404: The Internet Has A Memory Problem

“Information wants to be free,” the early techno-utopians told us. Maybe it does, but freedom alone doesn’t seem to guarantee its existence.

Over time our website has lost some of its articles and mixes and things. That shouldn’t be surprising: it’s more than 13 years old. Sites switch servers, they change content management systems and there’s usually a little bit of leakage of content every time.

If you have a smartphone, you may be aware that a few years ago, most websites changed their layout to become “mobile friendly” and look nice on both a laptop as well as an iPhone or Android phone. You might not be aware that Google began de-ranking sites a couple of years after that if their pages were not “mobile friendly.” Sites that were not mobile friendly saw their traffic dwindle and, if they were just a sideline pursuit or a neglected hobby, their owners probably didn’t feel the world lost much by just pulling the plug.

What about media? Today we can watch movies made in the 1930s and episodes of I Love Lucy are still being aired by a TV station somewhere. This won’t be true of audio and video first published on the internet. The first ten years of audio and video on the internet was mostly produced in formats that have or will soon become obsolete. RealAudio, customized flash players – browsers already choke on these formats, and most phones haven’t been able to play them for years (the iPhone never did). Very soon, most browsers won’t be able to play them at all.

The internet is forever, we think – but it’s not. The average lifespan of a web page according to the Internet Archive is about a hundred days.

More recently, MySpace confirmed that 12 years of music posted on the once-popular social media site was gone. Employees (MySpace still has employees!) confirmed that all music uploaded to the site between 2003 and 2015 had been corrupted during a server migration, and “there is no way to recover the data.”

And with news that Red Bull Music Academy is changing and possibly ending in its current form, there seems to be some reason to worry about the future of its content, which covers decades of dance music history:

We like to think that information, which wants to be free, will also propagate on its own: that once released, a document or story will be replicated in so many places that you can never take it down again. The internet is forever, we think – but it’s not. According to a New Yorker story by Jill LePore about the Internet Archive, the average life of a web page is about a hundred days.

Bleeding Out The Archives

A few years ago, if someone wanted to know about the history of house music, I could send them links to more mixes than they would have time to listen to before they died. Collections like Rave Archive and Deep House Page’s mix vault and EZESkankin were labors of love, hosted mostly at a loss and represented the contributions of hundreds of people (not to mention the hundreds of original DJs whose sets were recorded, the thousands of artists whose tracks were played, etc.), archiving thousands of hours of music. Some of those are by DJs who are no longer alive, recorded at parties where people met their husbands or wives or their best friends or took e for the first time or spent the whole time in a bathroom babysitting a girl on a bum trip watching the walls melt (been there!) For promoters, it’s a relic, part of their life work. As time goes on it’s become the sole tangible evidence and record that these things really happened.

If you only know DJs like Armando or Spencer Kincy or Frankie Knuckles from their recorded tracks, you don’t know them very well.

Why is this important? I mean, mixtapes have never really been “legal.” But aside from the interest in the actual tracks on each mix, which present an archive of the time, DJ mixes have long been a part of an electronic music artist’s profiles. It’s not true for every DJ, but I’m going say that if you only know artists like Armando Gallop or Spencer Kincy or Frankie Knuckles from their recorded tracks, you don’t know them very well. Their mixes told a story, a vital part of their story and in turn the story of us all.

Most Music Has Already Been Forgotten

After disappearing for more than a year, the Rave Archive resurfaced with its audio and digital files hosted on the Internet Archive. The other two are long gone. Some of their materials have been lost, others saved in closed systems (like Mixcloud) or remain inert on an unplugged hard drive somewhere. I don’t certainly don’t blame them – DHP’s archive, for instance, consisted of more than a thousand mixes, most in RealAudio format. The time required to convert and re-upload them all would be staggering.

Ironically I can read every column Tom Moulton ever wrote during the dawn of disco in Billboard. Everything else is far more ephemeral (though Google might, and knowing Google probably will pull the plug one day). I know this first hand: 5 Magazine ran for 130 issues in print, and if something from them has slipped offline or never been printed, it doesn’t feel like a disaster or even an emergency. It still exists. Digital? Not so much.

Carter Maness brought this up four years ago about the fate of thousands of blog posts he’d written while employed by AOL and other media companies. “We assume everything we publish online will be preserved,” he wrote. “But websites that pay for writing are businesses. They get sold, forgotten and broken. Eventually, someone flips the switch and pulls it all down. Hosting charges are eliminated, and domain names slip quietly back into the pool. What’s left behind once the cache clears? As I found with that pitch at the end of 2014, my writing resume is now oddly incomplete and unverifiable.” Maness published this story on The Awl, itself defunct and starting to show visual signs of code decay.

I still have every mix we’ve ever posted for 5 Magazine, though our readers don’t: these too have been a victim of “leakage” from moving hosts, obsolete formats and just sheer size (1000 files that are 100mb each leads to some serious storage issues). If they had been on SoundCloud – we were among the first to write about Soundcloud back when it was still in beta – they would have been lost when the great archives there (R_co, anyone?) were banned by the suddenly “DJ friendly” service a few years ago.

Most of the music made in the totality of human history has been lost because nobody thought this expression of the human spirit was worth saving.

Recently Czarina, 5 Mag’s editor-in-chief, asked me about a certain mix from the past that was now offline. I told her that we still had it but it was a low priority. It’s just an old mix, I said. It’s not really that popular.

But isn’t that exactly why an old mix that is “not really that popular” should be preserved? Go to a flea market and you can find no shortage of Spice Girls and Bee Gee albums. History can’t rid itself of shit like that. We’ll be swimming in Bee Gees and Spice Girls records until the end of days.

This isn’t true of everything. We have no idea how the vast majority of human beings on Planet Earth lived because they were deemed unworthy of edification in history at the time. People cared how poets wrote and how kings talked, not how peasants spoke. Most of the music made in the totality of human history has been lost because nobody thought this expression of the human spirit was worth saving.

Not every mix is of interest historically, but every one of them is history to someone. These are records of what was being played by a human being at a certain point in time. There are histories of scenes that are defined by their mixtapes. In the American rave scene, you could not escape Terry Mullan’s New School Fusion tapes. Mark Farina‘s career was made by Mushroom Jazz. There are DJs, like most of the Chosen Few DJs, whose careers have been mostly as that – DJs. Andre Hatchett and Alan King have a small handful of “productions” between them, but hours and hours and hours of recorded mixes. Without them, an essential piece of history will be lost. Someone in the future will feel that void, like a tongue over a gap where a tooth had been pulled, knowing something was there but being unable to find it.

The Internet Forgets Almost Everything

Granted, this is not strictly speaking a problem caused by the internet as much as one that failed to be solved by it. A bunch of cassette tapes from 10 or 20 years ago would be in fragile and it must be said even more limited condition had the Internet never come along.

The promise came from the notion that digital data would always be there. It would always be preserved. The internet never forgets, and information wants to be free. With zero cost of distribution and a byte-perfect replication across multiple generations of copies, nothing would ever be lost. Wayback Machines and Internet Archives would set up a safety net so the data that fell through the cracks could be caught.

But that didn’t happen, and it usually doesn’t.

If we’re in agreement that it’s history worth preserving, what can we do to preserve it? While we’re all grown-ups now and setting up a “foundation” seems like a very grown-up thing to do, the legal barriers make this highly unlikely. Mixtapes of the sort we’re talking about here have never been legal. Many contain bootlegs of artists that fight like cheetahs against bootlegs.

And if the mission is preservation (mixes by famous DJs are really not in much danger of being lost, but ones by ex-rave legends certainly are), it seems highly unlikely that this will ever make it as a commercial enterprise, supported by advertising, or that it will ever accommodate the shifts in technology over time that make managing a vast archive of enormous mp3 files such a headache. The mp3 format itself is barely 25 years old and technologists have been trying to find a replacement for it for at least 20. It seems a bit much to count on a single person who just “really likes music” to save it all, forever.

If these things are true (I’m willing to be persuaded they’re not. In fact I want to be persuaded they’re not), this puts us in a depressing position where history is either going to rely upon hobbyists who are relentlessly fucked with by Google, SoundCloud and other Masters of the Universe… or locked up in a university, in a “special collection” where they will be accessible to gloved pop culture scholars and almost no one else.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe somebody has a plan. Maybe I should just get our old mixes back online and stop being part of the mechanism that’s erasing the people’s history.

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