In 2011, a Portland-based man called Christopher Kirkley released an official vinyl recording of songs taken from the memory cards of mobile phones in the Saharan desert.
Kirkley, an ethnomusicologist (and self-described gentleman explorer), had originally travelled to Mali to carry out field recordings. Then stumbling upon this unusual cache of music, highlights of which he compiled in two volumes over the following years.
From Algiers to Bamako, an unofficial trail of MP3s had been passed from phone to phone. This generated what the curator likes to refer to as a literal peer-to-peer network.
The tracks were often transferred from one person to another via Bluetooth. In many parts of West Africa, where web infrastructure is lacking and few people have desktop computers, phones are used for data storage as much as for communication.
Kirkley told the Guardian: “I’d carry my netbook while walking down the promenade in the evening and offer to trade songs, filling excess space on the cards with albums on my own hard drive – Townes Van Zandt, John Vanderslice, Elliott Smith.”
In return, he was able to choose a strikingly eclectic selection of for his two collections, both called Music from Saharan Cellphones. A debt to ‘desert blues’ musicians such as the globally-successful Tinariwen is clear on some tracks. Others combine recognisably traditional forms with modern production techniques such as Autotune, highlighting the diversity of culture available to people even in the most isolated parts of West Africa.
Both mixtapes enjoyed international success when Kirkley posted them online. After a Kickstarter for producing vinyl copies of the recordings reached its financial target, he was even able to track down the recording artists and reimburse them, as well as surprising them with the unexpected news of their global fanbase.
P2P filesharing might immediately connote Napster, Limewire or torrents (with the medium depending on the reader’s vintage), but its fundamentals are older. From West African travellers stopping in a dusty cafe to swap tracks, back to the home-made 8-tracks of the 1980s, the urge to share music is a universal one.
So is the desire to collaborate.
The Postal Service
In the early 00s, electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello (better known under the pseudonym of Dntel) and Ben Gibbard (the frontman for indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie) began making music together.
Although both were based on the West Coast, one was in LA and the other in Seattle, cities more than 1,000 miles apart. Such cross-country collaborations are common, now, especially for electronic musicians. The internet has made it simple for artists to share beats or tracks with each other wherever they’re based.
And at the moment, the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican features work by Chris Milk, who produced Arcade Fire’s uniquely personalised video for We Used to Wait and is currently creating an entirely crowd-sourced video for a Johnny Cash song based on pencil drawings uploaded by fans.
But Gibbard and Tamborello didn’t use the internet when producing their first album, despite that by 2002 the first swathe of ‘online-famous’ bands (like the Arctic Monkeys) were beginning to emerge. They relied on snail mail to swap tracks and vocals, which is why their collaboration was released under the name of The Postal Service.
Tamborello would send instrumental tracks to Gibbard as audio tapes – the singer then edited them, added his vocals and posted them back to Tamborello. For a group of songs about the distance that can loom between people (even those occupying the same space), this approach seems romantically apt.
The resulting album, Give Up, was a sleeper hit and has remained popular since its Sub Pop release in 2003, despite some legal shenanigans involving the actual US Postal Service. As part of a 2013 reunion tour the duo released a new song – but they probably used the internet to mix it.
Jazz drummer Jaimeo Brown’s new record and live project, Transcendence, garnered much hype on both sides of the Atlantic last year. Although Brown is 34, this is his first album. He’s performed with the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Stevie Wonder in the past, and graduated cum laude from William Paterson University’s acclaimed jazz course.
Transcendence melds Brown’s passion for hip-hop with modern jazz improvisation, blues, Indian music and electronica to create multi-layered, responsive compositions hard to define along genre lines.
He researched the Gee’s Bend community while writing the record, eventually using recordings of the rural Alabamians singing as the foundation stone for his expansive soundscapes, written with Chris Sholar and JD Allen among others.
When I saw the Transcendence show recently at Manchester’s Band on the Wall, Brown described the process of making the record as reminiscent of the quilting the Gee’s Bend artisans are now famous for. The quilts hang in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, admired for their improvisational, bold colours and unusual abstract patterns.
He also discussed the idea of community. How him and his band form a community, how the audience formed its own community, and how Gee’s Bend emerged as a community following the emancipation of American slaves in the south.
“The primary purpose of black spiritual music is to build community and provide a medium for healing and worship. This is what I aim to do with my music as well,” Brown said
Like the West African travellers creating their own, tangible P2P network, or like The Postal Service piecing their album together through cross-country tapes, Transcendence is a project that reminds us of music’s ability to move beyond boundaries, geographies and mentalities.
The emergence of the mobile age has seen an unprecedented shift in how people interact with their phones. Figures from Ofcom show 56 per cent of adults now have a smartphone, up from just 26 per cent in 2011. This proportion is likely to rise incrementally over the coming years.
Mobiles has had a huge impact on how we consume music. Not that long ago, the idea of mobiles and music simply conjured up images of a few lairy teens huddled around a tinny phone speaker at the back of the bus; now, you’re hard-pressed to see anyone on the bus, train or tube without headphones plugged into their smartphone.
Mobile has made it far easier for people to transport, listen to – and share – music, something that nearly every big player in the market has taken notice of. Spotify, Beats, Deezer – they’ve all launched apps for iOS, Android or both.
With Research and Markets suggesting that the ‘Global Mobile Streamed Music Market’ will expand by 29.2 per cent in the next four years, it’s obvious why they’re keen to get a foot in that particular door.
But what does this mean for the kind of collaboration and cross-fertilisation evident from Christopher Kirkley’s Saharan collections? Will an increased focus on mobile make it easier for artists to link up, or could it discourage the kind of innovation that drove the emergence of the 8-track mixtape?
The temptation is to think of platforms as essentially agnostic. As the Gee’s Bend singers, The Postal Service and the Saharan filesharers show, creativity finds a way through.
But the reality is that some services will encourage this kind of collaboration and sharing, while others will make it more difficult. As the ongoing debate between YouTube and indie labels shows, the battle lines are being drawn up between artist-focused and consumer-focused platforms.
Similarly, Soundcloud’s recent app release met with fierce criticism from the creative community, who feel that the platform is attempting to pander to major labels (and listeners) at the expense of the artists who made it a success in its early years.
How should media sharing sites walk the tightrope of offering support to both consumers and creators? Do some platforms reward collaboration more than others? These are the questions that we can expect to come up again and again as the media sharing world matures and develops.
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