On Friday, January 2, an online label called Vaporcake debuted with a digital split by its two founders, experimental artists Vapor Lanes (aka Aroon Karuna, a former Chicagoan) and the Kendal Mintcake (aka Thom Soriano). The release went up shortly after noon on Bandcamp, and within ten minutes it was “out of print.” Karuna and Soriano had limited the number of downloads to ten, after which they removed the music from Bandcamp and deleted it from their hard drives.
That same day a Chicago experimental collective called Blood Rhythms, led by sound artist Arvo Zylo (formerly Mister Fuckhead), celebrated the release of its debut LP, Assembly, a dense collage of brass and woodwind samples recorded in a meat locker. Long-running Massachusetts experimental imprint RRRecords coreleased Assembly with Zylo’s label, No Part of It, in an edition of roughly 200; every sleeve is handmade and unique, with artwork by Zylo and RRRecords founder Ron Lessard. What makes No Part of It unusual is that it won’t sell music online. Zylo maintains a sporadically updated blog to tell people about releases and post artwork and sound clips, but he prefers to communicate by mailing photocopied newsletters. Though you can sometimes find No Part of It releases on the Web through RRRecords or Midheaven Mailorder, Zylo doesn’t sell his music digitally anywhere, and the most reliable way to buy an LP or cassette from him is to mail him a check in Uptown.
Given how difficult it is for a new label to find an audience, why would Vaporcake and No Part of It make it so hard for people to hear their releases? Artificial scarcity and deliberate inaccessibility seem self-defeating for artists who aren’t already famous. Wu-Tang Clan can generate a hurricane of hype (and make a big pile of money) with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an unreleased double album in an edition of one—last year the RZA told Forbes he’d received an offer of $5 million, and Internet auction house Paddle8 might pick a winning bid as early as the end of the month, when the RZA plans to hold a press conference. But it barely needs pointing out that most artists attempting a similar stunt would see that single-copy album fall swiftly and permanently into the memory hole.
Ludicrously limited or otherwise hard-to-get releases allow well-known artists to attract media attention seemingly on demand. The Flaming Lips are the kings of this technique: in 2011 they released a 24-hour song in an edition of 13 human skulls, and in 2012 they made ten clear-vinyl copies of Heady Fwends filled with a blood cocktail contributed by some of the album’s collaborators (as of this writing, one copy is available on Discogs for $11,111.11). Jack White famously hid records in furniture in 2004 (one was found last month), and on April Fools’ Day 2012 he tied flexi discs to helium balloons and let them go. OK Go hope to reissue their most recent album, this fall’s Hungry Ghosts, on DNA, so that a few nanograms dissolved in a vial of water might contain 100,000 copies. But the costs involved in decoding and listening to a DNA album would be absurd.
Vaporcake and No Part of It use purposeful inaccessibility not as an attempt to provoke viral online coverage (those channels generally aren’t open to underground artists anyway) but rather to maintain a sense of intimate, engaged community in the face of the vast reach and overwhelming, anonymizing profusion of the Internet. Vaporcake isn’t hoping to command collectors’ prices for its music by limiting supply; its debut split single was free, and so far it has no plans to charge for future releases. The label hasn’t even circulated any press materials. Karuna sees what he calls “digital ephemera” as a way for Vaporcake to approximate the communal experience of a cozy concert on the Web. “A huge part of why we go to live shows is to get this sort of temporal, brief, fleeting moment where you’ve experienced something you’re not going to experience again,” he says. “It definitely still exists in those small DIY scenes and basement shows around Chicago and elsewhere.”
In a Medium post he published just before Vaporcake’s debut, Karuna said he was inspired by the painstakingly hand-decorated CD-Rs he saw artists selling in editions of ten or 20 at underground noise shows. (The similarities to Zylo’s project are obvious.) The limited release, he wrote, “holds the qualities of an ephemeral but important gift, perhaps a wonderful, labored-over dish — eaten and then removed from the world, but nonetheless one with an impact on people you care about.”
The universe of online music seems to push accessibility, not transience—most releases can be bought or streamed whenever you happen to go looking for them, and even out-of-print material is often accessible to enterprising souls who don’t mind breaking intellectual-property law. But there are deliberate exceptions to that rule: Tinychat-based concert series SPF420, cofounded by Chicago producer Chaz Allen, has built a small, vital international community that gathers online to watch and comment in real time on performances by underground electronic acts. Even if someone records and uploads a set, adding it to the shapeless cloud of media floating around the Web, the music’s niche appeal makes it immune to the Internet’s ability to render any piece of digitized information basically omnipresent.
By limiting a release to ten downloads—and encouraging people to delete the file after listening—Vaporcake hopes to create an experience for its fans that’s distinct from streaming a song on Spotify or Mixcloud in that it can’t be repeated. “I think the bottom line was I got my music out to ten people who felt like they received something a little out of the ordinary that they can’t just download along with a million other people on iTunes or stream on Soundcloud,” Karuna says. “They got something small and limited that they can listen to and hopefully appreciate in a different way.”
Artificial scarcity can look like elitism or an attempt to enforce a “clubhouse” approach to music, but Karuna insists that in Vaporcake’s case the limitations exist strictly to provoke a certain specific emotion. “We’re not interested in the idea of cultural cred being hard to obtain,” he says. “We’re just really interested in providing this transient experience.” The knowledge that you shared a moment with a handful of like-minded people, Karuna hopes, can give you the same kind of positive feelings he got when he went to his first DIY noise show as a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
It remains to be seen whether Vaporcake’s releases can foster a sense of community among its listeners. Most of the people who downloaded its debut tracks were probably part of Karuna’s or Soriano’s online networks already, and the label has no plans to establish any infrastructure to encourage interaction—Karuna hopes it’ll happen naturally. After all, he and Soriano started the label after gravitating toward each other on Twitter and MetaFilter, and Karuna doesn’t even know for sure where his label partner lives.
Of course, the kind of small, tight-knit scene that Vaporcake and SPF420 are trying to approximate online continues to exist in the real world. Zylo says the Blood Rhythms release party was the first time he’d been at a noise show where there was a line to buy merch—he especially remembers a conversation he had with a tarot reader who’d taken a liking to a copy of Assembly he’d made with playing cards on the cover. “I feel like that connection is much stronger than it would’ve been if I just had to get something from Paypal,” he says. “It has power to it.”
Finding the Internet analog of that experience will take some tinkering. The Vaporcake duo didn’t expect their first release to hit its download cap so quickly, and Karuna admits that he felt “separation anxiety” after deleting his music—he was proud of it, and now he can’t listen to it again unless someone who downloaded it posts it somewhere. (“That was probably a little drastic,” he says.) He and Soriano hope to figure out how to limit future Vaporcake releases while continuing to engage their small audience. “Thom [Soriano] wanted to convey that there’s a lofty theory and different things like that, but his main concern is fun,” Karuna says. “He wants to have this fun idea and he wants people to be excited by it.”