As a metadata nerd I’ve been a long time Musicbrainz user. Last night I was trying to tidy up the Severed Heads releases and realised that a lot of the original online references have gone. Sure, the basic facts about many releases are stored by fans on the likes of MusicBrainz.org or Discogs.com, but not everything. Nuances and original intent can be lost.
Take their Op “album”. Tom Ellard himself has put a little history and colour on the bandcamp page for the current version, but the guy gets bored easily and will quite happily use months or even years of his own work as kindling if his mood changes. Originally the Op project was an experiment in a new way of working. He would release a final beta version and then release revisions and updates periodically, mirroring or parodying software release platforms at the time (2001/2002). The original release and initial “updates” were distributed via hand-made CD-Rs in custom packaging. Later updates were released digitally with interactive pdf files. As Tom grew bored of some elements they would be deleted, links to the downloads and information on sevcom.com would be removed. Many of these works, particularly associated materials such as art and documentation would be lost or revised.
One case in point that I was working on was the Op3 version. This was released as a faux-leak via a fake bablefish translated blog post and portions uploadedto various free file hosting sites such as RapidShare (which shut up shop earlier this year – www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31418414). While the track data for this release was on MusicBrainz and Discogs the original releases and the associated sites have long been since deleted.
The MusicBrainz project has grown from a basic mp3 tagging system to a huge database of music metadata created and managed by volunteer editors like myself. In many ways it exists to prevent the loss of such information by storing not only basic mp3 tagging information such as artist and track names but sleeve art, production credits and release versions amongst many other pieces of vital information as well as basic annotating. Still, it is based on facts and doesn’t really document the colour that may exist behind a particular work that may be open to interpretation.
In the era of the physical release fans and historians would document the background of an artists work, either with the basic metadata or anecdotally. Every band worth it’s salt, or even a bitter sodium replacement, would get a published biography or five, or at the very least, articles in the music press dramatising the stories behind the production and release of particular works. I’ve known record collectors who cut out and store reviews and articles in the sleeves of relevant albums. With digital only releases this colour fades more easily. The stories are assumed to have been saved online and fade from the mind until years later a half remembered fragment of a memory crops up and while trying to confirm the truth, it is discovered that all the original sites and texts have expired, been deleted or just moved to a dark unlinked corner of the web. Apparently forgotten forever.
The one shining light of hope in these situations is Archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Named after the timemachine from the Mr Peabody cartoon, it has been periodically following and archiving every single link it finds online since late last century. As there are a lot of these and they can change regularly it’s not perfect and doesn’t archive everything, especially pages that have requested, for one reason or another, not to be archived, but for the internet researcher it is a valuable tool for investigating the growing past of this new world. It was there that I managed to track down an archived copy of the original “blog post” for the Op3 release – http://web.archive.org/web/20070624011234/http://www.sevcom.com/item-op3.html
While using it lately to research information on this and some other “lost” websites I’ve fond myself suffering some anxiety towards the idea that this site may one day too fade from the internet leaving us fully to the mercy of data decay and revisionism.
As it and the greater archive.org resource are donation funded and so invaluable to the future of the web, it is incredibly important that people realise this and donate whatever they can to help ensure that they continue to exist. Like Wikipedia, archive.org is used every day by millions of people for education and research yet very few of them donate to the upkeep. These same people would suffer greatly if these resources were to be shut down.
If you use either you should donate whatever you can, because without support you may need to rely on whatever information you can scrape from the ephemeral corners of Google and Yahoo. I remember those days. They weren’t great. We still got our information from books. Remember those? They’ve stopped making them now, so if non-profit online information resources die you’ll be in the crap with that paper you are expected to have written by tomorrow morning.
So go donate. Coffee or beer money. Doesn’t have to be a massive amount. Something. If you really value these sites then put a monetary amount on that.