An inspiring event when one realizes the amount of sincere and intelligent people that are willing to work against the direction this country is heading in. The attendance was massive-easily over 750,000 people.
Con la muerte de Ricardo Piglia, ocurrida este viernes 6 de enero de 2017, se apaga una de las voces más singulares y una de las trayectorias más brillantes de la narrativa latinoamericana de los últimos cincuenta años.
El trabajo desarrollado por este autor podría condensarse en el criterio de Tzvetan Todorov según el cual “toda obra, toda novela cuenta, mediante la trama de los acontecimientos, la historia de su propia creación, su propia historia”. Comenzando por su primer libro de relatos, Jaulario, que obtuviera una mención en el Premio Casa de las Américas en 1967, otorgado por un jurado compuesto por Mario Benedetti, Jesús Díaz, Enrique Lihn, Carlos Monsiváis y Dalmiro Sáenz, y sobre el que expresara Haroldo Conti (con base en la edición argentina publicada el mismo año con el título de La invasión) lo siguiente: “Narrados con fervor y potencia expresiva, construidos con lúcido, infrecuente rigor, estructurados en el interior de una prosa que modula su ritmo y su eficacia en la violenta densidad de los hechos, cada uno de los cuentos de este libro es un puente, una llave para acceder a un territorio familiar y oblicuo, a un mundo brutal en el que la delación y la crueldad están en la base de las relaciones humanas”.
Ocho años después, con los textos contenidos enNombre falso(1975), se nos revela como un autor que busca nuevas alternativas estructurales para la decantación del relato. El mismo Piglia nos describe el contenido del volumen: “Nombre falso se trata de una novela corta y cinco cuentos. La novela (a mi juicio lo más importante del libro, o por lo menos lo que a mí más me interesa) se llama Homenaje a Roberto Arlt. Argumentalmente, es la historia de alguien que busca un cuento inédito de Arlt: en lo profundo es una reflexión sobre la literatura en general. En cuanto a los cinco cuentos, todos narran, con diferentes tramas, una misma historia: la de gente encerrada en una situación un poco violenta, que trata de resolver una relación personal, una relación de dominio de un individuo sobre otro”.
En este homenaje narrativo al autor de Los siete locosy Los lanzallamas la crítica se vuelve ficción, Piglia indaga en los códigos de la crítica literaria para desarrollar una trama casi policial convirtiendo al lector en el protagonista principal. Sobre este punto el autor nos refiere: “En cuanto a la crítica creo que es una forma de autobiografía. Uno escribe su vida cuando cree escribir sus lecturas. El crítico es aquel que reconstruye su vida en el interior de los textos que lee”. En Nombre falso el crítico que persigue ese relato perdido de Arlt aparece como el detective que percibe sobre la superficie del texto los rastros o las huellas que permiten descifrar su trama.
Igual procedimiento es apreciable en su primera novela, Respiración artificial (1980), en donde Emilio Renzi, alter ego del autor, realiza una investigación del pasado para realizar una biografía de su tío Maggi, quien a su vez trabajó en la composición de una biografía de Enrique Osorio, situación que enmascara realmente una reflexión sobre la historia como fundamento, tal como lo explica la profesora Nuria Girona Fibla: “Al convertir un relato familiar en historia nacional, Piglia no oculta una imagen de la historia condicionada por las reglas del juego literario. Al hacer una historia de la Historia, la transforma en relato fundacional y evidencia de los contenidos previos que se imponen a la materia narrada, en un procedimiento analógico al que opera la literatura con sus materiales”.
Novela llena de referencias tanto a la realidad como a la realidad de la lectura, es un libro lleno de citas explícitas y veladas que van conformando el paisaje de la trama. En este punto es interesante recordar una pequeña polémica armada por el investigador Mussa Amar Majad cuando publicó el ensayo E. M. Cioran y Ben Amí Fihman: correspondencias en Respiración artificial en la revista digital Letralia el 21 de noviembre de 2005, en donde se ponen en evidencia las coincidencias entre las respuestas que el filósofo rumano concede al narrador venezolano, publicadas en el Papel Literario el 25 de marzo de 1979, y la transcripción de un diálogo entre Renzi y Tardewski en la novela del argentino.
I want to step back — way back — from the release of a declassified intelligence report on Russian interference in the election in order to point out the larger political significance of this moment.
Regardless of the truth value of the report, the nation’s intelligence agencies (the report is based on assessments by the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI) are strongly suggesting that the person who is about to walk into the White House got there with the help of a foreign power. The significance of this move by the nation’s security establishment against an incoming president, as I’ve been suggesting for some time, has not been quite appreciated. That the nation’s security agencies could go public with this kind of accusation, or allow their accusation to go public, is unprecedented. The United States traditionally does this kind of thing, covertly, to other countries: that is the prerogative of an imperial power. Now it claims, overtly, that this kind of thing was done to it. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it: not simply that it happened (if it did) but that an imperial power would admit that it happened. That’s the real shocker.
But we need to read the story against a larger backdrop of the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War.
It began, I would argue, with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, even though it seemed clear to most people he committed perjury before the Senate. It continued with the gratuitous impeachment of Bill Clinton, the elevation of George W. Bush to the White House by a Supreme Court deploying the most specious reasoning, a war in Iraq built on flagrant lies, the normalization of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and now the ascension of Trump, despite not winning the popular vote — and supposedly with the help of the Russians.
If people could step outside their partisan selves for one minute, I’d ask you to consider the following fact as yet another sign of late imperial disjunction: For the last eight years, we’ve had a president who half the country thinks is Muslim, Kenyan-born. For the next four, maybe eight, years, we will have a president who half the country thinks is the Manchurian Candidate, Russian-born. I can’t think of a greater symptom of the weird fever dream that is the American empire, whereby the most powerful state on earth imagines, over a twelve to sixteen year period, that its elected leaders hail from the far reaches of its various antagonisms.
What ties these events together is either that they cast serious doubt on the democratic legitimacy of American institutions or that they drag those institutions into the delegitimating mud of the most sordid scandals.
The simple truth is that the United States could barely have weathered one of these events during the Cold War, let alone a long succession of them. That is why civil rights activists were able, finally, to bring an end to Jim Crow when they did — the international embarrassment was too great — and why the failures in Vietnam provoked such a national crisis.
What we’re now seeing is not a cataclysmic crisis — I suspect one day we’ll look back on the language of “legitimation crisis” as itself the product of the Cold War — but a more familiar phenomenon from the annals of history: the slow but steady collapse — the real norm erosion — that you tend to see in the later stages of imperial republics. A collapse that can take decades, if not longer, to unfold.
What is almost self-evident now is that our government is becoming more corrupt now, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. (Although in many other ways life is getting better, as Steven Pinker recently noted.) In response we must resist becoming like the those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist.
Of course I could be mistaken. I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all human beings have a human genome, making them much more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism and more. We are a nasty species; we are modified monkeys. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in the United States. It can happen here, and all signs point in an ominous direction. Moreover, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality with few opportunities for individuals to climb the socio-economic ladder; and it is consistently ranked by people around the world as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.
Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:
The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.
Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power when conditions worsened. But this assumes we are a democracy. A compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population and, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.
Yes, Donald Trump’s politics are incoherent. But those who surround him know just what they want, and his lack of clarity enhances their power. To understand what is coming, we need to understand who they are. I know all too well, because I have spent the past 15 years fighting them.
Over this time, I have watched as tobacco, coal, oil, chemicals and biotech companies have poured billions of dollars into an international misinformation machine composed of thinktanks, bloggers and fake citizens’ groups. Its purpose is to portray the interests of billionaires as the interests of the common people, to wage war against trade unions and beat down attempts to regulate business and tax the very rich. Now the people who helped run this machine are shaping the government.
I first encountered the machine when writing about climate change. The fury and loathing directed at climate scientists and campaigners seemed incomprehensible until I realised they were fake: the hatred had been paid for. The bloggers and institutes whipping up this anger were funded by oil and coal companies.
For years, Ebell and the CEI have attacked efforts to limit climate change, through lobbying, lawsuits and campaigns. An advertisement released by the institute had the punchline “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution. We call it life.”
Charles and David Koch – who for years have funded extreme pro-corporate politics – might not have been enthusiasts for Trump’s candidacy, but their people were all over his campaign. Until June, Trump’s campaign manager was Corey Lewandowski, who like other members of Trump’s team came from a group called Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
This purports to be a grassroots campaign, but it was founded and funded by the Koch brothers. It set up the first Tea Party Facebook page and organised the first Tea Party events. With a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, AFP has campaigned ferociously on issues that coincide with the Koch brothers’ commercial interests in oil, gas, minerals, timber and chemicals.
Understandably, there has been plenty of coverage of the racists and white supremacists empowered by Trump’s victory. But, gruesome as they are, they’re peripheral to the policies his team will develop. It’s almost comforting, though, to focus on them, for at least we know who they are and what they stand for. By contrast, to penetrate the corporate misinformation machine is to enter a world of mirrors. Spend too long trying to understand it, and the hyporeality vortex will inflict serious damage on your state of mind.
Don’t imagine that other parts of the world are immune. Corporate-funded thinktanks and fake grassroots groups are now everywhere. The fake news we should be worried about is not stories invented by Macedonian teenagers about Hillary Clinton selling arms to Islamic State, but the constant feed of confected scares about unions, tax and regulation drummed up by groups that won’t reveal their interests.
The less transparent they are, the more airtime they receive. The organisation Transparify runs an annual survey of thinktanks. This year’s survey reveals that in the UK only four thinktanks – the Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange – “still consider it acceptable to take money from hidden hands behind closed doors”. And these are the ones that are all over the media.
As usual, the left and centre (myself included) are beating ourselves up about where we went wrong. There are plenty of answers, but one of them is that we have simply been outspent. Not by a little, but by orders of magnitude. A few billion dollars spent on persuasion buys you all the politics you want. Genuine campaigners, working in their free time, simply cannot match a professional network staffed by thousands of well-paid, unscrupulous people.
You cannot confront a power until you know what it is. Our first task in this struggle is to understand what we face. Only then can we work out what to do.
In 2010, I was living in Pullman, Washington, working during the day as a Music Director at KZUU my college's radio station, and at night as a cashier at the only record store within 100 miles. Having a reliable source for free music wasn't a priority, but stranded in a small rural town, I desperately needed variety. While lamenting a fruitless Google search for Deerhunter demos from the band's late-aughts blog to a friend, he invited me to what.cd, a private peer-to-peer torrent tracker. A BitTorrent tracker is a server that facilitates communication between file-sharing peers. What.cd didn't actually host any illegal files on their servers, but they enabled people to independently swap files, utilizing a legal grey area to stay alive for nearly a decade.
Launched in 2007—on the same day that another popular tracker, Oink, shut down—what.cd was something of a mythical place on the internet, lauded for its massive library and derided for its stringent application process and strict rule enforcement. Though new releases would appear on the site, what set what.cd apart was its vast, deeply specialized archive of rare and unusual records; users were given a study guide and expected to understand the nuances of analog and digital media, transcoding audio files, and spectral analysis. This combination of uncompromising principles and community sourcing made what.cd incredibly successful: before it shuttered unexpectedly on November 18, the site was possibly the greatest and most extensive archive of recorded music in human history.
When I joined the site in college, it offered uninhibited access to a fathomless infinity of music. User-made "collages"—what.cd-speak for collections of albums tied together by a unifying theme—were rabbit holes of discovery, user-tagged with genres, featured artists, and producers. Each associated discography was sorted and cared for as pristinely as the one before, and a spiderweb graph of clickable links at the bottom of each artist's page showed you related artists. You could start at the 90s chart-topping R&B trio SWV, and easily end up discovering Mahogany Blue, a similar, yet mostly unknown trio with a single album released in 1993. There was a tab that displayed the top 10 most active torrents of the past day, five of which were often various bitrates of the latest Phish concert; for six whole years, that tab effectively served as my Billboard chart.
Last year, in a piece for The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance wrote about the illusory permanence of the internet. "The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It's not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness," she wrote. "[It] is being destroyed even as it is being built. Until you lose something big on the Internet, something truly valuable, this paradox can be difficult to understand." During its 9 years of existence, it seemed what.cd was the exception to that rule. It felt like the greatest realization of what a digital library could be, its longevity a testament to its permanence.
A manifesto on the site's slate grey landing page promised Candyland meets The Matrix: "You've stumbled upon a door where your mind is the key. Beyond here is something like a utopia." It wasn't hyperbole. Past that homepage lay access to over a million albums, most of which had multiple sources, from original vinyl rips, to remastered CDs and rare imported editions, each in different bit rate formats. This massive, meticulously curated database was the sum of knowledge and hard work of what.cd's user base, which was among the most passionate on the web.
If what.cd was a world unto itself, then data was its currency. Users had to maintain a ratio of downloaded to uploaded content, and if you fell below a certain ratio (i.e.: you were leeching too much without giving back), you got banned. This system required you to contribute to stay a member. Many users utilized "seedboxes"—private servers that constantly uploaded torrents—to maintain their ratio. Users increased their ratio by filling requests for rare albums or unique versions and adding them to the library. To me, it always felt like what.cd had perfected the crowdsourcing model: like a utopian society, every user had a stake in the wellbeing of the site, simply because the only way to keep buying in was to keep contributing.
Albums missing from the database had what the site referred to as "bounties," or collective pools of download credit awarded to the first user to upload a sought-after release. Users could add download credit to the bounty attached to a given release, subtracting from their own ratio to entice others to upload a missing album. This led to some absurd bounties: the user who filled the eight-year-old request for Wildflower, The Avalanches' first album in 16 years, earned 10.3 terabytes, or approximately 2,000,000 songs, in download credit.
The small town that had once been a barrier to music discovery was now my key. I used my time at the radio station and record store digging through basement boxes, scouring record racks, and uploading forgotten local college and high school band's records. By the time I had graduated in 2013, I had racked up a healthy ratio that sustained me until the site's shutdown. I think I took the freedom what.cd offered me for granted. When the site suddenly shuttered without explanation last Thursday, I had hundreds of gigabytes of download credit left.
Books and comics were also shared on what.cd, and when one user created a request for three unpublished J.D. Salinger works that have been barred from release until 2060, many threw their proverbial coins into the wishing well, amassing a bounty worth over 6 terabytes. The only known copies of these stories was sealed away inside private, supervised rooms at Princeton and the University of Texas. In 2013, a what.cd user filled the request with scanned pages of the books, leaking the stories to the world for the first time.
This was the beauty of what.cd: its underlying suggestion that anything could be, and should, be accessible to the public. History will remember it as the Fort Knox of illegal pirating, but free music was never really the point of it—you can find free music nearly anywhere else on the internet. What.cd was ultimately an archivist project, a collaborative effort to combine popular and forgotten cultural artifacts into one place, and make it as easy as possible to experience them the way you wanted. It encouraged first-time digitization of hundreds of out-of-print and private press records, and it remained the only place on the internet where you could reliably find them. In that respect, I would argue that what.cd had a salutary effect on music and culture as a whole; after all, studies have shown that piratingdoes not necessarily equate to lost sales, and that people who pirate musictend to buy more music.
In college, I gave a presentation on sampling in music, pirating, and copyright law. In grading my work, my professor endearingly deemed me a "copyright communist," meaning that I had argued for equal access to artistic works for all, and disagreed with the music industry's obsession with defending capital over art. I realized at that moment how much what.cd had molded, not only my musical taste, but also my nascent political awareness, opening my mind to a world where information and cultural production was freely available.
Late Friday, the site's staff posted one last message to Twitter, celebrating the spirit that made What.CD so special and offering hope that a similar site would crop up to take its place. "We've seen what happens when thousands of people work together to build a tribute to human culture free from concern over profit or acclaim." They attached a link asking fans to donate to archive.org, a nonprofit that works diligently to catalog pretty much everything in existence, including, with Wayback Machine, the internet itself.
If you type in what.cd into that machine, and navigate to any day before November 11th, 2016, you'll see that familiar grey homepage with its static manifesto. "There are none who will lend you guidance; these trials are yours to conquer alone," it reads. "Find yourself, and you will find the very thing hidden behind this page. This is a mirage." It always seemed like a nonsensical way to manufacture mystery, but when I tried to log on Thursday morning and found it gone, I finally understood the paradox LaFrance was talking about. Like a mirage, what.cd had disappeared.
By now, you’ve likely heard the news: What.CD, an illegal, invite-only warehouse of music torrents, was shut down by French authorities on November 17. The online mourning that immediately followed must have been a bewildering, even unsightly phenomenon to those who didn’t enjoy privilege of membership to this private club, approximately 150,000-strong. Why the outrage, the concern? Aren’t these just the crocodile tears of wily nerds no longer able to consume music for free?
In short, no. Much more than a clearinghouse of illegal music downloads, What.CD was the latest, greatest, most sophisticated and most comprehensive music-sharing community I’ve ever been part of, and I’ve been part of many. In fact, that had these music-sharing communities never existed (had the law had its way, in other words), I would not be the person I am today. Let’s back up for a minute.
It’s 1997. I am 13 years old. Having convinced my parents to trade the closed ecosystem of CompuServe for the wide-open Netcom, I am running wild on “The Internet,” a nascent virtual world I don’t quite understand. I stumble onto IRC, a loosely organized Mordor-like network of chat rooms, and I soon meet like minds who humor me as I gush about Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM. Eventually I am deemed cool enough, or corruptible enough, and a fellow named Jim from Washington, D.C. invites me to join his private FTP server. He suggests I grab Love’s Secret Domain by Coil and Chiastic Slide by Autechre; each takes a full night to download (28.8 kbps modems max out at about 3.6 kilobytes per second). Then I listen, and I am changed forever. In these two albums — infinite others, but especially these two — I find what I did not know I had been looking for, and I see the contours of my future laid out for me, a truth I am still discovering 20 years later.
I was hooked. I downloaded music voraciously, exploring scenes and sounds I’d otherwise never know, spending what little money I had on CDs and records in the meantime. Soon enough, I became a bit player in “the scene” – a shadowy cabal of professional pirates, according to law enforcement, or a disparate network of internet-obsessed music geeks, in my telling. I eventually gained access to Checkpoint, a database of nearly everything “the scene” had released and where to download it. At the time, I was only peripherally aware of the cultural importance of what I was looking at. It was not until What.CD (and its antecedent, OiNK) came around that I put the pieces together.
What.CD is best understood as a library, or an archive, whose mission was making available to its members the entirety of recorded music known to mankind. (I found countless vinyl-only, hyper-obscure, out-of-print releases available on What.CD.) If that sounds like a lofty (or absurd) goal, it was, but What.CD came closer to achieving that goal than anything else I’ve ever known.
Moreover, What.CD was not only phenomenal for accessing music, but for discovering it too — which, in this author’s opinion, is the primary conundrum facing music listeners today. What.CD’s torrent database was tightly controlled and carefully edited, ensuring uniformity and regularity, and users could mine it via robust search facilities. But the star of What.CD’s show was its user base, who organized its vast catalog in myriad ways. Tags allowed users to search by artist, genre, style, BPM, and beyond. Recommendations abounded on the site’s in-depth discussion forums. Best of all was its “collage” functionality, a tool that allowed users to group together torrents however they liked: by artist, by label, or by more esoteric concerns (“Female electronic musicians”, “Best EPs of 2014”). No hyperbole: What.CD was a music lover’s dream come true.
What’s the point of all this? Should music always be free and readily available willy-nilly? On the contrary: I am deeply, passionately committed to the cause of fair pay for artists, musicians, and creators of all kinds. But over the past 16 years, we (consumers, artists, everyone) have been sold a false bill of goods. Copyright infringement is not stealing. And the solution proffered to us by the powers that be — streaming — has simultaneously disempowered consumers, chipping away at the very notion of “ownership” itself, while decimating the income of underground musicians. Streaming is definitively not the way forward. Its primary value proposition – convenience – is a smokescreen, a cover for entrenched interests (major labels, publishers, tech companies awash in capital chasing growth instead of profit) to trick consumers into a Faustian bargain, the endpoint of which is a narrowing, not a widening, of musicians’ role in society.
What is? For now, Bandcamp is perhaps the closest legal analogue to What.CD, although its library, and music discovery functionality, pales in comparison. It’s no substitute, but the more artists and record labels that sign on, the better it will be.
I’d like to share an excerpt from What.CD’s final statement, which may seem needlessly grandiose without context. But it is not. What.CD was perhaps the most vivid present-day exemplar of the original hacker ethic, until it wasn’t. “All information should be free. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization. You can create art and beauty on a computer. Computers can change your life for the better.”
To Oink: thanks for paving the way. One remaining hope for What.CD’s legacy is that it, too, will serve as a model for whatever comes next. Learn from our successes and learn from our failings. We’ve always avoided politics; our position should be clear. So if our memory is to achieve anything, let it serve as a kind of proof. You were there. You shared an experience with hundreds of thousands of kindred explorers. Don’t forget that there are people who are willing to work to ensure that works of cultural value can be preserved and shared. Granted, we worked within the limitations of our time, place, and model, but the goal supersedes the details.
We’ve seen what happens when thousands of people work together to build a tribute to human culture free from concern over profit or acclaim. The results are beautiful. And now it’s time to move along with that in mind.
If the election of Donald Trump had not been enough catastrophe for a year, I returned from a trip to New York yesterday only to be confronted with the news that the What CD site which I was a loyal member of for over the last ten years had been forced to close by the French authorities on Friday. This member-run site was a place to exchange your music in a Borges-like online library with almost every possible music ever recorded at no cost since you would also make available your treasures to others. The organization of the recorded material was meticulous and members shared their expertise graciously surpassing any other for profit music web site. I can not tell you the music that has entered my ears that under other circumstances I would have never been able to locate. It was an incredibly valuable cultural resource and it seems stupid for our capitalistic oriented world to go out and destroy this exchange which had many musicians and groups as members. I'm not sure how I will continue to learn and add to my library without this perfect resource but I'm so glad I was a member from the beginning to see what the love of music could create for those who have ears and internet access.
In 2007, I became obsessed with a musician named Lizzy Mercier Descloux, a nearly forgotten French eccentric who created a singular style of punk-rock deeply influenced by African music and funk. I read incessantly about her music, but I could not find a way to actually listen to it. Amazon’s catalog was limited, so I couldn’t buy a CD. Spotify didn’t exist yet. And even illicit file-sharing sites came up dry on searches for Lizzy.
So I decided to dive into a deep corner of the internet, attempting to gain access to a mythical website that was said to have all the music you’d ever heard of, and all the music you hadn’t. It was called What.cd, and it promised a lot. Its Twitter profile used to read, “Beyond here is something like a utopia—beyond here is What.CD.”
It lived up to this utopian promise, until the site was shut down on Nov. 17 after a raid by French authorities. It now reads:
Due to some recent events, What.CD is shutting down. We are not likely to return any time soon in our current form. All site and user data has been destroyed.
This is a tragedy for music fans, and for humanity: What.CD was an unprecedented cultural repository. It offered something close to the sum-total of humanity’s recorded musical output, organized and classified to near-perfection.
It was a musical Library of Alexandria, and now has suffered the same utter destruction as its ancient predecessor.
What exactly was What.cd?
In file-sharing jargon, it was a “torrent tracker,” which meant that the site did not actually host audio files itself. And not just anybody could join the community. (More on that below.)
As a tracker, What.cd provided downloadable “.torrent” files that connected users who already had a set of files—say a rare bootleg mp3—with other users who wanted to download them. That’s the essence of peer-to-peer file sharing. The role of the site was facilitating the sharing of music, and making music discoverable.
It also developed a rigorous self-policing culture, enforcing its draconian rules on audio quality, and aggressively removing users who did not follow these rules. In the end, it lasted for nearly ten years.
The scope of music collected on What.cd was almost incomprehensibly vast: More than a million distinct “releases” of songs, albums, and bootlegs.
Bach cello suites. Obscure Chinese indie rock. Nigerian hip-hop. Thai psych-funk from the 1970s. Every release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, including vinyl rips and remasters. UK techno tracks that were pressed on vinyl in the 90s, with only a few hundred copies made, and uploaded by dedicated crate-diggers.
The collections of Spotify and Apple Music may seem infinite, but What.cd had thousands of albums that were not available anywhere else—and now, are not available anywhere at all. The site had about 800,000 artists as of early 2016.
“I did sound design for a show about Ceaușescu’s Romania, and was able to pull together all of this 70s dissident prog-rock and stuff that has never been released on CD, let alone outside of Romania,” one former What user told me.
Perhaps most importantly, all of this music was organized by a large community collectively obsessed with musical metadata. Album, track, and artist names were meticulously edited, organized, and collated.
In your iTunes (if you still use iTunes), you might have some files by Beyoncé (accent on the e) and others by Beyonce (no accent). That kind of error was swiftly eradicated on What. There were deep taxonomic debates in the forums about whether some newfangled genre deserved its own tag, or whether adding it would be confusing.
This problem of tagging is distinct to a vanishing era of digital audio files. Once upon a time, people owned physical media: records, tapes, CDs. Then Napster brought us into the age of digital. Listeners stored mp3s (some legal, some not) on their hard drives, transferred them to iPods, burned them onto CDs. What.cd was the last great institution of that era.
Now, in the age of Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music, having mp3s on your computer seems as quaint as owning 8-tracks in 2007.
Gaining access to utopia is never easy, and What was no exception: New users could only gain admission through a referral from an existing user, or via a famously difficult interview process. There are endless threads online with people fretting about interviews, discussing failed interviews, and ranting about the excessively demanding process.
In 2007, I studied for days before submitting an interview application on What’s IRC channel. I waited several hours, staring impatiently at my computer, until a What moderator got back to me. I was then subjected to a 20-minute grilling, in which the moderator lodged obscure audio encoding questions at me: What is the difference between constant bitrate and variable bitrate mp3s? Look at these two spectrograms—which of them belongs to an mp3 that was encoded poorly? How can you tell? If you encode a lossless file at 320 kilobytes per second, and then again at 256 kilobytes per second, is this the same as encoding at 256 directly? And more.
Reader, I passed the test.
Once in, users were subjected to a complicated system of incentives to make sure everyone contributed as much as they consumed.
If you downloaded several albums of music upon arrival, without uploading files to other users, you were banned. If your download-to-upload ratio fell out of whack, even after years of contributions, your download privileges would be taken away. If you uploaded an album that was not encoded to the site’s strict standards, you’d get a warning. If you absentmindedly mislabeled a Justin Bieber album as a Taylor Swift album, you might be banned.
Nobody whom I invited managed to stay very long.
These policies may sound excessive, but they facilitated what was arguably the world’s greatest crowdsourcing effort, maintained by a community of dedicated, diverse, and knowledgeable music lovers. A team of volunteer coders created a custom CMS for the site, called Gazelle, that harnessed all of this musical knowledge.
“Collages” were one of What’s best features. Users arranged lists of albums on the site into useful categories like “Intro to free jazz” or “Bands with a male and female singer.” These were indispensable sources of musical discovery.
There were also the magical “staff picks.” These select albums were offered, for a short time, at no download cost, encouraging you to listen to music you never would have otherwise. Then there were the highly active forums, where music nerds of all stripes shared obscure recommendations and reviews.
Outside the law
Of course, What.cd was illegal from the beginning. (Most of it, anyway—many users were musicians who willingly added their own music to the What.cd archive.) The entire enterprise was a rejection of the notion of music copyrights, and a middle finger to the music industry’s army of lawyers.
The strict policing of users—plus the site’s low profile, and the fact that it did not actually host audio files—allowed What to deny culpability and exist in a questionable legal grey area. But only for so long.
There’s an important caveat to this issue of legality, though: The site offered much that is unavailable via legal channels, even to those willing to pay. There were the albums that weren’t available anywhere else.
Plus, most of the albums on What were available in pristine lossless formats, meaning that no audio quality had been lost in the transfer from the original recording to your computer. This may seem like audiophile snobbery, since most people can’t tell the difference between even low-quality mp3s and lossless files. But lossless files are important for other reasons, like archiving. Right now, mp3 is the dominant audio format. If mp3 gets superseded by something better, though, there is no way to convert your old mp3s to a new format without losing further audio quality. And if you have to convert again, even more is lost. With a lossless format, there is always an unvarnished original.
There is also the matter of ownership. Spotify is ubiquitous, but it is a tech company, and tech companies fail. If Spotify goes away after you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on an account for multiple years, you are left with nothing but memories.
What’s more, most streaming services use proprietary formats that make it nearly impossible, for example, to turn a Spotify playlist into an Apple Music playlist. With open formats, like mp3, FLAC, and m3u for playlists, users control everything.
Yet there is no major digital music marketplace that will even sell you open, lossless files. Itunes files are “lossy,” meaning they have already lost quality from the original recording. Same for Amazon and Google Play. Some sites, like HDTracks, offer downloads of lossless files, but the selection is limited. (There is no Lizzy, for example, a deal-breaker for me.) This means that the only way to get most albums into a lossless format that you can control is to literally buy a physical CD and rip it yourself. Or, until today, you could use What.cd.
The end of What is the end of the most complete musical database ever created by humanity. It opened my ears to sounds I could not have imagined nine years ago, at the time of my quest for Lizzy Mercier Descloux. On What, I encountered so many life-changing musical favorites, old and new: the Japanese avant-reggae band Fishmans, the Panocha Quartet’s renditions of Dvořák, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, the Blade Runner soundtrack, Swiss funk-house producer Kalabrese, and lots of weird jazz, to name very few.
For me, the end of What is a final reiteration of the ultimate lesson of 2016: Take nothing for granted. No set of values, no repository of human knowledge, no political system, no passionate community, is guaranteed safety from outside forces and from the passage of time. Nothing is too great to fail.
What now says that “all site and user data has been destroyed.” So a decade of meticulous collection and curation work has vanished into the ether. It is not unlike the whole of Wikipedia disappearing overnight.
But there is still some hope. All of the rare and unreleased music that What organized still exists somewhere, on people’s computers. And What users were usually paranoid about losing their collections—I recall reading that one user stored his on an external hard drive kept in a fire- and water-proof safe in his basement.
The treasure is still out there—we have merely lost the map.