As stated in the introduction to this blog, the goal is to explore and examine the music phenomenon known as vaporwave (or as I and someone else of note like to call just “vapour”). I knew from the onset that I would have more to say than just review releases that have been around for a while longer before I joined the party, so to speak. Here, I want to venture into a little bit about what vapour is and perhaps also what it could be.
As I was listening to various releases based on an assortment of recommendations (my ongoing ventures can be found here), a lot of what I was hearing was very familiar to me. For starters, I was actually born in the 1980s and was very aware of this particular “a e s t h e t i c”‘s origins. But I also became interested in electronic music through much of my life and especially when I was in college. (And yes, growing up when I did I’m sure influenced me in that direction.) I am not claiming to know everything about every artist who made electronic music, but I am very aware of some key moments and there are certain artists that are, at the very least, very familiar. For instance, one artist that made a considerable impact on me was Autechre. I could hear something akin to their generative synthesis textures or their earlier efforts (especially in collaboration with Darrell Fitton) in HKE’s Omnia. 2814, to me, still sounds like a legitimate successor to The Future Sound of London, especially their renown albums, Lifeforms and Dead Cities. And while vapour likes to bask in nostalgia, Boards of Canada was best known for tapping that sentiment (though more 1970s than 1980s) well before vaporwave was even a word, let alone a music style. Whether these associations with past artists were intentional or not on the part of the artists, the important takeaway was these were current artists standing on the shoulders of their electronic giants. Yet it was no empty callback or flat homage. There is a freshness to what is being made where it seems new, even if it also seems familiar.
There is nothing about vapour in of itself that’s entirely new. I’ve mentioned before plunderphonics and the concept of using previously recorded music as a basis for new music has been around for decades now. Even then, it is just the concept of musical quotation but using technology instead. The sounds and styles are familiar if you have even a faint awareness of the electronic music scene from the 1970s onward. Exploring the themes of memory or living is also not that new. However, there is something that not only makes vapour distinct from anything that came before it but also makes vapour an important game changer in how we make and share music.
Music making and electronic music, in particular, has expanded to even more people.
Fundamentally, this is also nothing new. In fact, the long history of music – most certainly in the Western European tradition (and from what I faintly remember, this has been the case in other parts of the world where there are clear social hierarchies) – has had a spectrum with music as an elite and rarified art form (practiced by a select few) and music as a popular art form (practiced by many). Both sides have always been present, there have been swings of emphasis where one is given more prominence than the other. The shift from elite to popular more often occurs when there is a greater access to means of music making, such as certain instruments being more affordable than before. The other effect of this is as more people are making their own music, the creative possibilities also increase and there are new combinations and variations that arise from this. This can be refreshing if there is a period of stagnation due to music being made by so few, often with very specific parameters. Music is able to evolve and change as more people make and react to what is being heard.
Electronic music went through a similar evolution. In the beginning, it was practised by a few, due in part by the scarcity of technology (it was either just new or had only been around for a short time), but also in large part to how unusual and unexplored it was. After all, the idea of using machines to make ostensibly music, which really, in the end, is sound organised by humans, was unheard of, so to speak. You had your individual pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry or key institutions like the (then) Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and IRCAM. Then as more people caught wind of the sonic possibilities, they were incorporated into other works. After all, you had at one point the most popular performing group in the world making a work akin to those musique concrete composers for many to hear. At the same time, the technology improved so you could create sounds that didn’t involve taking up a lot of space. More people making sounds, more people responding, more people making even more sounds. Now, it’s the point where this kind of music making is even more readily available than ever before, even if you didn’t intend to pursue it.
While music making, in general, has expanded to more people over the last century, the means of distributing it to a larger audience quickly and efficiently has been a rarified form. If you wanted to get your music heard to a lot of people, you had to get to the means to distribute it. The distribution is selective for a number of reasons, but even if you get it through to them, there is no guarantee that it will create a return. Similarly, making music often involves some economic support, either related or not at all related to what you are trying to make. Sometimes, your publisher or later a record label can provide that support, but only if you make the art and it is financially successful.
But in 2007, a company was founded that changed everything. What Bandcamp did was made the distribution of music accessible *and* presentable. Yes, you could distribute files on your own through a shared network and hope that it would be passed on to more and more people. But with Bandcamp, you could upload your music, tweak the ready-made template to your liking, share the link and anyone can access that music right then and there. There is little to no intermediary at work here. The control is in the hands of the creator and it is available at any time. Thus you have something of immediacy here in availability and response. Plus, you have a professional presentation already there.
Many with a creative drive and imagination have taken this opportunity and thus were able to make and distribute music on their own terms. A new path could now be laid with freedom, independence and potential success, all owned and maintained by the creator. No longer one has to go the demo to recording contract route, which has historically been fiercely critiqued (and funny enough, he’s even celebrated the Internet as a solution to the problem). An artist can chart his own destiny.
This also has made anything possible. While it’s easy to imitate what Vektroid did back in 2011, the ones who are in it for the long haul have been relentlessly creative, never resting on laurels and always finding ways to push the boundaries of what vapour can be. This relentless pursuit of creative expression makes it seem as if there is no limit to what is possible. Sure everyone starts with some aspect of vapour, whether it’s the 1980s/1990s throwback, the artwork, the nods to current Japanese culture, or that elusive hypnagogic effect. But eventually, it can grow and change to become something else entirely and everyone who follows this is nicely rewarded in the pursuit.
I chose “populist electronica” to describe this tendency in contrast to what can be called “academic electronica” back in its beginning when a few artists, usually through some organization, making this music with what was available (or newly invented) or “commercial electronica” when it was in a market but its reach was related to who could bank it. The technology to make the music and the means to distribute is now open to anyone who wants to make it. And if you choose to participate in it, what you make and what you make next is all up to you. Or, to use a popular lyric amongst the vapour types: “It’s all in your hands. It’s your move.”