Little Too Late, and Me Against the World by Tupac. Perhaps the 60s-80s songs are tracks Lopatin heard through the radio, or via his parents, while these 90s samples are songs that Lopatin discovered for himself while growing up?
These tunes are warbled and stretched to create the kind of funky mutations later perfected on Floral Shoppe. A1, the album’s opener and a sample of aforementioned Africa, is totemic Vaporwave. Dueling it out with リサフランク420 for the genre’s definitive performance. The fact that Eccojams also predated Africa’s recent resurgence as an anthem of 80s nostalgia, makes it all the more impressive.
Yet for all his earworms, you can’t take the scientist out of Lopatin. Other tracks, like B2 find themselves crushed up into an unbearable cacophony- so much so that they’re hard to listen to. This harsh-noise effect stands out like a strand of Eccojams which hasn’t really been carried forward by many other Vaporwave producers. There are exceptions to be sure, Internet Club also plays with similar dashes of brutal sound. But the technique has had less impact on the genre than the chilled-out ethereal vibe of tracks like the Fleetwood Mac tinged A2 or the haunting repetitions of B7.
Lopatin really was experimenting with Eccojams, and the fact that some of those experiments were more popular than others, doesn’t detract from that spirit of adventure. These more polarising moments are a reminder that Eccojams was never an attempt to play it safe. It was a challenge- both to Lopatin and his audience, to engage with something new and original. And it’s these rough- untameable edges that keep the album a crucial listen even to this day.
Also of note is the fact that Eccojams was first released as a cassette tape. A feat which has now become something of a rite of passage for aspiring Vaporwave artists. A chunk of the community has even made it their mission to release the genre on as many obscure and varied formats as possible.
There’s a historical strand missing from this discussion though- one which is often overlooked when discussing Eccojams. The evidence that Lopatin created not just the sound of Vaporwave, but also the imagery, the aesthetic, of the genre. The release of Eccojams was preceded by a series of YouTube videos on Lopatin’s personal YouTube channel, Sunsetcorp.
Several of these are essentially demos for tracks which would later appear on Eccojams. Angel, which became A2, Nobody Here, which was released as B4 and Demerol aka A4 were all released on July 19th of 2009. The video for Computer Vision also uploaded on the same day, would become the opening track on Zones Without People mere weeks later. Time Stand StillandEnd of Life Entertainment Scenerio #1, while not appearing on the album, could almost be seen as Eccojams B-Sides.
These videos are fascinating, not just for highlighting the lack of dividing line between Lopatin’s Chuck Person and Oneohtrix Point Never projects, but because they so perfectly captured the ideal of aesthetic. Angel’s use of retro Japanese commercials, full of pretty, smiling models, would become a staple of Future Funk. Happy, cute and joyous. While Nobody Here’s abstract, sparse rainbow bridge, flanked by Computer Vision and Demerol, with their unsettling, grainy collage of light, humans and colour, would echo through the darker sides of the genre. Again, this is from 2009. History in the making.
It’s fitting that the genesis of Vaporwave should contain a unity of its sound and image. Birthed as twins. We might hear aesthetic with our ears, but we appreciate it with our eyes.
Bonus round: notice the wistful, business-like, ‘Sunsetcorp’ name for Lopatin’s channel, and the ‘90s anime girl slumped at the computer’ avatar he uses. Two vignettes which have also become integral to Vaporwave.
Lopatin has since moved away from the genre he helped birth. He said his piece with Eccojams and seems to have nothing more to add. In a Reddit AMA in 2013 Lopatin answered several questions relating to Eccojams and Vaporwave. And his responses are cool to read. On whether he wants to “distance” himself from Vaporwave entirely, or is happy to “embrace it”, he states, “of course I’m into it. I don’t see any reason for antagonism.” In response to a fan asking about his view on the continued rise the genre, Lopatin continues, “I don’t know much about it.” But, “I’m glad people like the eccojams stuff, I always hoped it would be something people would just do — it’s kinda folky by nature.” Ruminating on his position as a supposed “icon”, “I have a hard time dealing w/ the me vs audience dynamic.” “I mostly just do my thing and lucky that it culturally latches. if it didn’t I’d still do it though. I love the work.”
If further proof was needed for Lopatin’s affection for the album, it came in 2016. Chuck Person came out of retirement to release official remasters of all the tracks on Eccojams. Leading to a definitive edition of the album- known as the “official master tape cassette rip”.
I appreciate how gung-ho and positive Lopatin is about the legacy of Eccojams. And his comment about, “hoping it would be something people would just do” really struck a nerve. It’s like Lopatin wanted other artists to replicate his blueprint. And in creating an album so vital that he inspired a whole generation to download FL Studio, Lopatin seems to have met this ambition.
In the same AMA Lopatin made a comment that may be a joke, or might be sincere. His deadpan mannerism makes it hard to tell. A commenter asked the obvious question, “Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 2?” and Lopatin responded, “I have multiple volumes of eccojams in the cryotank set to defrost in the distant future”. In a flash of wit, one poster took the words straight out my mouth.
Far Side Virtual 3: Exploring Vaporwave radio’s best kept secret.
I’ve never actually listened to the radio much. Sometimes I almost regret it. Here in the UK the most influential radio station for music is BBC Radio 1, and I have tried it occasionally. Part of my irregular attempts to plug myself more into the musical mainstream. But I’m too much a product of my environment. I don’t want to hear hosts babbling away between songs, making endless jokes and occasionally stopping the music altogether to run competitions or news segments. After 15+ years of unlimited internet streaming, with everything available at my fingertips all the time, it’s hard to break the habit. And that’s not even counting the equal number of years where I’ve had an iPod, Android or Walkman at my fingertips. I’ve never been without music, and that music has always been mine to dictate.
However, I can appreciate that this level of control over the sounds I want to listen to isn’t necessarily a positive trait: and there’s a little Vaporwave gem that makes me reflect on that. CiTR- Nightdrive95 is a discovery I made some years ago while searching for Vaporwave podcasts. There’s not too many of them, and especially back in 2016 there wasn’t. So Nightdrive95 popped up pretty quickly during my search. Despite that rather clunky name I decided to give it a go. (One of the other podcasts I found was the 3D Cast– which probably needs no introduction.)
Despite coming in podcast format Nightdrive95 is actually a college radio program, hosted by John Connell out of the University of British Columbia. Hence the CiTR preface. The show bills itself as playing “Vaporwave, Future Funk, Synthwave and Indie Pop: Music from the Future”.
Ideal music for driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in your Geo Tracker, sipping a Crystal Pepsi by the pool, or shopping for bootleg Sega Saturn games at a Hong Kong night market. Experience yesterday’s tomorrow, today!
And yes, before you say it, you’re right- there’s actually lots of supposed Vaporwave ‘radio’ options out there. Many of them are very good. But they function more like a shuffle service, a way to randomly discover new music. Less like the throwback drive time program offered by CiTR, replete with a DJ, segments, competitions and viewer mail. In fact, given how influential college radio has historically been in North America, it’s rad to have a Vaporwave themed broadcast.
Nightdrive95 is above all a relaxing show, John Connell’s demeanour is pleasant and his voice warm. He shows a depth and respect for the genres he covers- especially genres which are so often mocked and maligned. But despite the diversity of music covered by Nightdrive, John still manages to choose tracks that feels cohesive within each show.
I’d recommend checking out the Nightdrive95 website, as John lists the playlist of each episode in impressive detail. A large part of this success is John’s bias towards choosing tracks for their vibe and feel, rather than respecting established genre strictures. Shifting from Allie X, to Saint Pepsi by way of fluence. Nightdrive95 blends the dilettante of the internet age, with a solid, almost traditional, Boomer format. Nightdrive’s website openly states that the show plays tunes “fresh from the web”. And this attention to detail really hammers home Nightdrive as an enthusiast operation. But its frequent deep cuts might even be a good way for curious listeners to learn more about the array of genres on offer.
Just on a personal vignette, I remember listening to CiTR while taking a flight from Tokyo to Osaka. One of the ironies of Japan is that despite having a gold-plated train system, those trains- especially the prized Shinkansen, are pretty expensive. If you’re a tourist you can get a JR Pass and make a saving, but since I was living in the country at the time, I had to pay full price. So I ended up on a cheap internal flight. While I was on the plane, just before take off, I loaded up a CiTR episode I’d been saving called Enjoy Your Flight. I spent the short 1-hour journey listening to the episode. Floating through the sky with no Wi-Fi, no distractions, just a pleasant Vaporwave mix. Good memory.
One of the ideas that occurred to me while writing this column is that if you have trouble sleeping, or find it hard to switch off, Nightdrive95 might help. It’s a nice way to clam down from a tough day. One of the problems a lot of modern music fans have is that the internet is an active medium. It demands attention, clicks, and movement from the browser. It rewards you for engaging with it, and the quicker the better. Television has long been derided for its ability to make viewers ‘veg out’. Switching their brains off and just slumping on the sofa, being fed amusements. But honestly, in 2019 I feel we’ve gone too far the other way, and the constant checking, scrolling, liking and faving of content has left us with shattered attention spans. Maybe Nightdrive could be a good remedy.
You might notice that Nightdrive95’s uploads have been inactive since November of last year. Which would have been a deflating note to end on. But there’s good news. I reached out to CiTR about the fate of the show, and they confirmed that John is, “just on a hiatus right now.” Hopefully we can look forward to more releases in the future.
So if you find yourself pointlessly scrolling SoundCloud, Bandcamp or YouTube this evening, looking for that next dopamine hit. Try downloading an episode of Nightdrive95. Switch your phone to flight mode, and give the program, just the program, your full attention. Let John’s voice glimmer you, let the beats of skeleton or Eco Virtual massage you. I think you’ll find it calming.
Originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pexels.com
Far Side Virtual 2: Our musical history is vanishing, and one day Vaporwave will too.
The expert engineers at Myspace have just deleted all of the music uploaded to the site between 2003-2015. Whoops, sorry, it was a botched system transfer, won’t happen again.
This is clearly terrible news for the history of music. And while it’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of thousands upon thousands of songs just being ‘deleted’ so casually, the reality is deeply disappointing. This isn’t only about the insult sent to the musicians who have had their artwork purged, but the damage done to the musical history of the internet. It underscores how precarious much of the content posted online really is. And how no one, no content, no website, is safe for posterity. While the sites you visit and the archives you use might seem impervious now, 5 years, 10 years down the line, the music you love could face a similar fate.
First, some history. Myspace might be a punchline now, a byword for internet hubris, but there was a time when it stood bestride the world. While it never reached the planet-swallowing size of its successor Facebook, Myspace defined the internet for a whole generation. Starting in 2003 and growing rapidly, the site was acquired by News Corp. for half a Billion dollars just two years later. In June of 2006 Myspace even surpassed Google as the most popular website on the internet, and at its peak in 2008 was attracting 75.9 Million unique visitors a month. Culturally, back in 2005-2009 having a Myspace page was de rigour for any in-group high schooler. And the ability of each member to decorate their page with avatars, wallpapers and extremely loud auto-playing songs was a real step-up for self-expression at the time. When you consider the alternative was a clunky Angelfire or Piczo website, the social opportunities offered by Myspace were huge. Right place, right time, Myspace was a hit.
Even better, Myspace always had a soft spot for music. One of the main appeals of the website during its heyday was the ability for artists, musicians and internet celebrities to connect directly with their fans. This kind of relationship was previously only possible through forums and IRC channels, but Myspace added a slick sheen to the process that made it truly accessible. Fans were communicating with their idols not as opaque usernames, but as themselves. With a picture of them and a roster of best friends for all to see. In the modern era of screaming Twitter mayhem this might seem quaint, but it was a quantum leap back in 2005. Scroll through the Wikipedia page of some of yourfavouritebands, especially those popular in the mid-00s, and it would be surprising not to see a reference to Myspace at some point. Maybe a single debut, an album art reveal, a new member joining or even a break up farewell.
Myspace was also at the cutting edge of music streaming, integrating a music player into the site from the very beginning. Before YouTube, before SoundCloud, this widget was the fulcrum of musical creativity on the internet. Musicians could now provide music legitimately and freely to users: teasers, songs, even whole albums. It was on this Myspace player that the vision of building a career, a fanbase, through the internet was formed. And that idea, simple but powerful, permeates every almost genre and artist currently working today. Musical history would simply not be the same without Myspace.
And this is where we close the loop. It was this archive of streamable material which has been unceremoniously deleted from the internet. This cornerstone feature of one of the most popular websites in the world, a name that once went toe-to-toe with Google and won, has been wiped clean.
Think of the websites you visit every day. If you’re into vaporwave I’m going to guess it’s Bandcamp and SoundCloud for new releases, YouTube for an extended library, and maybe Spotify or Apple Music for more established artists. Their pervasiveness means that these platforms can seem unassailable. After all, they hold millions of artists in their collective hands. So imagining music culture without Spotify or Bandcamp is difficult. But it shouldn’t be impossible. Exactly this fate has befallen dozens of previously powerful websites, Myspace, Digg, AOL, Yahoo, YTMND. Speaking of which, does anyone remember when SoundCloud nearly shut down in 2017? History has no favourites, and even the mighty YouTube- which is currently the closest thing we have to a universal archive of media, has no special privileges.
Spare some thought to what happens when these sites start to lose market share or funding, gradually at first, but then eventually collapsing in the face of an encroaching competitor. Maybe in 5-10 years we’re all strapped into Virtual Reality headgear on hot new streaming website VReality.vr. Who cares about YouTube when I can explore the universe in fully-immersive 3d? Users will dwindle, just as they did for Myspace, and one day the sites that seems so vibrant now just don’t matter anymore.
Again, what is at the centre of creativity, passion and fashion right now can be forgotten in a handful of years. The myriad of vaporwave artists who currently fill the pages of Bandcamp and SoundCloud are a vital, constantly morphing force. But if the tides shift, and music changes, they could be as easily forgotten and deleted as the legions of emo-pop Myspace just obliviated. It’s easy to assume stability and continuity when something is fashionable, it’s much harder when it’s not cool anymore.
Is this a good argument for the permanence of physical media? Maybe. After all we still have so much music from the 20th Century because of their hardy storage mediums. But it might be an even better argument for a conscious archive of important vaporwave material. Projects like this are already in effect to be sure, Vapor Memory is a genre institution. But I’m thinking more along the lines of a vaporwave-flavoured Library of Congress, or British Library. A mixture of websites, cloud storage and physical vaults containing all the most important and influential releases of the genre. To be added to regularly as the style develops and more exemplars emerge. Something which is impervious to websites going down, tastes shifting, and serves melting. A bit pompous? Perhaps, but then, Emo was pretty big back in 2007.
Admittedly, maybe I’m sensitive to this because it happened to me, and a website I used to love, before. You see, back in the day, Myspace had an independently-run competitor called PureVolume. However, unlike Myspace (which still exists in a boring corporate shadow of its former self) PureVolume has been completely sunsetted, to the point of being unrecognisable. As a website it was the first place to show me that you could find and listen to music through the internet. And I still have fond memories of many of the bands I discovered on it.
PureVolume’s trajectory ultimately paralleled Myspace, enjoying huge success in the mid-00s, before dwindling in later years and being bought by the now-defunct SpinMedia in 2010. The entirety of PureVolume is now a static dead-end. With many of the URLs previously populated by some of the coolestbands on the planet now returning a deflating “Oops”. Wikipedia lists the site in the past tense, and numerous news articles report that PureVolume ceased operating and deleted its musical archive on April 30th 2018. I know this kind of creative destruction is inevitable in the internet age, but it hurts man.
It’s sad to see these broken links and 404s. In the same way it might make a child of the 70s somber to see their old discotheque being boarded up. Those website pages were walked just as the dancefloors and discos of old were. People fell in and out of love on them, made friends in the comments and memories in the code. Now there’s not even an epitaph left. We really don’t want this to happen to vaporwave, because once it does- there’s no going back.
I want to end with the final verse of one of my favourite songs from the Myspace years. And a track which is actually a great little time capsule for mid-00s internet music. It’s the story of a man whose girlfriend leaves him for a guy she met on Myspace. Who is in turn left by her new boyfriend for another online girl. A reminder that the internet will always be marching relentlessly onwards. Websites die and users move on. It can’t be contained, and nothing is ever static. But at least we can hope to bring the best of the past along with us. And as much as there’s sadness in the collapse of the old, there’s hope in the birth of the new.
Now he sits in the darkness as events recur She sits in the light of the monitor And he knows he’s lost her by her demeanour Internet grass is always greener
Originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pexels.com
Far Side Virtual 1: Reviewbrah and the cult of the analogue
TheReportOfTheWeek is a popular YouTube channel hosted by John Jurasek aka Reviewbrah. In his videos Reviewbrah analyses new and classic fast food meals, often while sitting in his car or out in his garden. The videos tend to be around 10 minutes long and will feature Jurasek discussing what he likes about the meal and what could be better, alongside a sprinkling of personal anecdotes and banter. While this description may seem understated, Jurasek has managed to build a huge following for his content, mostly off the back of his idiosyncratic style: mild-mannered, consciously retro and resplendent in large, outdated suits. The contrast of a young man (even now, several years into his career, Jurasek is only 21 years old) dressing and talking like a 1950s stereotype- while reviewing Burger King’s latest double-dunkin’ cheesy chicken- has surprising appeal.
Aside from his quirky fast-food reviews, Reviewbrah has an even more intriguing side to him. Jurasek has a driving passion for short-wave radio and has, for the past few years, broadcast a radio accompaniment to his YouTube Channel: ‘The Voice of the Report of the Week’ (VORW). This show is a weekly short-wave radio program hosted by Jurasek containing a mixture of “light entertainment”, music, anecdotes, questions and patter. And while its intended audience is other short-wave radio enthusiasts Reviewbrah also makes it available as a podcast. (In recent months Jurasek has actually split the podcast in two, with the first half being primarily him chatting and airing his views, aimed at his general fanbase, and the second half more music-focused, geared towards serious radio listeners.)
However, despite TheReportofTheWeek’s titanic YouTube success, with 1.2 Million subscribers, and over a hundred Million views, running a short-wave radio program isn’t easy. In one of his recent radio episodes #113 Juarez became audibly annoyed at the monetary situation he found himself in, and the amount of genuine effort it was taking to keep the show on the air. This was compounded by a recent, deflating, a decision he had been forced to make. VORW would have to cease broadcasting on one of its North American frequencies due to cost reasons. Upon announcing this news Jurasek recounts he was met with a flurry of angry emails. Mostly from anonymous listeners who had never even contacted, contributed or donated to the show. The entitled fury in these responses “bewildered” Jurasek, especially in the face on his undeniable commitment to short-wave radio. The section starts at (12:20) and makes for difficult listening, you really feel for the guy.
So Reviewbrah is fighting an often thankless task against the tide of technology, and paying a premium in time and money to do so. So why do it? Why dedicate so much effort into something so specific and niche?
In a video recorded last year titled ‘What I’m Obsessed With’ Reviewbrah outlined the appeal of short-wave radio to him. Short-wave transmitters are unique in their ability to pick up signals at much longer distances than traditional radio receivers. This means that Jurasek can sit at home in Florida and connect to waves from Germany, Russia, Madagascar, China, even North Korea and Iran, and listen to those programs as clearly as any local radio station. It’s this ability to connect with the world, projecting his own radio show outwards and absorbing other broadcasts in, that besots Juarez. It sounds something like a pseudo-internet.
Reviewbrah mentions several times in his explainer video that the appeal might be hard to grasp, “maybe I can’t fully describe it”, he admits but it’s, “something that gives [me] a certain kind of thrill and enjoyment.” The second half of the video is actually Jurasek physically demonstrating how he uses his radio. This section makes it clear just how enamoured Jurasek is with the process of short-wave. Using the physical box is half the fun. The antenna, the buttons, the tuner. Whatever the stresses, these simple actions make it all worthwhile.
It’s hard to not be reminded of the same, sometimes opaque, passion many vinyl record fans have. The expense of paying for the turntables and speakers, the price of the vinyl itself, the social pressure to keep up with the latest albums and the frustration at scalpers and limited releases. There are some really obvious similarities. Present in both short-wave radio fans and vinyl enthusiasts is the embrace of limited, and exclusive, experiences: sometimes you’ll get home late and miss your favourite radio show, sometimes you just won’t be able to get hold of that vinyl you were looking forward to. But these experiences give a hobby ups and downs, a natural tempo and rhythm. Things to look forward to and times you’re disappointed. And to be honest, that certainly sounds more natural than the constant express train of optimized content heading straight at your brain via YouTube or Netflix.
The rebirth of Vinyl as a viable medium has been one of the biggest music industry success stories of the last 10 years. What was once a genuinely weird little interest held only by Boomers and nerds has become a noticeable presence not just on the internet, but in towns and cities all across Europe, America and beyond. For example, the town I’m writing in now has 4 dedicated vinyl shops and 3 more than stock it alongside other mediums. That’s pretty remarkable for a container which is bulky, expensive and requires a whole host of gadgets and systems to actually play. But, step back, and the reasons for the vinyl revival are big, structural and show no sign of dissipating.
Vinyl’s rise as a medium can be tracked in opposition to the ascent of internet downloads and streaming. The medium’s popularity rises from its nadir in the mid-00s, when the CD market reigned supreme, through the social media boom of 2008-2013, picking up the pace in the following years and reaching its zenith in 2018. And it’s not slowing down. There’s no debate that YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Bandcamp and before them the stalwart Myspace and PureVolume have changed music listening forever. But vinyl has risen to meet the riposte, throwing down an answer to the tyranny of choice that streaming services provide. Through the internet, you have almost all of human recorded sound available to you instantly, for free. How on earth is a music fan supposed to deal with that mastodon fact in a reasonable manner?
Personally spending each day trawling the playlists of YouTube, the caverns of Bandcamp and the wells of Discord is a never-ending task. I’d call it Sisyphean if that didn’t make it sound a bit grand. Music, both new and old, is constantly being uploaded, and one individual simply can’t listen to it all. You’ll always be missing something. You’re constantly promised that there’s a record you’ll absolutely adore justtttt around the corner. All you need to do is put the leg work in, keep looking and clicking and you’ll find it (I’m sure).
But what if I can’t handle this challenge? Why not surrender to the tools the site wants me to use: playlists, algorithms and ‘suggestions’? At least then the machines can help me try and make sense of it all. But machines are run on blunt systems, and (given social media’s role as a giant dopamine farm) will always be trying to please you. A machine struggles to throw you a curveball, a wild card, or a bolt from the blue that will change your life. It would much rather feed you ‘something like the music you already listen to, but with different words’.
Or you can retreat into something more solid, slower, maybe even physical. Reactionary? Maybe slightly, but definitely understandable.
But let’s break this down a bit further. Maybe there’s an even better reason for turning to vinyl over internet ephemera. Something that even many vinyl fans may be unaware of. Scientific research suggests that engaging with one single action fully, even if it is more limited, can heighten enjoyment and focus the mind. You don’t need me to tell you that social media listening incentivises the complete opposite of this. Instead, we’re turned into power-users of frantic clicking, multi-tabbing, playlist sniping and impulse trying. But, if we take the evidence seriously, shoving in more and more information, song after song, playlist after playlist, won’t make us happier, more fulfilled music fans. In fact, it might be doing the opposite.
The alternative, sitting down, interacting with a physical object, listening to a record all the way through (changing tracks on vinyl is a faff and looks silly), perusing the artwork, reading the lyrics, starts to make a lot more sense. Maybe there’s just something neater about the enjoyment of limiting your own options and getting stuck into the simple joys of listening to the radio or spinning some vinyl.
It might be basic in some ways, but like ReviewBrah’s radio, there’s pleasure in the simple, modest, process.
As much as technology has freed us to ‘be ourselves’ it has also made us unhappier, more depressed, and more concerned with social status than ever before. A growing pool of Tech CEOs, having seen through the looking glass, absolutely do not like what they see. Far from embracing the technological future they themselves created, many ‘thought leaders’ are choosing to raise their children “Tech Free”. Some Silicon visionaries, like Jaron Lanier, the forefather of Virtual Reality, have turned into the Valley’s harshest critics. Generation Z, born just after the Millennials, and having grown up entirely submerged in Web 2.0, list anxiety and depression as the main issues facing their age-group. Perhaps this is all directly related to technology, perhaps something broader. But the correlation is there, and it doesn’t make happy reading.
So, we can tell that ‘analog’ hobbies can be immensely rewarding and might even make us happier. Then…is the solution just to do more of them? What if using these ideas can be, not just a fun hobby, but a lifestyle to make us happier? Let’s imagine a social movement which embraces this thinking, and turns to the culture of vinyl and short-wave radio as a solution. They reject the very use of modern technology in favour of the low-fi alternatives of previous decades. After meeting through the internet (of course) they start hanging out in person, all the while phasing our modern technology from their lives.
People start to use old 90s phones, Nokia 3210s. You can still make calls, they’re still portable, but there’s no apps, no Google Maps, no digital footprint, no tidal wave of notifications. Books replace pointless YouTube grazing. Instead of 5-minute chunks, you’re now diving deep into long-form prose. Television goes back to being a structured list of programs, not a buffet to gorge on. Theatre starts to be something more people do regularly, and less of an elitist institution. Chunky polaroids replace the phone camera, and tourists have to fumble around with a paper map while trying to navigate Shibuya. Your vaporwave releases now come in a choice of vinyl, cassette or laserdisc and you get them by mail order.
It seems cute, like one of those twee cafes with ‘no phones’ or ‘talk to each other’ signs on the wall. Maybe the movement would have a fun nickname like ‘Lo-Fis’, ‘Logians’ or ‘Wires’.
But the frustrating thing about this exercise is that it’s just too easy to simply paint over the modern world with older technology, and then claim it’s problem solved. If such a low-fi trend were to take off it’s easy to see it becoming pigeonholed and mocked, a fashion statement and a way of demonstrating a more mindful, nuanced approach to life. Above the proles with their noses stuck to their phones hoho. Even sketching out the idea makes it seem twee, something to be consigned to the leafy boulevards of Kensington or the Upper West Side. My gut tells me it wouldn’t be long-lasting and wouldn’t stick. And it certainly wouldn’t change the way that the majority of the lumpen 9-to-5 population relate to technology. After all, if you can afford to spend your evenings wafting from book-shop to restaurant to theatre you probably didn’t need a smartphone anyway.
A lot of people need their annoying, soul-sapping phones so that they can hustle for their next Deliveroo job, or get yelled at by their boss on Slack. The economy is technology and technology is the economy. And, let’s be honest, you need a lot of money to buy a lot of vinyl- but listening to YouTube is free. You can’t just paint over these contradictions and carry on as normal.
Even Reviewbrah uses YouTube and Patreon to generate income, and despite his immense passion for short-wave radio, his activities on YouTube have blossomed as his popularity on the site has grown. The incentive to drop a lucrative social media career, in favour of trying to reignite short-wave radio across the world, just isn’t there. Instead, it’s nice to see Reviewbrah attempting to synthesize the two. YouTube can reel em in, and maybe a few will stay for the radio show. Some might even buy one (they ain’t cheap though).
No, it’s not earthshattering. This approach can’t grapple with the hulking tech giants. It can’t stare into the sun of how we’re all frying our brains with Wi-Fi and apps and twitter hearts. But maybe it’ll give someone a bit of rest after work, allow them to switch off for a bit. Maybe a vinyl can take them somewhere else for a minute or let them leave their phone in another room. It might just be dorky hobbyists helping out other dorky hobbyists. But if it manages to shine some light, then it’s probably worthwhile. As Reviewbrah says during his hallelujah chorus in #113:
“I remain steadfast for as long as I do this show, as long as there is a transmitter to broadcast it via, I am going to continue to have this broadcast transmitted on short-wave for the general audience. And that’s just how it is.”
Originally published at ae2.online, pictures taken from the ReportOfTheWeek YouTube Channel
Hello, my name is Sam L Barker, also known as Mxhdroom. I write about technology, culture and memory. My work has previously been published at Private Suite Magazine, Mac O’Clock and ae2.online. This blog will house my writings over the coming months. Please feel free to subscribe for writing direct to your Inbox.