Synthwave Belongs In A Museum

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I swear this isn’t just a love letter to Who Ha Modern Knight’s song of the same title, although I do personally love it on multiple levels. It’s catchy, it expertly uses sound clips from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (aka the best movie in the series), and its title is actually something that I agree with beyond just being a tongue-in-cheek sentiment. To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story:

First, and foremost, I don’t want to name any names because it’s not my intention to shame artists in any way due to the fact that they ultimately get the final say on their own art. That said, an artist recently decided to leave the synthwave scene and deleted all of their music off Bandcamp and the like in response. I don’t know the full details, nor do I really care. Not out of apathy, but rather out of respect for someone else’s privacy; I’m not one who likes to prod.

Regardless, I’ll admit that there was an odd measure of sadness and an equal sense of responsibility in the wake of such a decision on my part. For one thing, due to the fact that I’ve been following said artist since their beginning until their end, I own all of their physical releases as well as most of their digital releases.

I’ll touch more on the physical side soon, but let me get to the actual story now:

Sometime after the alluded to artist left, I saw on Twitter that one of my fellow synthwave supporters was lamenting the artist’s departure and was concerned that they were now forever missing out on some parts of their discography as a result. Knowing that I had most of the artist’s work in digital format, I sent said synthwave supporter a DM on Twitter and offered to send them anything they were missing. Ironically, after comparing our collections, it turned out that they actually had some things that I too was missing. Therefore, we traded with each other until our respective collections of the artist were in an equal measure.

It felt wrong on some level, like two pirates in the dead of night trading contraband but, at the same time, it felt so right; we were really nothing more than two people who absolutely love the music so much that we came together to help ensure that its legacy would survive. I don’t mean to romanticize it so much, as I’m really not a proponent of blatant piracy, but sometimes you have to do what you can to keep some art alive. To equate it to another avenue, it’s that sort of grey line that blurs the use of ROMs and Emulators when it comes to video game preservation. Sometimes it’s the only way when there’s no other way.

Which brings me back to the physical side of things, and something that’s bothered me for quite some time now: limited editions of art. That phrase, “limited edition,” is right up there with “sold out” (in the literal sense of an item being out of stock) as something that triggers a Pavlov’s dog type response in my brain. Now, I understand that’s very likely not the intention of most artists when they do this as I’ve had numerous discussions with many artists over the years within the synthwave scene about physical releases. For one thing, I know it’s not cheap. Especially for independent artists. Hell, most artists are lucky to actually break even in the end after selling through their stock of a physical release. For some that’ll take months or years, while others never sell their stock.

Simply put: physical editions are a huge gamble. I understand this, really, but I also lament the Catch-22 nature of their design. Now, I don’t want to fall down a rabbit hole in terms of digital vs. physical (trust me, I could write a Masters-level college thesis on this topic [and I did]) but, to me, there really is a big difference between holding something in your hands versus bytes on a hard drive. Now I don’t mean to belittle those artists who can’t afford to get physical copies of their music made because I do believe that their digital copies are just as important, but I also cannot deny that feeling of holding a cassette, vinyl, or CD in my hands as it feels like I own an actual piece of the artist in some small personal way.

Like I mentioned beforehand, an artist may delete all of their work in a digital sense but I still own their physical work too… that is if I’m able to do so. Such is how the Catch-22 comes into play; not everyone can own a copy when the stock is limited, therefore only a select few can be “chosen” to carry those proverbial torches for artists and their art. Ultimately, in the end, it usually comes down to time and money. If you’re not there to buy it when there is stock than you miss out. Even if you are able to be there on time, you might not have the funds and therefore are unable to buy the item as a result. It’s a delicate balancing act.

For example, I used to be big into buying synthwave and video game soundtracks on vinyl but it got to a point where it was just becoming way too expensive. I mean, for the cost of one vinyl I could buy two or more cassettes depending on the release. Then again, not everything that’s on vinyl is on cassette and/or vice versa which in lies the problem. It’s all just one big headache, really. Going back to my comparison with music preservation and video game preservation, in terms of physical vs. digital, it’s the same problem that I have with sites like Limited Run Games. I appreciate the work that they do in terms of helping to physically preserve certain games, but I’m not much a fan of said limited nature whereby it feels as though they’re just taking advantage of such in the end.

I mean, to me, there’s nothing more frustrating than finding out that people snatched up limited editions of something only to then turn around and sell them at a higher price tag after the stock is sold out. Such actions infuriate me not so much from a selfish standpoint of “that should be mine” but indeed a lot more akin to Indiana Jones believing that “it belongs in a museum.” This is all to say that, as a result, I buy music both digitally and physically for many reasons. I believe in supporting the artist first and foremost but, in another (perhaps more important) way, I see it as helping to preserve their music too. Look, you might not have the largest collection but you do what you can and that’s something, right?

I could honestly go on about this topic, but I’ll leave you with this little anecdote.

After all, in the end, the only thing that’ll write the history of a scene is the scene.