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An Ode to an .EXE

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The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor it is the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. – Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (126). 

 

Audiogalaxy doesn’t exist anymore. The website doesn’t take you anywhere. There is no 404. It is just dead. The official Facebook page is down – only Wikipedia links and fandom pages linger. It is not coming back.

Audiogalaxy has existed in different forms and iterations. Most recently, it functioned as a music streaming service. It was a way to stream your entire mp3 collection (and multiple other file formats) and playlists from a home computer through multiple devices. A small program was installed on your computer with all the music on it, and it streamed it to your smartphone or to any other computer by simply logging into your account on the AG website. You collection stayed in one place and you could take it anywhere and everywhere. Logging into a website gave me access to the thousands of songs I loved. I didn’t need to install anything on an office computer, it didn’t upload my mp3 collection to a company’s cloud, there were no annoying or irrelevant ads, and it was completely ad free. It was, by and far, one of the greatest music-related programs I had ever encountered in my entire life. Its last day of functioning use was January 31, 2013.

Dropbox bought out the technology and the development team. It is unclear what their plans are. The Facebook page was very tight lipped about there being any sort of future for Audiogalaxy, but people speculated on possible music streaming being integrated into Dropbox. But, they work on a cloud system rather than flat-out device to device streaming. They do not exactly match in terms of technology or service. No one seems to know what they plan on doing with the AG technology or development team – not even Dropbox.  Fans were angry. While the page no longer exists, many on the Facebook page vowed to uninstall Dropbox and never use their service again.

For a bit of perspective, iTunes takes up about 200mb of space (for some reason) and comes with multiple invasive programs – some of which I don’t know the function of. Yes, it does a lot, but I’ve never had much use for it beyond playing movie trailers. It is too cumbersome and clunky for me as a music player, takes forever to load, and wants full control over your media experience.

Audiogalaxy is/was just a few megabytes and functioned beautifully – it made you forget that it was there and let you do your own thing, it simply helped.

But, there is more to this story. I had used Audiogalaxy every day for the last couple of years – but I had also used a different version of AG nearly 15 years ago.

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The original program and purpose of Audiogalaxy was very different. While it was always a lightweight, mostly web-based service, it started in the post-Napster craze of music sharing that took dial-up internet by storm. Napster allowed us to look for music and files we wanted, but it did little other than to help you find a repeatable file of a song you heard on the radio (and maybe its techno remix). AG was most useful for its ability to help you find the song, album, artist, or genre and link you to related content that you would most likely enjoy. In so, it provided a landscape of musical and artistic exploration. Before Napster exploded, young people either knew about the radio, from friends who happened to know something different, or from monthly mail-order music programs (who one time accidentally sent my older brother Cannibal Corpse instead of Red Hot Chili Peppers. We loved it). These were good ways to find something new that was relatively available, but not a good way to explore unknown aesthetics and possibilities.

As mp3’s became increasingly prominent, so did too the underlying system of labeling files. ID3 tagging helped programs categorize files based on more than file names (which were often wrong, inaccurate, or victim to trolling). You could now search for popular files in the same genre, file ripper, quality, or a variety of things. Lesser known and independent artists benefited from this, as people sharing files could help pass along something to someone else with similar tastes. Audiogalaxy benefited from this cultural process immensely, integrating it into their service. There were comment boards and community groups, allowing people to connect and communicate with each other, rather than blindly sharing. A group based on a genre could link to various artists and someone in that group could sample new music based on recommendations very quickly. I learned not just about new songs or artists, but the stories and histories of these artists and genres, how they connected to other groups, and perhaps most importantly, developed an intense need to explore and learn about the art I was consuming. AG is perhaps singly responsible for where my cultural capital is today.

I used the service rabidly, filling up my parents’ computer’s hard drive with all the weird and extreme music I could get my hands on. And hiding it at the same time, so they couldn’t hear how weird or extreme my tastes were. During a very important part of my teenage years, I found music that I really cared about rather than what corporations expected me to like (and purchase). And there was an aura of excitement to it all – not just listening to different music, but discovering it all. Unearthing the unknown. Perhaps it wasn’t the music that changed me, but the act of discovering it, and Audiogalaxy provided that in my life. It helped me develop my tastes as well as how I thought about culture and art – find my own thing, unafraid to be weird.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one, according to a Facebook fanpage.

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While users attempted to block downloads of particular songs and artists in order to extend the legal life of their service, people figured out loopholes around this process by being coy with file names and tag data. But, it was only a matter of time. The service had a relatively brief life (about 3 years) and the whole thing was shut down. The RIAA was particularly brutal and incredibly powerful, proclaiming that an industry was in mortal danger. Audiogalaxy was more than a simple program that let people send things back and forth to each other. It was more of a contemporary music service years ahead of its time – multifaceted communities, encyclopedias of information, and the limitless unknown pushing the limits of dial-up connections across the planet. The community aspect was perhaps what was most terrifying to the RIAA. It wasn’t that people were sharing files, but sharing ideas and aesthetics. Users were not only capable of downloading mainstream music for free, but learning that this music had little purpose in their lives, and to look elsewhere for new and different things.

P2P’s were no longer safe to use. Viruses plagued the unsuspecting  and people began to learn the horror stories of life-crippling lawsuits for downloading a single song. While Audiogalaxy attempted to go legit while teaming up with Rhapsody, the community abandoned ship. In 2002, BitTorrent was just getting on its feet, and people were beginning to get broadband connections as opposed to dial-up. Albums and discographies were able to be downloaded as opposed to single songs and people learned about new music from message boards and newly-developing “social networking” communities.

As a member of these communities, it was interesting to see how Audiogalaxy shaped me in comparison to others. I was able to track down obscure musicians on MySpace or talk about bands people might enjoy while on various boards. I found these artists in local record stores (if possible) and supported them through merch sales. The program, in essence, changed my life in a serious way. It wasn’t just a way to find music, but it taught me the importance of cultural exploration – something I missed out on from my small-town adolescence. I learned to not just be satisfied with what was presented to me, but to go and find things that I actually liked. As a consumer, I learned about why I liked things rather than just simply liking.

Cut to almost a decade later.

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In 2010, it took me by surprise that Audiogalaxy still existed, had the same loopy logo, and was providing an incredibly effective and free service, albeit entirely different than its original inception. Instead of downloading music from others, a user was able to stream their library of music to different devices. You could have an extensive collection of music at the touch of a finger on your memory-limited smart phone, or keep your sanity at work by having all of your music to listen to via a web interface. By logging into their website, you could listen to all of your music. Your computer became a cloud rather than paying a large company like Apple or Google to be the cloud for you. You had full control over your files and experience. There were no ads or algorithms competing for your attention.

In grad school I researched, typed, and graded papers in my office through insane A.M. hours while listening to black metal, dark ambient, alternative rock, new wave, comedy, podcasts, or any number of files without lugging around my laptop or needing to constantly update and organize an iPod through the horrors of iTunes. At jobs, I edited boring corporate blog posts and media presentations while comforted by sense of individuality and life outside of office walls.

But, this too was short lived. Audiogalaxy was bought by Dropbox in late 2012 and shut down its service entirely on January 31, 2013. No one knows how Dropbox plans to use the AG technology or development team, but fans are afraid. Again, years ahead of its time, AG fans fear that a company will charge money for simple and effective service that they’ve grown to love and use for free.

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I still have Audiogalaxy installed on my computer. Its little logo sits lifeless and gray in my running programs list. I don’t want to uninstall it. I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want it to be gone from my life again. To me, it isn’t simply a program. AG’s essence, its process, its community, its freedom, and its passion became a fundamental aspect of who I am as a consumer, a fan, and as a human being. It feels odd to suggest a personal connection to a program, but I don’t think I was ever more connected to an .exe file.

While Audiogalaxy taught me about new music, it also taught me about myself.

R.I.P. Audiogalaxy 2002/2013.

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Review – The Rock-afire Explosion

The show was really for me. I wanted it so Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again, because it was always going to be mine.” – Chris Thrash

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008) is a documentary about a very specific and possibly entirely unknown fandom. Showbiz Pizza was a regional pizza and arcade chain that was scattered across the U.S. It was sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but slightly different. What is particularly special about Showbiz Pizza, and the focus of this documentary, is an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion that played shows for kids. These were robotic animals programed to play unique songs and skits every hour or so while families ate their generic pizza and drank soda when not throwing skeeballs for tickets to earn lame prizes.

Documentaries about fandom tend to focus on the extremities that people go through for something they love. This obsession, whatever it may be (and I do not use obsession pejoratively in this article) is generally something that few people can identify with outside of the particular fandom in question. Generally, if the documentary well planned, it will demonstrate that these fans are not as crazy as we think, and that the viewers will learn something about themselves through the people in the film. This one accomplishes that, as well as providing a history about a rather limited topic – Showbiz Pizza and the animatronic band The Rock-afire Explosion.

It is hard to describe a place like this, because they have not really been prominent in American culture for about 20 years. Chuck E. Cheese still floats around in the landscapes of suburbia, but not at all to the same degree as the 1980s. It was a pizza place – because all kids love pizza. It was an arcade – because all kids love video games. There were prizes – because all kids love prizes. It basically hits all the notes of happiness for children. Showbiz Pizza’s slogan used to be “Where a kid can be a kid,” but these sorts of cultural spaces of childhood have been replaced by other elements of consumption and entertainment. Arcades proved to be too costly of an investment for most places, and few have survived over the years – those that did have specialized in some way in order to stand out. Since Showbiz was an arcade attached to a restaurant, they lost money even faster, as they had to compete against pizza chains that provided better pizza delivered to the home for less and arcades with better and usually more up to date games. The fact that they decided to combine these two hot buttons of 80s culture into one place forced them to cut corners on both aspects of the business, thriving in neither of the things they focused in. However, they were unique in one aspect – The Rock-afire Explosion.

This documentary is about many things – primarily it focuses on describing the legacy of Rock-afire, both by a comprehensive look at the creation/creator of the band and how fans have help to keep this band alive for decades. Each perspective is uniquely interesting and in depth. Inventor Aaron Fechter created this band for Showbiz, and shows the behind the scenes of the history of the business and manufacturing – this is particularly haunting as we witness the promise of success and the failure of Showbiz personified in the decay of his workshop. As advanced as he was with engineering and development, fans have matched him on their own (well, almost). Dedicated individuals have scraped up money for years in order to buy up their own animatronic bands (which cannot be cheap). They have set up shows in their houses, or as the film shows, created sheds larger than their modest homes to hold a space for the band to play. New owners of these animatronic bands have dedicated their lives to Rock-afire – saving money, sacrificing various economic or personal improvements to their lives, learning programing and mechanical engineering, and maintaining their own personal band (a particularly rare collectable that needs to be kept in perfect order). In essence, they have taken everything that a million dollar business put in to a franchise into a glorified collectable.

There is an underlying theme of economics throughout this documentary. Animatronics is an expensive pursuit, and while the 80’s seemed like a gilded age of Reagan-promised optimism, that was not the reality. Arcades exploded in their presence in American culture as video games grew increasingly popular, but arcade cabinets are costly and their audience was relatively specific at the time. Video games were not as omnipresent or accepted as mainstream consumption as they are now. Arcades peaked as kids shifted their consumption from spaces of culture to the home. Personal consoles, handheld systems, and digitization made it possible for every home to be an arcade, therefore eliminating the need for an arcade in every town. Smaller towns may have been more likely to have a Showbiz Pizza, as it offered the excitement of an arcade with the practicality of a family restaurant. The kids (now adults) in this documentary worshiped these locations (and more importantly, the iconic band that lived in an otherwise generic pizza restaurant), and these spaces of culture and the band in it never left them.

While there is a focus on corporate economics, there is also a more subtle, but apparent focus on the economics of the people in the documentary. The fans are so earnest and enthusiastic, and the documentary does a good job of showing them as human beings instead of objects of ridicule. However, there is a reality of social class that may help to explain this rather specific fandom. Some of the people in the documentary have been in a life-long lower economic status, and have lived in a single particular place their entire lives. Therefore, their only way to engage culture, or to escape the overbearing economic pressures of their lives, was to go to these places of cultural consumption. It was their only break away from their lives, and their only means of cultural exploration, regardless of how limited this exploration is. It is not shocking that they developed a strong affinity towards it, as Showbiz very much represented the possibilities of the world outside of their means – the world of culture, music, entertainment, fame, and the technology of the future. I do not think it is too off to say that the obsession with the band may be rooted in this – the joy of going to this special place in contrast with the limitations and struggles of their daily lives must have been explosive. The life-long dedication to something that made someone so uniquely happy is not at all strange. Therefore, in a sense, this documentary is about finding absolute joy in culturally limiting environments and situations, and doing whatever you can in life to keep that joy in your life. It is also about finding out you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that your love is not that weird after all.

I am absolutely blown away by this documentary. While it seems overly limited, it does not fail to be engaging. It is relatively cheaply made, but deeply personal. It demonstrates how individuals hold on to one of the few things in life that made them happy while forced to participate in a system of corrupt economics that forces them to remain in your place at the bottom. The film’s focus on how people continue to participate with and share the things they love in life, to the point of personal dedication to a sort of shitty pizza chain’s fake puppet band, is actually really inspiring. I really like the suggestion of moving away from cultural spaces to personal consumer culture in the home visa vi the absurdity of 80s economics – where we thought we could just do whatever we wanted and people would make it profitable. However, the end of these pizza chains, along with the end of arcades symbolized how production forced people to consume privately – a shift of social participation to personal consumption, a shift we are seeing reversed through current internet as fans are re-uniting with what they love and creating communities around it.

I love that the filmmakers never show these people as being weird or obsessive – they are simply fans of something a little different. The main problem with the documentary is that it lacks a bit of outside context. A lot of historical and cultural background could have helped make this film much larger piece of cultural analysis, and would not have been difficult to fit in, as it is relatively short as it stands. It hints at various things, but would benefit from larger discussion. Though, it would not be difficult to elaborate on these things for a class with a lecture or discussion after viewing. While showing this in a class would be great for a discussion of fandom, the economic and cultural context of the 1980s would be helpful for demonstrating why this fandom is not as strange as how some people will interpret it. Regardless, it is an interesting film and well worth watching.

You can find it on Netflix Instant Stream or by going to http://www.rockafiremovie.com/