For the past several years, much ado has been made of the wave of rowdy, rule-breaking rappers that bubbled up from the underground on the music streaming site Soundcloud, dubbing their movement in honor of the service and praising or censuring the DIY, freeform aesthetic nature that the site helped facilitate. We’ve called them Soundcloud rappers, crediting them with bypassing the usual conventions of the recording industry and all its trappings.
The thing is, what they did wasn’t exactly new, even though the scale and ease with which they spread their viral, contrarian punk rap had been unseen. Soundcloud rappers like the Juice WRLD, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and Tekashi69 were simply building on a blueprint that had been laid out a decade before — one that was stubbornly chugging along, struggling to maintain its relevance even today. Myspace was like the precursor to Soundcloud, the launching pad for a million dreams, a million stories, and even one of rap’s biggest careers.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to stay relevant when you lose over 50 million songs in an ill-fated server migration geared toward the effort to do so. By now, you’ve probably heard: Myspace confirmed this week that the company lost millions of files dating all the way back to the social site’s launch in 2003 up until just four years ago. Leaving aside the surprising news that anyone was still uploading songs to the site long after the advent of Soundcloud, Spotify, and other dedicated streamers, it’s actually a minor tragedy that such a large archive of music has been lost, because, with it, we’ve also lost a huge chunk of hip-hop history.
It’s odd, but for all the written histories of the world, so much of what we know about what’s been written is third-hand knowledge from surviving accounts — think of it as a library losing every copy of the Harry Potter franchise, but maintaining an archive of literary magazines containing reviews of the books themselves. We’d be left with books about books, but no tangible proof of what was in the original texts — what they looked like, how much they weighed, and more importantly, what was in them, to begin with.
Myspace’s disastrous loss is the digital equivalent of the decline of the Library of Alexandria — the real tragedy is we won’t even know what was lost, aside from hazy, anecdotal firsthand recollections and maybe dead links on reference sites. Many of the sites that would have contained information about which artists, bands, labels, and songs got their starts on the groundbreaking social networking site are themselves lost to antiquity, their servers long since shut down or wiped, which means that even the guideposts we would use to remember that there were these little nuggets of information are gone.
Here’s one of those anecdotal bits that won’t appear on the top references that interested researchers would check first. Neither the Wikipedia nor the Genius entries for Drake’s seminal mixtape, So Far Gone, mention that one of its songs — in fact, the first song that exposed Drake to millions of fans, feeding the fever pitch of anticipation for the project’s release — began its official life on Drake’s Myspace page, which now looks nothing like it did then.
“Brand New,” originally a reference song for an unidentified R&B singer — fans have posited Chris Brown, Omarion, and Trey Songz as possible recipients — leaked via an unscrupulous engineer or label runner to file sharing sites and music forums, despite the fact that it was never supposed to be released in its rough draft form. Knowing he could never get that particular genie back in its bottle, Drake instead released it on his Myspace page, which until that point had only hosted a handful of tracks from his second mixtape, Comeback Season.
The song was an instant sensation. Back then, you could see play counts on Myspace’s music player — another way the site paved the way for its successors — and “Brand New” achieved popularity several orders of magnitude beyond anything any of his previous tracks had done. In short, an unmixed, unfinished reference track shared on a social media profile may very well have led to one of the most prolific musical careers of the past decade, or hell, considering the fact that Drizzy has broken records by The Beatles, one of the most prolific musical careers in the world itself, but the proof of that fact is lost. The story is gone, and all that’s left are stories about the story. For instance, there are old articles that mention the site, and even some that captured its faded glory, long after Myspace had fallen out of favor with whoever decides what the next technological advancement on the internet looks like.
Now, hip-hop basically lives on Soundcloud, the en vogue archive for music on the internet. A whole new generation is starting out launching their careers and sharing their work with growing fan bases. New artists are being discovered, by both corporate interests and curious listeners, every day. But Soundcloud is no safer than Myspace — in fact, it’s already had its own scare in recent years after shutting multiple offices and coming up short in the profit projections. More and more of our art, our work, our voices, lives online, but those lives are unstable and — as shown in the case of Myspace — all too ephemeral.
What happens if or when Soundcloud’s servers finally go kaput one day? Sure, by then we’ll have all moved on to something new — or just uploaded our brains to the cloud or something — but again, huge pieces of history will be lost, affecting our ability to keep accurate records or even just sentimentally return to a place where something meaningful happened for us personally. Soundcloud, and whatever other services succeed it, need to take steps to ensure that there are backups for their backups to avoid such a thing happening again. It seems like these archives are stable and permanent, but as we have all been reminded, they aren’t.
Drake’s is likely far from the only nothing-to-something success story lost in Myspace’s migration. In fact, there were probably even more tales of missed opportunities, of dreams artists chased that got away, of shared underground favorites and best kept secrets. There were probably lessons to be learned and wisdom to bestow, millions of stories instructive and emotional and personal and unusual and universal. Now all those stories are gone and if we aren’t careful, we could keep losing those stories over and over again, because those who don’t learn from history… Well, you get the rest.