分析: Additional Thoughts Concerning the Vapour and the MiniDisc

So a good while back, I had some things to say about a certain scene and a certain format. It did not take long for things to develop to where we are now.

As I write this, the first International MiniDisc Day is wrapping up nicely. Twenty-eight labels participated, issuing fifty-four releases and lowering the bank balances and available credit of a hundred or so people. In less than two years, 150 releases have been issued on MD at one time or another (and yes, my album was one of them). And I’m sure some Japanese merchants are both amused and bemused of random orders made on new MD stock to make these releases. Not bad at all for a format considered a “failure”.

I’ll admit I am pleased to be on the ground floor as both a witness and a participant of this endeavour. But at the same time, there is also something to be said about seeing a second life emerging. In fact, that was what I hoping for with the resurgence of the MD and it seems to be happening, little by little. Granted, there is a long way to go before you have some record shoppe having a dedicated MD section. And I wouldn’t hold my breath for Sony convincing the other Big Music avenues to issue suddenly the latest chart dweller onto that format. But if I haven’t said this before, I say it first here now: I like it when success is achieved on one’s own terms. So by that standard, it has already succeeded and then some.

I have not changed much in my initial thoughts concerning the format. As a format in of itself, it really does combine the best of both the physical and the digital. And in relation to vapour, it really does encapsulate the spirit of the scene with its combination of looking back at the past and looking elsewhere at other futures and possibilities. But I will say that it does do something else that has become apparent now but what I had hoped would occur. That is it demonstrates how one can actually achieve something instead of just longing for it or dreaming about it. This whole resurgence occurred because enough people wanted to see this happen and made it happen. No permission was asked (and it probably wouldn’t have been granted anyway). This is how art happens.

分析: Happy Birthday, VW or How We Learned to Stop Dreaming and See for Real All the Castles in the Sky

A certain valedictorian and a certain discussion has made the case that the scene called vaporwave began on 19 July 2009 with the upload of this video. This would later be considered B4 on this album, which would serve as a key cornerstone for what would be an art scene that would accomplish in mere years what has taken decades to achieve in popular or hybrid music forms and perhaps even centuries in high art forms. After going through “death” after “death” after “death”, the scene has not only survived but is beginning to expand even more with one big show just around the corner and another big one coming soon and I’m sure more things down the road.

Instead of trying to tell more of the larger story of the scene’s first decade, I thought it would be best to explain more about how I came onto the scene, first as a listener and then as an artist in my own right. After all, the secondary title of this includes the words “personal examination”.

As it tends to be the case with me, what seems like an “out of nowhere” move could actually be traced back to some well-planted seeds that would in turn sprout into something more in time. This has certainly been the case with my music career, both overall and in specific areas. So while I say that it was late 2017 when I began the dive into the vapour, you really have to start with my first effort at music making.

I knew I wanted to make my own music for as long as I could remember. I particularly wanted to make music that sounds like the music that I like. I would have to wait until college when I could begin pursuing it. That was when I had acquired the instruments, the computer, and a class that provided the necessary tools for home computer-based music production. I would also work at WCWM, which would not only expose me to many artists I wouldn’t have heard otherwise, but also would show me that it would be tough sell. And this was in that post-Napster but “just-about-to-happen” iTunes moment as well … let alone before Bandcamp and Soundcloud and Spotify. But even with that potential doubt, I would learn the tools and develop my voice.

It was 2006 when something clicked in me on how to make music under a name I could stand behind. It occurred when I listened to the entirety of Cocteau Twins and their sound – as well as dream pop in general from what I heard – felt like something I could use as a starting point for other things. Thus, I started The Spangle Maker. While dealing with an assortment of personal changes and trials, I would make two EPs, an LP and would compile all the digital singles released in the span of five years.

Then 2009 happened. But it wasn’t 19 July that would be significant for me. I literally began the new year with a long drive from one metropolitan area where I spent nearly two decades growing up to another where I had barely any familiar connections. The transition was not as smooth as I would have liked it to have happen. Setbacks led to more setbacks led to more setbacks (and I was already down by some other scars accrued prior to 2009). Thus was the beginning of a long depression period.

This led to a shift in creative focus away from music. Part of it was also being drawn to and thinking that film-making was a better path for me, personally, creatively and professionally. But I was also getting disillusioned with the state of music in general. Even though I had little to no interest in what was occurring within “Big Music”, I conclude that there was no point in me continuing if this was going to be the prevailing norm. So for almost a decade, I ruled out making music for any kind of public.

Of course, this didn’t mean I stopped listening to new music, even though I did not buy/venture as much as in other years. One of these purchases was back in September 2013 when Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven was released via Warp Records. I personally have been a fan of the label since end of high school/beginning of college and when I saw it, I was intrigued by what it could be. I was treated to a familiar sound palette but executed in a new way. Sure, this sounds like using the GM sound bank off of any MIDI-equipped … anything. And yes, this does sound like it could come from a particular time. But it doesn’t have to be nor does it really. It’s not returning to a point in time; it’s just drawing upon one time as just another colour. I enjoyed the world the music created and it was one of those points of comfort during several trying times. Without me knowing it, this was the first key seed that would eventually sprout forth the vapour for me.

Over the next four years, I would do day-jobs (sometimes have them, sometimes not), work on film projects and go through on-off periods of anxiety/depression. There would be some simple recordings where I would sketch out an idea that could lead to something, but at least it would be just something to keep me going. I would keep my eyes open for music and every now and then, I would see something referencing “vaporwave”. I was fully aware of the on-off 1980s nostalgia gaze, but I didn’t quite connect the two. After all, while they share some aesthetics, I don’t think you could consider this film to be “vaporwave” (maybe proto?). I saw a few reviews from The Needle Drop mentioning this but I just noted it and moved on with my life, never listening to it.

There were a few YouTube channels that had used some vaporwave. One in particular used – what I would find out later – Saint Pepsi’s “Enjoy Yourself”. Not knowing anything more, I enjoyed listening to that song. In time, I picked up a few others from Blank Banshee. Finally, in late 2017, I saw a few videos trying to describe what this scene was all about, including wosX’s (now deleted) survey of the scene. This was the jumpstart that started – what was then – a dedicated effort to play six years or so of catch-up

Between those sources plus the Vaporwave Essentials Guides (and there are a few more where that came from) and whatever Vapor Memory uploaded as recommendations, I started my own random and circuitous journey through the realm of vapour. I even kept a listening diary of the different albums I had heard. As I was listening to these different albums, I was impressed with the diversity of sound as well as the dedicated talent. The music matched my normal sensibilities effortlessly and I loved the imagination and daring a lot of these releases had. I will admit that as I’ve listened to the popular highlights, I probably saved myself from hearing the other 90% or so. But if I liked something, I would definitely make every effort to get it for myself, which meant Bandcamp was very active for me.

As I was listening to this music – and even began to reach out to these artists – it was clear that this was not just a scene where I was just a mere observer. Furthermore, I could see that there was no reason for me not to be a part of this. After all, I still had the equipment (never had to liquidate it for cash) and I definitely had the know-how to make whatever I wanted. And that was the other attractive aspect. I wasn’t going to make the umpteenth version of Floral Shoppe or be a second [insert favourite artist from the scene here]. I didn’t have to retread the same grounds others have. If anything, it was a chance to add my own spin. Another way I put this was that it wasn’t so much I had to tailor myself to vapour, vapour was tailoring to me. So vapour did what nothing else before could: it gave me my music-making mojo back.

So, I declared a new moniker and got to work making my first album of new material in almost ten years (The Rose of Al Basrah was September 2009; The Singles Vol. 1 would be released in May 2011, but that brought together all the singles I put out then). After some thinking and brainstorming, it was very clear that the first album was to be called Reincarnated Resurrection. I even had a concept for the artwork already in place. Because I had some material that I thought was strong and could make a good first appearance, I only had to finalize the existing material and create from scratch a few new ones. And, creating a nice full circle, I was able to work with someone whom I met when I first settled in Massachusetts. I made the album available on 31 August 2018 (what would be a year before 100% Electronicon).

In addition, I was also networking in the scene, both as an artist and a fan. I got to meet Emmanuel Hoachlander, the guy behind Ohm-N-I and who runs Section 9 Tapes. As we got along very well, he wanted to put the album out on cassette (and later, MiniDisc would be an option). I would continue to work on new material and engage in the scene online whenever I could. In time, some other opportunities presented itself and that should make my future prospects better. It will be a while until the next follow-up but I will still keep a presence going with a remix or a compilation appearance or being featured on a track or two. And I write here as well (which is slowly getting more noticed … as I shared this more).

All in all, it’s incredible to think that this little hybrid of an old piece of VHS ephemera married with a personal plunderphonics experiment would create one of the most creative and engaging music movements to fill the interwebz. Call it vaporwave. Call it millennial punk. Call it post-electronic. Call it “chillwave for Marxists” or “smooth jazz for millennials” [this guy’s words]. Call it simply vapour [also this guy’s words]. There may be nobody here, but that doesn’t mean something is not there.

分析: Goodbye Vaporwave/Vapour, Hello Post-Electronic

Just today, I was involved in a Twitter discussion with the “Prom King” himself (in reality, Ryan DeRobertis; in the past [and perhaps present] Saint Pepsi; also can be known as Skylar Spence).

He was talking about the “post-rock” label and went on to give a nice shout-out to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. He was clarifying how those albums may not be obviously post-rock but it is still there, particularly in how it approaches dynamics. Between the two of us, we elaborated on this and concluded that the foundation of something does not always anticipate the movement it creates, and yet is still a foundation. I jokingly added that if you consider vaporwave’s “foundational tripytch” – Eccojams Vol. 1, Far Side Virtual, Floral Shoppe – they don’t anticipate everything that would become vaporwave.

This got me thinking even more about the ever-present problem of “what the hell to call this thing” (old habits die hard, I guess). While I hold that vapour has a certain elegance, I am also thinking about it is about time we use “post-electronic” to describe not just the scene now, but also vaporwave in its entirety and even “distant off-shoots” (like synthwave).

I know there’s a certain eye-roll that comes with calling everything “post”. And it’s probably even more ridiculous to use it here because it is fundamentally still electronic in nature. But this scene has plenty in common with the other “post” scenes. First and foremost, it is all about expanding possibilities, rather than restricting them. It often happens when a certain style feels stale, route, uninteresting. In this particular case, I cannot help but sense that what was being done back in 2012 or so was in part a reaction to what was happening (and what would continue to happen) in the Big Music scene, particularly with electronic styles.

When I’m thinking “electronic” here, I am thinking of what was first popular and understood beginning in the 1980s and through the 1990s. It started with experimentation – whether it was in instruments used or arrangements or execution – but then it would develop into something familiar, usually right away. Once it gets to the familiar phase, then it tends to stay that way and it becomes stale. What needs to happen is an eagerness to break away from the familiar. This is not necessarily “reinventing the wheel” but it can be as simple as returning to sounds that were around but were maybe not as popular or caught on. From there, you can develop it even more.

In the end, I like it when music opens up instead of closes down. What you call it is irrelevant in the end.

分析: Vapour as (Aural) Therapy

For the record, I do have more ideas brewing in the thought-pot and I would like to write about other related topics. However, something occurred recently where I think/feel serves as a nice addendum to what I had written previously.

For a while, I’ve seen this article floating about on various feeds. The first thing I have to do is make it clear that the music evoking shopping centers is called “mallsoft” and not “mallwave”. Other than that technicality, it hits on the main ideas as to its development and appeal. It’s a typical intro piece to the world of vapour.

I chimed in on a discussion surrounding this article naturally. First and foremost, I try to take every opportunity to some tasteful shilling. But, of course, this is a scene where I am most certainly a seasoned listener as well as a seasoned musician. So I offered my own thoughts on it: acknowledging the nostalgia vibe, the “late stage capitalism critiques” (which I do want to cover in a future article … and it is in progress), personally noting a similarity between our generation and our parents in rehashing nostalgia in the market. But it was this last point I wrote that lead to this article:

But personally, I think what lies at the heart of the scene is a desire to understand and even come to terms with the world we have now. I think our generation was naively informed at best and lied to at worst about what the future may hold. This art movement is a way to confront that for ourselves and hopefully move on from it.

This is a supplement to the notion that listeners and creators alike are returning to a state of mind more than just a mere point in time. That assertion in of itself implies that the art, both its creation and admiration/consumption, is inherently therapeutic. Thus, the art movement is a therapy and for a particular generation. After all, taking command of the past is what can help us move toward a better future.

分析: The Deep Heart of Vapour

A few days ago, I was listening to Night Swim. As I was watching what I presumed to be an upload of a very limited VHS tape version, I was thinking back to the time when [adult swim] was the thing to watch if hanging out in the college dorm. Soon, I boarded the involuntary memory train as the music and the images continued forward. It’s an unusual madeleine for sure but it occurred to me more than ever why this scene was born, died, reborn, died a second time, third reborn, etc.

The surface explanation as to the appeal of vapour/VW is “evoking nostalgia”. While to come extent true, it does not really explain why people either obsessively listen to it on a daily basis or why people go out of their way to make their own or sometimes both. After all, every generation for as long as those who can remember and recall has had its waxing nostalgic phase. Hell, part of the 1990s had this fascination with the 1960s as the Boomer generation reached its own mid-life crisis. (The difference here is that many of them were either in senior management or executive level and thus could translate their frustration into product & profit. We are not so fortunate and thus we have to make do with vaporwave.). Above all, mere nostalgia does not take into account how it has evolved away from mere 1980s regurgitation and ventured into many other sonic realms (and hopefully more to come). Yet it still remains vapour.

I think what lies at the deep heart of the scene is returning not so much to some point in time, but rather to a state of mind. When I was taking a night swim (not literally mind you), I remembered what it was like – and more importantly what I was like – in college. I was passionate, driven, self-assured, eager and comfortable with things. This was when everything seemed fresh and new. There was not that cynicism and bitterness that comes during adulthood (and this generation has experienced various forms of this probably more than any other). Yes, I had downturns before and even during college, but it was nothing like what would happen afterwards. The mindset I have adopted and accrued after at least a decade of disappointment and resentment is not one I asked for, nor sought to acquire. Realizing this now, I am working to dismantle it and rebuild it anew. The vapour is aiding in that endeavour.

If there’s one recurring idea you have heard from me at this point, it’s that there’s nothing new under the sun. Repentance is a classic aim. Using art as a means of repentance is just as classic. Hell, I would imagine that what drove us to draw on cave walls or scratch something on the dirt is a desire not just to mimic what we see, but to see deeper than the surface. Maybe we could make real what we imagine in ourselves and thus change what is inside and/or around us. That desire is no different now than it was back in the 18th century with Roccoco or the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of fantasy. It’s just the circumstances and the means have changed.

分析: The Danger and the Opportunity

It was John F. Kennedy who famously (and quite erroneously) observed that the word “crisis” in Chinese consists of characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity”.  (And this was not the only non-English language faux pas he would commit).  Yet, crises do provide the latter as much as they do the former.  The vapour scene is facing such a crisis.

This year has seen some takedowns due to the sword of Damocles that has characterized the scene from the onset: sampling and claims of copyright infringement.  This is nothing new to the scene but this year saw some high profile changes.  The first one was the take-down from YouTube of Macintosh Plus’s “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”, which had accumulated some 40.5 million views.  More recently, haircuts for men had to take down his entire discography due to a cease and desist letter received (unclear if it came from a publisher, a writer, a record label, etc.) and announced he will return to music-making, though sample-free.  Some artists and labels followed suit either anticipating receiving similar responses or actually receiving them.  The most recent and high profile of all is Corp. who announced via Facebook that in addition to launching his own proper record label, he would make sample-free music.

As someone who has worked to make his own music for more than a decade now, my own views and attitudes have been added, refined, modified, reaffirmed and gone through all matter of revisions.  I have friends, colleagues, and peers who have a broad range of views concerning intellectual property from “It’s important to keep it at all costs” to “It’s a fucking sham and should be disregarded outright”.  I know for sure that it will continue to change over the years after publishing this.  All the same, it’s time to place some markers as to continue the discussion as it were.

First off, I think it is important for artists to create their own respective work and have a stake in how their works are to be presented and shared with the larger public.  At the same time, I think there is a difference between protecting your own work from infringement and using a copyright to claim authority over someone else’s artistic expression.  Art works best when there is both freedom to express as well as a mutual respect for others’ expressions.

In regards to the vapour scene, I do think that most of the works that take the plunderphonics approach, which is famous for confronting the assumptions concerning intellectual property, creativity, originality, identity, etc., is ultimately transformative.  After all, while it’s an “open secret” that the aforementioned “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” uses Diana Ross’s performance of “It’s Your Move”, I don’t mistake the former for the latter.  And even when I do recognize the source of something, I think of it as a quotation that can bring another dimension to understanding the original or take it to another place that was beyond its original construction.

(That said, I also think the process of clearing samples should be more efficient and more – ahem – clear.  I understand that it all depends on the copyright holder.  But more transparency and clarity for expectations can be helpful as to avoid traversing a legal minefield.)

However, like the bad yet popular linguistic observation, I do see this move away from the plunderphonics to something more original as not only welcome addition but also an inevitable one.  While there are certainly artists who still employ the plunderphonics approach and continue to do some creative things with it, there’s only so much you can do with the pre-existing material, especially the ones that vapour insists on using. The reason why vapour has continued to “last” beyond its initial burst is its ability to change and adapt and grow.  Even a scene that exists in part to maintain a particular time period (or a time range usually), remaining stagnant and static is a guaranteed way of ending it.

Also, in the larger story of art (certainly Western art), following prior examples and precedents are just the first step taken in developing one’s artistic voice.  Sure you start off copying Beethoven’s symphonies or painting like Michelangelo or sounding like your post-punk contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but sooner or later you take the reins and start making works that reflect much more your own sensibilities, interests, experiences, ideas, etc.  Everyone starts off sounding like their influences.  But even then, you are not your influences and that becomes more apparent the more you create.  For a lot of these artists who are making the move away from utilizing samples, it is an opportunity for personal and artistic growth.

In conclusion, I still see the vapour scene as an art movement more than anything.  Yes, there is a particular origin to it that is and should be remembered.  However, I do think it was always meant to be more of a starting point and not the end goal.  If there’s an end goal to achieve, it’s to make art that’s honest, sincere, genuine and meaningful, certainly in strong contrast to what has passed for it.  Fellow artists, excelsior.

分析: The Vapour and the MiniDisc

The vapour/vw scene began almost exclusively within the digital domain, using either Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube or any other available means to share these sonic creations.  However, it also took on a physical form – based on artist and label affiliation – and it was the audio cassette.  It was argued at the time that if it were to take on a physical form, the cassette would be perfect as it is cheap to make, easy to distribute as well as customize, fits with the temporal aesthetic (the 1980s was pretty much the era of the cassette) and has a compatible fidelity.  Later on, the next format it took on was the vinyl record as both artists and labels were getting ambitious and the means were more in reach.  Both vinyl and cassettes are enjoying a much wider rebirth/renaissance, even as digital downloads are declining and the subscription service is becoming the new norm for distributing and consuming music.

And yet, there is another possible format emerging from the horizon.  During the weekend of Cassette Store Day 2018 (of all times), two vapour labels, My Pet Flamingo and Section 9 Tapes, released Flamingo Funk Volume 1 and プラネットネオ東京 respectively on a format that officially died around the time vaporwave was emerging.  It was the MiniDisc.

I will not bore you with the history and the details of the format in general. In fact, the best single resource for everything MD can be found here. There are also a couple of nice personal appreciations of the format: 1 2. And, of course, there’s the detailed summary of sorts.

The MiniDisc has the potential to be the signature physical format for the vapour scene.  It combines the reliability and clarity of a compact disc (or any optical drive) with the durability, portability and versatility of the compact audio cassette.  There is the digital nature that is retained upon duplication.  Like both vinyl and cassette, there is the ability to create uniquely designed objects on the part of artists/labels (and if the listener missed out on the MD runs, it is possible to “make your own” using a blank MD).  For the moment, it is actually easier to get a decent to excellent player, either portable or home use, second hand as well as blank MDs.

Beyond its physical qualities, the MD is the most compatible to the spirit of vapour.  The MiniDisc was a format unique to the 1990s and continued into the 2000s (even when other digital music players entered and exited the market), whereas both the cassette and the vinyl have existed before that decade.  While the format has been active in the worldwide market for a little over twenty years, it was deemed – and remembered – as a failed/dead format in the United States.  If there is a scene that can appreciate things like “lost opportunities” or “what could have been”, it would be a scene that is already in that period of time anyway.  Creating vapour albums on MD can simultaneously create an alternate past (reliving the 1990s again) and an alternate future (expanding your listening format options).  And maybe with enough attention and interest, vapour/vw can bring back the MD in a way that other independent scenes maintained and resurrected the vinyl and the cassette in the late 2000s/early 2010s.

And so … another avenue is open and thus proving not only that vaporwave isn’t dead but has the ability to bring new life into unexpected things.