By Paul Serilla
An open and frank discussion of music has not always been encouraged in this country. Back in the day, if you had a sound opinion, you kept it to yourself for fear the Newspaper Guild would knock you around or the Mimeograph Alliance of America would execute the “full-mulberry” on your friends and loved ones. Still, the slightly more emboldened types of the era might dare jot their thoughts in code and leave them tucked between the wooden slats of a park bench for a fellow “music cipher” to discover. We’d still probably be engaging in this practice today had the technique not been discovered and stamped out in the 19th century.
Pittsburgh, PA’s George Washington Johnson was one of the most prominent of these proto-bloggers. However, when Johnson mistook a gentleman (who happened to be a local Justice of the Peace) switching his monocle from the left eye to the right as the secret sign of the cipher, he inadvertently called attention to the practice and unfortunately sowed the seeds of his own demise. After Federal Marshals decoded his simple substitution code three days following his capture, he was hung for illegally attempting to invoke the First Amendment. A true “people’s critic” to the end, his finals words were, “I’d rather hear horseshit blown out of trombones than suffer through another rendition of John Philip Sousa’s equally crappy ‘Liberty Bell March’.”
As is often the case with critics, it is said that the composer had the last laugh. Though no primary evidence exists, rumors persist that Sousa himself led his famous band through a pants-less version of the “Liberty Bell March” over Johnson’s unmarked Allegheny grave every July until his death in 1932.
As the twentieth century began, so did the widespread use of recorded music — first as a promotional tool for sheet music and live performance, then later a product unto itself. Still, widespread discussion of music by non-professionals remained underground. To keep a step ahead of the fuzz, the opinionated got two Dixie cups and a long piece of string, walked one of the cups over to a friend’s house and then walked back to their own home to recite for them the lowdown on the most recently acquired wax cylinder, 78 or LP.
By the 1970s paper cups had given way to CB radios. Many kids spent a good chunk of the decade picking up the needle on their orange and brown Fisher Price record players to broadcast their unsolicited views: hopefully to a passing trucker, ship at sea or dude in a boss Firebird with Mag-wheels, hooker headers and chromed-out lake pipes.
Without these kinds of “analogue blogs,” nobody — not even Warhol — would have even heard of the Velvet Underground; Nico would just be an anonymous blond, foreign girl blowing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s wet dreams. Similarly, we can only speculate as to what might have been, had Colombia pursued a cutting edge CB radio program, and not the unproven Electric-Kool-Aid-Acid-Carrier-Pigeon trial for promoting Moby Grape back in 1968.
By the 1980s and 90s the threat of the once powerful Mimeograph Alliance had subsided; and while still quite litigious and shrouded in secrecy and arcane rituals, the Newspaper and Magazine Guilds had largely become non-violent. While many a punk, burnout and metal head might have silently suspected the Guilds’ involvement in the rash of slam dancing deaths that plagued middle America, per usual, nothing could be definitively linked to Guild involvement. At the same time, one of America’s most innovative companies and one of its most popular “newsmen” was cooking up an urban legend that unintentionally informed the music blogs we know and love today.
Entrepreneur Paul Orfalea made his mark with a chain of quick-stop copy shops named for his favorite prostitute during his tour in ‘Nam — Kinko. Hubert Bartholomew Cregg came from a northern California family that made a modest fortune in the cheese wax business; the world knows him better as Huey Lewis. They met in 1986, and almost immediately agreed to go into business together. Kinko’s had done well as a small business copy center, but in order to expand they needed to enter new markets. Lewis came up with a guerrilla marketing campaign he dubbed “Zines”.
The idea was simple: Lewis would drop hints about self-produced music publications he was reading in interviews with the mainstream press, the impressionable youth of America would pickup on the concept and want to try it for themselves — of course printing copies for their friends at the local Kinko’s. Backed by the sizable weight and power of the Xerox, Canon and Fuji triumvirate, Lewis and Orfalea knew the News Guilds would be rendered virtually powerless to resist.
What they failed to count on was their target audience’s overwhelming apathy and tendency to avoid clunky DOS-based word processing. To this day, it is impossible to find a “zine” that was actually produced by a kid in his parent’s basement. Most remaining specimens are actually promotional examples written by moonlighting staffers from Rolling Stone. Even those prototypes are difficult to come by, as nobody is known to have actually read a “zine” — ever. As such, “zines” remain shrouded in the myths and legends of ex-record store clerks who, “Used to know a guy who wrote one…I think.”
However, unlike the self-propagating blue-eyed soul of Lewis himself, the thought of logging one’s own opinions about music didn’t fade from the popular consciousness. Additionally, by the late 1990s, the initial novelty of the Internet had worn off for many people. The endless consumption of esoteric pornography, pirated software, shared music and the false promises of millions in riches — accompanied by enormous penises — had begun to ring hollow. There was a gap in America’s collective gut that could only be filled by producing content for themselves.
Content about actual content; actual content we know as music.
Sensing this latent desire, software developers created simplistic interfaces — beginning in the late 90s — to help fill this desire. Despite heavy competition for consumer attention from an increasingly sophisticated array of Nintendo Game Boys and iPods in a variety colors, by 2005 over 87% of Americans were writing music blogs and nearly 17% had considered reading one.
Today, we take it for granted that every passing thought on music can be expressed, embraced, rejected, then re-examined and finally filed under “quaintly retro” in the first 48-hours of finding it’s way on to the Internet. However, we must never forget difficult and often dangerous road of those opinionated trailblazers who came before us. If not for their tenacity and sacrifice, few among us would have the courage to take a ragging dump on other people’s hard work and creative expressions from the relative security of semi-anonymity.