Throughout my teenager years I used to use RateYourMusic. A lot.
I started back in the early YouTube days when Anthony Fantano already had a corner of the market but, really, the “internet’s busiest music nerd” wasn’t busy doing shit compared to some of RYM’s obsessive cataloguers of their own listening habits.
I reckon Fantano could have killed the idea of what music writing and journalism could be for the YouTube generation.
Elsewhere, at that time, things felt discursive. They had to be. In the UK, NME was slowly shrivelling. The nostalgia mags were on the rise and The Wire remained a bastion that struggled — and might still — to adapt itself to hooking the musically hungry in a new world. The Quietus emerged around that time as an antidote to a new era, trying to surf a lost current, and did so successfully but the virus didn’t seem to spread as virulently beyond them as some might have hoped.
Things have changed more recently with longer pieces of writing appearing more and more as a desire grows for long-reads but back then, if you wanted old-style “progressive” music journalism, with one ear to the outside world and another in the underground, you had to go to blogs and forums.
Without the sacred local community of record shop spectres, haunting the bins and talking up the latest releases, online was where everything happened. For me, traversing these spaces was like a daily mental exercise, trawling through their pages and threads, logging my own developing taste as I went, honing an encyclopaedic knowledge of genres and eras.
RYM provided the perfect space for this for me. It was like a musical microblogging platform and I found keeping abreast of my own listening habits helped to process stuff and make connections between scenes and eras and artists. It was a place where you could publicly go on your own journey and eavesdrop on others whilst you were at it. Lists of interesting users were as common as end-of-year lists or retrospective overviews of periods and movements. It was about connections — between times and communities. It wasn’t all Last.FM data sets. It was listening and discussion. A building of new histories and a trashing of old ones.
I was sixteen when I first signed up for an account on the site and, at first, it was an alien space in a lot of ways. For the most part, it felt like a safe haven for middle-aged men having a midlife crisis, cataloguing all 15,000 of their CDs to procrastinate during their divorce proceedings, but there was so much to trawl through that it became addictive all the same. For a bedroom-dwelling teenager it was better than almost anywhere if you wanted a proper musical education. You could just dip in there and read some rushed reviews and then torrent whatever someone had decided to label “mellifluous” or something and disappear down a rabbit hole of pretentious hyperbole that would nonetheless lead to some mind-bending sounds.
As easily derided as music genres and “tags” are today, as hangovers from music’s reductive commercialisation, the best ones acted as cyphers; made-up names for strains of organic hallucinogens made ready for an anti-market of ubiquitous theft. It was a trip.
I haven’t used the site for a few years now. I don’t get off on making lists anymore and I don’t have the empty conscience to just pirate everything under the sun or the time to listen to it all if I did. But when everything was so accessible in the mid-2000s it felt hard to ignore. Back then it felt like you couldn’t find any major label releases but everything weird was up for grabs and musical history was your playground. This is to say that if you wanted stuff for free, the weird was the way to go. It was everywhere. Now streaming services mean big labels don’t care so much about open access to their assets but the smaller ones have tightened up their online distribution networks. Bandcamp feels like a brilliant compromise in the shadow of this old world.
It’s all for the best, I guess… But I do sort of miss it… As a teenager music lover, sites like RYM, along with forums and torrent sites, felt like the Wild West — a frontier of new music discovery. You’d have snake oil salesmen coming out the woodwork left and right offering to blow your mind free of charge with a seed to a Magma discography or a full set of Animal Collective bootlegs or even a tape rip of some Gerogerigegege art object that was never meant to be “listened” to never mind digitised.
If you had an insatiable appetite for new sounds like I did, you’d just snuff it all up your snozz on a school night regardless and then keep coming back for more. It was, in many ways, a problem. I blame mid-2000s online music culture for my shit GCSE results. School was a interruption to nights spent uploading discographies directly to my cerebellum, pretending like I was in The Matrix, injecting aural decades into my eardrums.
That’s the main reason I barely left my room from fourteen to twenty. I had no reason to. Everything I could ever want was ripe for picking from the internet.
I like trees and the seaside a lot more now. Outside is nice. But I still get nostalgic for that time period. Reminiscing over this weekend, probably because autumn is most definitely here and I’m getting serene and melancholic and wistful, I realised that I have some pretty good stories from back then. Weird online encounters, some of which happened barely 5 years ago, but which feel like they wouldn’t happen today. I’m going to share some over the coming weeks.
As fucking weird as our online spaces are right now, I think they used to be weirder. This appraisal is undoubtedly fuelled by nostalgia, on the one hand, but it also feels like there’s something to be reckoned with in considering it anew.
This old world of wild listening has been lost completely over the last ten years. The death of Megaupload was the death knell. It never recovered from the copyright clampdowns.
This shift from 2000s excess to 2010s shifting sands is what defines this past decade for me I think, but there is so much to unpack here we if want to figure out why.
I was reading Simon Reynolds’ post-punk history Rip It Up & Start Again last night and found his intro to the book really inspiring in this regard. Towards the end of the book’s introduction he offers a couple of “subjective and objective” reasons for writing on that historically neglected era — one which also meant so much to him personally. He writes:
As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music thing was such a shrewd move. Not exactly a crisis of confidence, but a creasing of certainty. In my case, this prompted me to wonder when, exactly, it was that I made the decision to embark upon a life of taking music seriously. What made me believe music could matter this much? Of course, it was growing up in the post-punk era. […] So this book is in part a reckoning with my younger self. And the answer I came up with…
Reynolds — who I’ll return to in the next post — seems to have felt this “creasing of certainty” again himself this year. The trouble seems to be that this uncertainty is as cultural as it is political but we cannot respond to it as we once did. It’s not hopeless but I think we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions if we’re going to come to terms with the current state of things.
As the year — and the decade — draws to a close, I’m going to fire off a few posts over the weeks ahead about disparate music-related topics that try to reckon with all of the above and more; reckon with what’s been lost and what’s been gained, and what warrants further attention in the decade ahead. Hopefully the first one will be out tomorrow. Until then…
To be continued…