So I’ve been thinking about this project for a while, and it doesn’t have a name, but I wanted to tell you about it anyway. At least I have my startup-style it’s X for Y pitch: it’s like textfiles.com for Australian indie music.
Yeah, well, let me explain.
For background, I’d better start by saying I was pretty terminally uncool, music-wise, in the 80s and early 90s. My family weren’t big on following popular music, I lived somewhere with no decent record stores, records were priced out of my range, and even at school the kids I hung with weren’t hip enough to make mix tapes of anything much but Top 40 stuff. Despite this, I somehow got exposed to a certain amount of Australian indie and alternative music. I say “somehow” because I honestly don’t know where I heard most of this stuff. I guess 3XY and EON-FM, early on. Later, I listened to a lot of Triple J, and watched Rage.
These days, of course, I get most of my musical knowledge and exposure from the Interwebs, and the availability of digital downloads and information about musicians is really helping me backfill a lot of the older Australian music I wish I’d known better at the time.
Like, for example, The Go-Betweens, a Brisbane indie band that I was only faintly aware of until a few years ago, when Grant McLennan died and many of my friends online were expressing sadness at his passing. Of course I quickly figured out that they were part of the soundtrack of my childhood and teens, I just didn’t know them.
The Go-Betweens were pretty well known, and it’s not hard to find their albums, but a lot of equally important Australian music from the 70s to 90s is no longer readily obtainable. Much of it’s not available for (legal) digital download. In many cases CDs are out of print, or there may never have been a CD release, and the only version is vinyl mouldering in someone’s garage. Even information about older Australian music is hard to find: now-defunct labels and publications don’t have websites, and bands that would otherwise pass Wikipedia’s notability guidelines often don’t have articles because it’s so hard to find sources/citations. Only a handful of hobbyist websites and generous-hearted bloggers are keeping vast swathes of our musical heritage alive.
So why did this happen? Well, obscure music is always hard to find. That’s what makes it obscure. But in Australia even a bunch of pretty well known stuff, stuff I grew up on in my no-hipster-cred-whatsoever suburban youth, is rare as hen’s teeth now. For some reason, music that was released on the Mushroom and Festival labels was particularly likely to have this problem. So I asked around, and learnt that those labels, which had released some of the best music of my adolescence, had been consumed first by News Corp and then by Warner, who didn’t care enough to keep the back-catalogs available. I don’t even know how many smaller labels were caught up in this, but I’m guessing plenty.
(The good news is that this seems to be clearing up a little now. More stuff seems to be available in iTunes since last time I checked, and I hear that Warner recently sold back Flying Nun Records (NZ) to the original owners. So there is hope.)
So here’s what I want to do. I’d like to start a project for people — techies, music nerds, archivists, whoever — to come together and work on projects to preserve and disseminate (information about) Australian music, in as free and open a manner as possible: open source code, creative commons licenses, non-commercial and optimised for maximum sharing and reuse.
First project (something I’ve been meaning to do anyway) is to extract pertinent facts about artists, albums, and labels from a variety of online sources (such as, for example, the archived website of The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop) and use it to update MusicBrainz (and from there, hundreds of sites and apps that use MusicBrainz’s data).
Then I’d like to make sure that any Australian musical acts that are sufficiently notable have Wikipedia entries. In many cases this will mean grovelling through pre-Internet dead trees publications, but I’m going to be in Australia and probably unemployed through the summer and I hear that libraries have air conditioning and Internet access these days, so that actually sounds quite pleasant. Along the way, I hope to make a resource list for other Australians who’d like to do the same thing: which libraries have useful collections of music periodicals? Who’s got zines or clippings they’ll scan if you contact them? What online archives already exist for you to trawl through? That sort of thing.
Those two projects are pretty simple, but they’re important because free, open-licensed online resources will be the foundation for later projects. I don’t even know what these later projects are, yet; I just know that having the information out there will make them easier.
So, I’ll take a shot at MusicBrainz and Wikipedia regardless of whether anyone else is interested. I suspect that lots of people are interested, though, and that with a sufficient number and variety of participants there are a lot of other, more ambitious things we could try.
So I’m looking for coders, open data nerds, Wikimedians, librarians and archivists, scholars, music journalists, zinesters, fans, broadcasters, copyright law experts, free culture advocates, and past and present musicians, producers, promoters, and label folks who might be interested in this project. I’m planning to set up a mailing list and/or website for it, so leave a comment below with your email address (which will be hidden, not shown to the public) and I’ll let you know when there’s something to join.
Also, still looking for a name. Ideas welcome.
Image credit: the image used on the front page of infotrope.net to link to this post is a collage of clips from Party Fears, a Perth music zine from the 80s-90s now archived online by its creator, David Gerard.