The Sound of Network Topologies


By focusing too much on the technological and legal framework necessary to the access and sharing of digital information, aren’t we at risk of impairing our creative process? For example, the first thing that often comes to mind when talking about music and networks is illegal file sharing on the Internet, more particularly the many echoes of the peer-to-peer (P2P) “revolution”.

While this has brought a lot of attention to the fragility, hierarchical and irrelevance of the current distribution system of the music industry, it has somehow over shadowed other phenomena and practices that are equally, if not more, interesting in the field of networked media.

To start with, spawned from the late 1970s BBS groups, there is a large cluster of credit-based self-organized “underground” media distribution networks, loosely gathered together under the “scene” name. This “scene” focuses currently on exchanging digital copies of commercial software, movies, ebooks, and music, and tends to expand in scope as new media become susceptible to digital distribution methods. Just like tape swapping has influenced many musicians [1], the sub rosa music distribution “scene” is playing a key role in terms of making recordings, that would otherwise remain obscure and difficult to obtain, accessible to its members. Specific electronic music genres such as the so-called IDM/Braindance, Glitch, Folktronica and others would probably not have been as successful without a massive fanbase built as a function of the music “scene”, the releases of which are feeding all the P2P networks from Soulseek to Kazaa, leaking outside the closed invite-only “old-hat” File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers. At the same time the software “scene”, specifically the “audiowarez” sub-section of it, fills the same networks with the tools that allow that musicians to explore and experiment with cracked environments for sound creation for free [2].

In the early 2000s it was generally acceptable to discuss bootlegs, FTP sites, P2P and cracked software in public newsgroups, mailing lists, chats and web boards, even when they were hosted by record labels themselves [3]. This felt natural because this emerging field of music was relying heavily on the feedback between experimenting with, sharing and talking about new software and music. At this point the line between users and producers, amateurs and professionals started to be more and more irrelevant, especially when sharing platforms demonstrated that they could also be used to create collective works.

Building up on the idea of sharing files and audio material, in 2002 some users from the P2P network Soulseek decided to create a not-for-profit netlabel, Soulseek Records, that was led and managed by Soulseek users. Although this effort aimed at demonstrating the viability of freely distributing digital records over the Internet, its biggest success lied, in fact, in its second release ‘One Minute Massacre Volume 1’ [4], a type of sonic exquisite corpse entirely produced and organized by users of the Soulseek software community. As a consequence while trying to concretely address the ongoing fight with groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) regarding the translation of traditional music production and distribution into the digital domain, P2P users of Soulseek revealed the very specific nature and existence of networked creations with a work that would have been impossible to make using traditional music production recipes.

Fast forwarding to today, 2011, many of the P2P communities have ceased to exist or are reduced to smaller niches of passionate and specialized users. On the other hand, while trends and hipsters come and go every day with new web platforms that are supposed to change and revolutionize the way we share and exchange information, the old-fashioned underground music “scene” is still active with the same protocols and technology. As of today, elements within this “scene” host the most complete archive of everything that has ever existed as a binary file, but this dream of any fan, archivist, collector or librarian, is at risk of becoming overshadowed. Ironically the danger is not coming from the RIAA, the music industry or new legal regulations [5]. The real threat is indirectly coming from anti Digital Rights Management (DRM) groups. Indeed, what is specific about the different “scenes” is their binding agreement on a set of rules that are setting the conditions on which the files are distributed and encoded [6]. Members of the “scene”, especially in groups dedicated to specific music and movie genres are very precise when it comes to the naming, extracting and encoding methods used for the source, and although these rules are evolving much slower than the technology they rely on, they ensure a constant quality
of the archives.

With numerous web shops, both licit and illicit, now selling non-watermarked, DRM-free audio material, anyone buying some mp3 release online can become an “amateur” pirate by uploading a copy of the purchase in some third party file repository and link it from a blog, suddenly bringing the beloved “amateur versus professional” debate to music piracy. On top of that, the past dream of a free, decentralized, all-P2P network culture of file sharing has in fact, from a user point of view, been practically implemented today through the existence of centralized black box “free” Software as a Service (SaaS) [7] providing the infrastructure for announcing and distributing digital copies in the main form of blogs, direct downloads and indexing services [8].

As a consequence many of the available music online today is of uncertain quality, badly tagged, incomplete, lossy transcoded [9] and comes from web shops that care little about the audio quality or encoding technology used, as long as they can cheaply substitute CD purchases with impulsive iTunesque acquisitions. The most attractive alternative for fans and music lovers is P2P, torrent trackers to be precise, but this form of P2P is only effective when wrapped into a highly centralized and hierarchical invite-only form, reminiscent of the “scene” [10]. This is not the democratic, open-for-all system people expected P2P to be.

Still, after all the changes in infrastructure of music and software sharing platforms, both private torrent trackers and “free” web applications, don’t make much difference between user and producer [11]. Just like within the Soulseek network, technology and its constraints work as a fantastic creative catalyst [12]. From sharing personal mixes to contributing mashups and carrying memes, a whole new form of sonic processing and sampling is now happening at the level of the “Internet Operating System” that goes well beyond the usual discussions about healthy or unhealthy network topologies, centralized or decentralized practices.

And simply just like with musical folklore, the sharing and reuse of musical material is done in passionated communities with little regards to whether or not credits are due, if copyright is respected, or if something should be licensed under Creative Commons. Of course, the relationship between inspiration, covers, sampling and stealing is sometimes dubious when such works have been created to be part of the traditional circuits of the music industry. In which case we can see an interesting reverse mechanism occurring, the refusal to see born-digital content spread into the “real world” [13], in the same way that the RIAA has been tracking down networks holding and sharing digital copies of physical CDs.

At a time where we are encouraged to open and share more and more of our work and information, in a highly regulated manner, and where collaboration and sharing are fashionable for reasons that are rarely clear, relevant or even understood by its participants, we should not forget our ability to turn networks into playgrounds, regardless of their nature and purposes, nor should we lock ourselves in a dull bureaucratic world where the desire to explore forbidden connections are buried under complex administrative constructs [14].

Our artistic strength still remains in misusing, disrespecting, hacking and cracking protocols, for we are, hopefully, not yet bots following a technological template or legal policy. We are the composers of all the possible network topologies.

* Footnotes
[1] See The Wire #230, Autechre: The Futurologists.

[2] A mainstream manifestation of this process can be illustrated with the flood of autotune fueled music productions in the recent years.

[3] The web forum provided by the Planet Mu Records label was for years a stage for heated discussions and exchange on that matter, including open discussions on the illegal distribution of its own commercial


[5] ACTA, HADOPI, LOPPSI, DEA and all their bureaucratic ill-formed inbred siblings.

[6] This torrent bundles some of these rules.

[7] Not to confuse with free software! The free here is “as in beer”. SaaS are commercial services which are freely available while being monetized using different models, from freemium strategies to targeted

[8] Furthermore, in the last couple of years the web applications combo Myspace / Blogspot / Rapidshare / Google search engine, has exploded into many other disposable blog hosting services, short-term file
repositories and file indexing engines, not to mention the raise of “social software” from the general usage of Facebook and Twitter to more music oriented platforms such as thesixtyone, soundcloud or

[9] Audio files are converted from one lossy format to another with audible quality loss, instead of starting from a digital lossless master for each target format.

[10] Such centralized non-scene, but scene-like, trackers include the – now defunct – OiNK, and to name the most popular. These work because unlike public trackers, where anyone can upload and seed anything, private trackers require uploaders and the uploaded material to meet certain standards. This ensures the quality of the shared material.

[11] Trent Reznor has been often quoted to understand the motivation of music lovers sharing illegal music releases including his, himself having been a user of trackers such as OiNK, for the same necessity to have access to a vast quantity of high quality records ( At the opposite side of the spectrum, musical genres such as mashcore and breakcore grew out of the abundance of low quality and uncleared samples taken from web shops purchases, downloaded from random blogs, or ripped of video services such as YouTube.

[12] A good musical use of the Twitter’s 140 characters limit has been accidentally explored by Dan Stowell who started to tweet fully functional chunks of Supercollider code, a real-time audio programming language, and ended up curating a compilation for The Wire out of all the best other one-liners he then started to receive back from other supercollider musicians using twitter.

[13] It has been common in the chiptune community to try to track down such abuses and sometimes encourage suing. It is possible to find several “hall of shame” online that include reports from Crystal Castle heavy sampling to Fitts for Fight releasing stolen tracks as their own.

[14] To give a specific example: when it comes to music remixes and mashups, while there is a need for a better legal infrastructure to facilitate the exchange and reuse of digital material, the impulse of the creative process is interrupted by the obligated research into the permissions, rights and duties linked to this reuse. On top of that, reusing popular copyrighted material is much more attractive since these materials often are part of a global culture. A white label record is more likely to contain a drumloop sample from Thriller, than some beats produced by your neighbors kid and released under CC BY-NC-SA.

Originally published in Neural Magazine #38