In the early years of the new millennium, “MP3 blogs” started popping up on the net. They spanned all genres, and reflected the specific taste of the person who ran it. Each post typically consisted of one new, rare, or under-heard song, plus some riled-up words. Write-ups were rarely critical, making more traditional reviews feel stodgy in comparison. It was an exciting, democratic frontier for DIY culture journalism, in which every music junkie with internet access had a voice and a platform. It was the new wave, and it changed everything.
Here, we look back fondly on the era with four bloggers from the front lines: Cliff Skighwalker, a hip-hop tastemaker who ran his own site before joining the Illroots team in 2010; Emilie Friedlander, who covered out-there sounds on her blog Visitation Rites; Jack Shankly, who co-founded dream-pop sanctuary Transparent; and Andrew Nosnitsky, the celebrated rap writer behind Cocaine Blunts and Tumblin’ Erb.
CLIFF SKIGHWALKER: In the beginning, there was an undertone of excitement. It was fun, and lowkey the Wild Wild West. You couldn't get into too much trouble with it, in terms of posting new music, leaks, etc.
ANDREW NOSNITSKY: I blogged whenever I found something cool to blog about. That might have been at 6AM at the flea market, and that might have been at midnight, deep in YouTube, or whatever.
JACK SHANKLY: It was genuinely exciting, democratic, DIY, international, and just really positive. The writing element was very free and creative. It felt like a little moment in time.
Bloggers usually uploaded MP3s for readers to download — sometimes directly to their blog, and sometimes to a third party, like Mediafire or Zshare. The bloggers acquired the files in various ways.
NOSNITSKY: I had been exchanging MP3s on the internet, socially, since I was 15 years old — even before Napster. I always chased stuff down. There was a lot of ripping stuff off Myspace. And before that, it was mixtapes. I'd call my friend in New York and be like, "Did you get that mixtape? Because it's not on the internet." And they would rip it for me.
EMILIE FRIEDLANDER: I was interested in experimental psychedelic music. Most of the underground artists I was covering had previously not been that interested in internet attention. I had to chase people to get them to send me music. Even if they could economically benefit from exposure, they'd just be like, "What?" They wouldn't understand, and they'd send me MP3s that were unlabeled.
Later, some bloggers found MP3s on other sites. It was customary to point back to the original source — a hat tip, of sorts.
SKIGHWALKER: NahRight was definitely a go-to. [NahRight founder] Eskay birthed a lot of people that were doing this shit, and he doesn't get the credit he truly deserves out here. Shout-out to Nation. HipHopDX was a site I went to as well. When Jay Z's “Blue Magic” dropped, I believe I first heard it on HHDX. Downloading the audio was a chore; so much malware is still on people’s computer just from Zshare/YouSendIt links alone.
“Eskay birthed a lot of people that were doing this shit, and he doesn’t get the credit he truly deserves out here.” — Cliff Skighwalker
Still, being the “first” — to blog an MP3, or put on for an emerging artist — was generally considered important.
SHANKLY: We wouldn't not write about an artist because we were not first, but it definitely took a bit of the shine out of it. I think that's just quite intrinsically human, wanting to be first, that sense of having plucked something that could mean something out of thin air.
SKIGHWALKER: There was a sense of competition for sure. Being “first” with posts was a thing, but "doing it right" and getting the artist to support your site and link was more important to me.
FRIEDLANDER: When everything started becoming a rat race for these MP3s, I remember feeling kind of weird about how that was what counted as "music writing." I felt that there was something kind of cheap-feeling about a site being able to post someone's MP3 and have it count as an "article." I was like, No, with all the magazines I read growing up, it was about the creativity of the writer presenting the music. I remember purposefully trying to write elaborate blurbs around every MP3, especially with things like James Ferraro. I remember feeling a little bit of resentment towards other blogs who would post more volume and get more premieres, but spent no time on it.
NOSNITSKY: There was always a line in the sand between people who actually wrote and people who were like, “Check out the new single by Wale.” I'm not sure how a data dump benefits readers or the culture.
From a legal standpoint, early MP3 blogs were treading in uncharted waters. Consequences for posting leaks and ripped tracks were rare, but not non-existent.
NOSNITSKY: I got cease and desists. There was a point, in 2009 maybe, when Warner people circumvented me and sent a cease and desist to my web host over Gucci Mane songs. They swept the whole web for Gucci songs, which is absurd because it's Gucci. It knocked my website offline for five days, but that was the worst consequences I faced in that whole run.
SKIGHWALKER: I really didn't give a fuck back then. “DMCA Takedown? Oh word? Fuck you. I'll find the audio somewhere else and post it again.” If an artist reached out to me personally and they were cool, I would usually abide if they wanted me to take something down. But if it was a manager or someone from a label I didn't care. A lot of managers and labels didn't understand the blog game at all.
By the end of the decade, music business folks had begun to realize there was money to be made here. That changed the relationship between MP3 blogs, artists, and the industry forever.
NOSNITSKY: Almost overnight, it went from this thing I'm doing with my internet friends to this thing where a bunch of people with jobs were hounding me. It was never a business model for me, but very quickly a lot of people recognized the monetary value of this and jumped on board. It got weird. It became a business first.
FRIEDLANDER: You started to see more artists getting attention, more artists getting signed to labels, and also more labels springing up to accommodate this new scene, which suddenly had greater commercial viability. Then also, of course, publicists. It was all the pillars of music industry commerce coalescing around a new scene of artists.
Now, a lot of independent artists or weird-sounding artists are so market-inclined or market-ready, and it's all about making sure your album has accessible tracks. The fact that that happened in the underground is an outgrowth of everything going on the internet, and the realization that through using MP3s to connect with a larger audience, you could actually have a shot at success. It went from me chasing people for some example of their music, to the exact opposite, where it was all about trying to get on blogs as the primary mode of discovery for your music.
“Very quickly a lot of people recognized the monetary value of this and jumped on board. It got weird. It became a business first.” — Andrew Nosnitsky
SKIGHWALKER: Honestly, a lot of "journalism" now is people who have labels and other corporations in their pockets and fronting like they don't. So when it comes to posting something, the focus isn't, "Hey, I like this. This is dope. Let me show you and tell you why I feel this way because my opinion has worth."
SHANKLY: I feel like the individualism has been lost a little now with people moving towards a much more journalistic, sort of 24-hour news format.
In May 2017, the German creators of the MP3 declared the format officially dead.
NOSNITSKY: I'm weirdly sad about that. I know that fundamentally it doesn't matter, but MP3s are such a defining part of the last 20 years of my music consumption. I always think like an archivist. My instinct, as a collector, is that I like having a folder of all my Gucci Mane MP3s. I think that's something that's going to be lost now that MP3s are done.
But the MP3 blog boom mattered, and won’t soon be forgotten.
SHANKLY: The sense of discovery was quite exhilarating, particularly because it was all about connectivity. Finding one artist would usually mean finding more who were immediately associated. It felt like it made the world a bit smaller, somehow.
NOSNITSKY: It was a way for people to write about this music in creative and enthusiastic ways. There really were voices that hadn't been heard. My favorite blogs were always by people like Maurice Garland — people who were embedded into regional scenes and kind of covering music in ways that hadn't been covered before. There was a lot of dope shit happening, and I wish it was still happening. Maybe it is, and I'm just missing it.