It's one of the first truly spring-like days in 2007, and four young musicians are taking a break from preparing for Austin music industry conference South by Southwest to enjoy coffee on Caffé Driade's wooded patio.
With his short hair, goatee and plain blue jacket, Randy Vaughn looks rather like an auto mechanic. Jason Meeks, in big sunglasses, cultivates a modish style, as though he has a Vespa idling around the corner. There's a bit of Elijah Wood's doe-eyed quality in Daniel McDonald, the group's alleged extrovert. But it's Abram Morphew, a wry and self-deprecating young man with a paperback peeking from the pocket of his corduroy jacket, who seems to be the Collective's mouthpiece. This makes sense, given that in an online musical community, the guy who knows how to write the code better have a central role.
Sure, these four are musicians, and they're certainly traveling to Austin to promote their post-rock band The Binary Marketing Show. But they're also going to spread more roots for their online community, The 8088 Collective, which allows any band to create a Web profile and post their music free of charge. Certainly that ideal idea runs contrary to SXSW's function as a portal into indie rock's massive promotional apparatus, but they're heading south to plead for their premise.
Indeed, The 8088 Collective is an experiment in online community and independent distribution, and it's very possible that no one will ever know it exists. Just out of beta testing, the Web site features works by only about a dozen different artists in as many different styles right now. Most of those bands are from Arkansas and North Carolina, the two states from which the four men on the patio come. Last week, Binary Marketing Show played its last Chapel Hill show. This week, three of the four members will move to New York City, where they hope their idea can become a spark. And they've got the mentality to do it: The artists in the 8088 collective—like the naturalistic sound art of Felt Battery, the laptop electro of Vaughn's k_niv_es project and *SONS' shimmering psychedelics—express the inclusiveness of 8088's philosophy. If there's ever been a more welcoming music clique, it's pretty well hidden.
The 8088 Collective began in Little Rock, Ark., where its creators lived before moving to North Carolina. Vaughn, Morphew and Meeks played together in a band called Faulkner, which would eventually become Chapel Hill mainstays A Problem of Alarming Dimensions. Morphew describes the Arkansas music scene as "a bunch of rural towns with small scenes of 15 to 20 kids." He remembers hosting shows in the middle of the woods that would draw kids from all the nearby towns: "There was absolutely nothing else to do in that state."
Faulkner the band decided to start a record label in 2001, naming it 8088 for a primitive Intel microprocessor that could process one megabyte of data at a time. Appropriately, they began with a traditional, simple model, making CD-Rs and dabbling in promotion: They put their artists on consignment in local shops and sent promos to webzines, hoping for reviews. But they found that forming a label was too expensive for its meager results, especially in the then-nebulous but promising age of online distribution. They shifted their focus away from disc distribution and toward alternative online promotion. Morphew, a self-described computer geek, began writing the code for 8088's Web site, and they suddenly had a new type of label.
"I've been fascinated with online communities since the days of BBS," he says of bulletin board systems, proto-forums that weren't connected to a world-wide net but serviced local areas. "Small communities would form in your town that were very underground, where you could meet some people you could actually identify with. I was also interested in open source software like Linux, things that exist because multiple people are taking their time to create them. Somewhere between the record label and open source software, the Collective idea was spawned."
In 2003, they decided to move to Chapel Hill to be, in Morphew's words, "closer to the rest of the world." McDonald, who didn't know the others in Arkansas but shared several friends with the collective, followed them here a year later, joining Binary and working on promotions, booking and graphic design for the collective.
"A friend of mine came back [to Arkansas] from Chapel Hill and he was raving about it," McDonald recalls of his decision to move to a new state and live with people he didn't know. "It happened to coincide with me breaking up with my girlfriend, dropping out of college and quitting my job. I called them and asked if I could crash on their couch for awhile, and they said yes."
It's no surprise that, arriving in Chapel Hill from such an insular artistic environment, the collective wanted to create a wide network of connections with the new, larger scene around them. Now, in the company of so many ideas, the collective's ideology became predicated on equality, free speech and independence from corporate interests.
"The idea was to build an infrastructure for musicians to find an audience that was on their level," explains Morphew. "The beta was all over the place because I didn't always have time to reinvent the wheel, so I would sometimes take an open source program and modify it."
But Morphew designed most of the collective's Web presence ground-up, and he admits it will always be a work in progress. The collective is aware of the perils of trying to maintain an open artistic community in an age when cynical interests are primed to exploit such idealism. For instance, bots—automated Internet scripts that impersonate real people on message boards to promote everything from porn sites to cheap drugs—illustrate decisions the collective will have to make as it struggles to expand while remaining a welcoming community. They adamantly do not want to turn into MySpace, with its corporate sponsorships, creation of artificial friendships and hierarchies of popularity.
"What MySpace's creators intended in the beginning is open to speculation," explains Morphew, "but by now it's safe to say that it exists for the purpose of exploitation of information, to build psychological profiles of the people using it and to figure out how to market to them. Where we differ is that there's no featured artist that isn't random. Everything is meant to be flat."
The collective also eschews the display of hierarchal information like numbers of profile views, song downloads or any other data that would turn the collective into a popularity contest. And right now, their numbers—about 200 daily visits—don't require them to confront the problem of how to remain organic in a hyperactive cyberspace biased toward the artificial. They're able to fund the endeavor themselves, by working jobs and selling CD samplers that compile selections from collective members. But with footprints in Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and soon New York, they may have to decide how to reconcile their ideology with pragmatic maintenance and development expenses.
Eventually, members will be able to sell individual songs via the site, from which the Collective will earn a small percentage to defray hosting costs. They'll continue to release samplers periodically and sell them through CD Baby and the 8088 site, as well as send them to webzines for review, both to promote the artists they have and bring more into the fold. And they'll continue to test their grassroots ideology against the imperatives of the mainstream.
"Art is a form of expression," says Morphew, "and the music industry trivializes it to some degree, because you have to present things in a certain format for people to consider them valid. We want to create a space where people can bring whatever they make, whether it's 45 minutes of white noise or a picture or whatever, before an audience that's appreciative and supportive. It's simple in a lot of ways."
It is, but the world isn't, and whether or not the 8088 Collective will be able to maintain the purity of their vision remains to be seen. But being aware of and undaunted by those complexities should, at least, give them another shot at the vaunted online utopia.