Let’s journey back to the era of Hype Machine, Dim Mak Tuesdays, American Apparel leggings, Hollertronix and remixes of questionable legality — some of the many defining components of the brief but influential musical era known as “bloghouse.” Existing during a thin half decade, 2006-2011, this largely underground scene was born of the burgeoning, and still largely unregulated internet, and helped shape the mainstream American dance scene as we now know it.
Author Lina Abascal tracks this beloved moment in dance music history in her new book, Never Be Alone Again. Out this week and available via Amazon, the book goes in depth on the artists, parties, technology, fashion, cities and sounds that defined an era that still hits hard in the hearts of anyone who was there.
Abascal was there. The Los Angeles-born writer first dipped her toes in the scene by digging for new music on MySpace, with the dance-oriented indie rock she was into leading her to music by key bloghouse artists like Chromeo, The Bloody Beetroots and Justice.
“I’ll never forget the day of my 17th birthday,” Abascal tells Billboard. “I woke up, had to take the SAT, and immediately after mobbed to a two-stage festival called DeTour in Downtown LA in 2007 with headliners Justice and Bloc Party. I got punched in the face in a mosh pit. It was amazing.”
When she moved to San Francisco for college, she dove deep into the scene there, becoming a regular at SF’s seminal bloghouse party BLOW UP, writing for the blog GrooveEffect, ultimately becoming such a fixture that Steve Aoki‘s label Dim Mak hosted her 21st birthday party at its San Francisco event, Obey the Kitty.
“I am nostalgic and precious about this moment, because this was the music of my coming of age for lack of a better term,” Abascal says of writing Never Be Alone Again, which took her three and a half years. “Sounds corny, but the memories around this sound and this era and the people involved are some of my favorites — so I wanted to honor that, and really create a piece of work that not only celebrates and dives deeper into the music, but also contextualizes how this moment came to be. Because it says a lot about where culture went, both musically as well as technologically.”
Never Be Alone Again features interviews with more than 50 sources — including Aoki, MSTRKRFT, Girl Talk, Spank Rock, Chromeo, bloghouse party photographer The Cobrasnake — along with a forward penned by scene pillar A-Trak. Here, we excerpt the book’s “Blogger, Faster, Stronger” chapter, which looks at how bloghouse reached fans through the internet during a moment when digital musical distribution was still largely unregulated.
With a blog-based distribution strategy as its unifying factor rather than a cohesive sound, bloghouse’s closest existing analogue is the already archaic sounding “SoundCloud rap”– a name that specifies how you found the music but reveals very little as to how it actually sounds.
But where SoundCloud currently functions as a well-oiled cog in the major label machine, landing Top 40 hits and launching careers overnight, music blogs in the second half of the ’00s were completely autonomous, uploading a constant stream of new tracks for not much more than the love of the game. (And maybe for the glitter of Z-list celebrity status from a regular position on the Hype Machine charts.)
The mode of discovery shifted away from finding your new favorite song on the radio, at the record store, or even hearing it at a club; now you knew everything about an artist before you even got to the party. The party where a promoter had booked an artist based on hype from blogs written by kids in dorm rooms. Tastemakers traversing the blogosphere’s wild west with no skin in the game, no payola tactics, just passion. And who better to trust?
Accessibility to computers and the internet in the mid-2000s and our blossoming relationship to both bred a cultural landscape that allowed bloghouse to thrive. According to the U.S. Census, by 2003, nearly sixty percent of Americans had not only a computer at home, but internet access, compared to forty percent in 2000.
And while more Americans had internet access than ever before, compared to now, the scope of the internet felt drastically smaller; a loose network of niche communities that had yet to be flattened by corporate interests. To jog your memory: in 2007, the first generation iPhone was released into a world where Blackberrys and T-Mobile Sidekicks dominated the palms of twenty-somethings and the iPod was on its sixth model since its release in 2001. With 80 gigabytes of space, the iPod advanced what many called “shuffle culture,” a shift towards playlist-style listening that prioritized individual songs instead of playing full albums straight through.
Despite the cool-guy pointy shoes and leather jackets as far as the eye could see in the club’s playing the music, bloghouse music discovery and distribution was as nerdy as it gets. The new online media landscape was rendering mainstream music magazines and their alternative counterparts — even ones that had managed to launch an online vertical — a dying breed; by the time an artist was featured in print, they’d been old news for months. But blogs provided an alternative to the Ne-Yos and Maroon 5s on the radio. “It was Billboard versus Hype Machine: the mainstream press covered them, the blogs covered us,” said Chromeo’s Dave 1.
“It was community driven, not a top-down, traditional approach the way most music was released prior, being pitched to radio and encouraging fans to buy in-store,” said Andrew Cotman, co-director of the Australian music blog Stoney Roads. Independent websites, often hosted on Blogspot or similar do-it-yourself tools, took it upon themselves to update (quite literally) the world on the newest music, paired with a bit of commentary and a download link via hosting services zShare or MediaFire. The bloggers pushing the genre forward were motivated by this process—a never ending digital treasure hunt for new gems.
The legality of sharing a free download link was murky. The bloggers weren’t totally sure if what they were doing was legal, but it never seemed to matter all that much anyway. Publicists representing the artists being blogged about were known to encourage the practice by sending free download links in their press releases to bloggers. The artists were mostly content to take the free press, if they even knew what was happening at all.
“Nothing was accounted for, let alone monetized,” said Dave 1. “It was total internet anarchy. Isn’t that what the early champions on the internet wanted? Decentralized, anti-market counterculture.”
Almost everyone from bloggers to artists to miscellaneous music industry vets dropped the phrase “wild west” to describe the lawless stretch where tech and culture collided before commerce could catch up. Just north of Los Angeles, the blog Gotta Dance Dirty was born out of the dorm rooms of UC Santa Barbara by a few fans and amateur DJs. Jonah Berry, one of the site’s co-founders, had no idea if what he and his friends were doing was totally in the clear. He figured that if the music was online, it was fair game and only took down a download link when explicitly asked by an artist or copyright holder: “I think most sites would ask for forgiveness, not permission,” he confessed.
Berry and his partners scoured the internet for their favorite tracks, hunting down all the remixes of the week’s biggest songs, which would often end up more popular with the bloghouse crowd than their originals ever would. (Think A-Trak’s remix of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll,” the Boys Noize remix of Feist’s “My Moon My Man,” or Classixx’s take on Phoenix’s “Lisztomania.”)
As a publicist at Chicago based firm Biz3, Clayton Blaha represented clients like Diplo, Justice, and Fool’s Gold Records. “Bloghouse was the beginning of the big shift from push dynamics to pull dynamics,” he explained. “This started with MP3s. We went from a place where the market dictated what was available and what was listened to because of scarcity, to the proliferation of all this music everywhere which meant that you listened to what you wanted.” More music meant a demand for curation. Enter the blogs.
With the emphasis on curation in the newly-saturated online market, there was a special place where Berry found the music before publicists were flooding Gotta Dance Dirty’s email with the latest download. The true democracy of the sound’s wild wild west was Hype Machine. An aggregator with no human face or editorial input, Hype Machine (sometimes known as Hypem) was founded in 2005 by Anthony Volodkin, a Brooklynite by way of Russia.
“It was a chaotic time for music on the internet. I would spend hours listening and finding new blogs to listen from. Then I started thinking of how I could make something so I could listen to this more easily,” explained Volodkin. Marrying curation with convenience, the software engineer began building a tool to aggregate all of the scene’s music blogs’ daily postings to one website. “It felt like a radio station was being assembled in front of me,” he said of the earliest version of the site.
With its green and white layout, Hype Machine simply listed songs in a numerical ranking by online popularity. Other blogs could decide what to post based on what the rest of the blogosphere was posting, and listeners could head there to streamline the process of trolling the blogs themselves. In its prime, Hype Machine remained a fair, non- gameable website where the good stuff rose to the top. There were no paid posts, no partnerships, no commentary. The technology did the work and the culture did the rest. At least for a while, it was a democracy.
In its earliest days, Hype Machine started with a list of about one hundred blogs selected by Volodkin, including his early personal favorites, Music for Robots and Flux Blog. Few other post-Napster tech entrepreneurs had joined Volodkin in creating music- focused products — likely out of fear, he theorized. Potential copyright risk was rampant in the mainstream, but under the surface, the free, low-quality MP3 downloads competing for the top spot on Hype Machine continued to fly.
The site’s minimal analytics — partially intentional on Volodkin’s part, partially due to a lack of resources — were hardly a grain of sand compared to statistics available now to artists via Spotify and other streaming services. The Knocks, a rebellious production and DJ duo out of New York, were a fan of the site’s simplistic offerings. “Hypem was exciting because we’d refresh it all the time and see direct reactions from people. The immediacy was still a bit new to us,” said Ben Ruttner, one half of the group.
It was to everyone else, too. The idea of putting music up, typically before discussing it with a label (if you even had one), was new for everyone involved. Music was beginning to move at the speed of the internet and new songs could be uploaded, reviewed, distributed, redownloaded, DJed out, remixed, (and repeat) faster than ever before. (Cue Daft Punk’s “Technologic.”)
The entire process was perpetuated by a network of amateurs and fans around the world, for free. This process shortened the distance between the underground and celebrity culture for artists like The Knocks, Steve Aoki, and DJ AM who were responsible for bridging the indie scene with the mainstream celebrity world. You could reach Lindsay Lohan without ever selling out—or really selling anything at all. Within hours of uploading, Paris Hilton could be dancing to your free remix on top of a table.
Like the bloggers who flocked to his platform, Volodkin is still unsure about the legality of it all. On Hype Machine, you were able to listen to the song on the site. On a technical level, the music would play from the original place where the blogger uploaded the song. To download the song, you would click through to the blog post and download the MP3 file from the original post, not Hype Machine itself.
“Whether or not that was illegal is a long, complicated question,” Volodkin admitted. “Pretty quickly, people that were working in music marketing started participating in this process. They would send MP3s to the bloggers, who would post the files for people to download. It operated in this unclear area, but ultimately everyone was sort of happy with the outcome,” he said.
Bloggers embodied the same reckless “I dare you to sue me” abandon of the producers behind early mashup tapes. Sure, there were the rare deferential blogs that posted only the tracks that had been given to them via label reps or artists themselves; but for the most part, whatever you could get your hands on was fair game, entirely outside the scope of The Record Industry Association of America.
“I did not hesitate to share any MP3 I could upload onto zShare,” said blogger Daniel “Asian Dan” de Lara. de Lara started the site Asian Man Dan in 2007, while attending college in Boston and taking the Chinatown bus to party in New York City as often as he could. “Hype Machine definitely turned the blog game into a ‘highly relevant’ arms race, but that made it even more fun. It was a lawless time,” he said. (There we go again with the lawlessness of the proverbial Wild West.) Despite his reverence for Ed Banger, nothing was off-limits: Dan claims to be the first to leak what became known as the “Justice Xmas Mix,” the duo’s notoriously rejected 2007 mix for the hallowed Fabriclive CD series that unraveled unexpectedly into cheesy French pop.
Everyone was winning, so no one cared; it was run for the people, by the people.