The Beginner’s Guide to Ektoplazm

ektoplazm-flyer-2008

This post exists to introduce outsiders to Ektoplazm, the free music portal I founded back in 2006. Over the years it grew to be the world’s #1 source of free and legal psytrance, techno, and downtempo music, a niche market in which I inadvertently became tremendously influential. I will begin with a brief explanation of what psytrance is, outline the history of Ektoplazm and my involvement in the scene, and explore the question of why labels and artists choose to give their music away for free. If you’re reading this in the present day, I should note that this really only covers the history of the project from 2006 until 2012.

To begin with, psytrance is a type of electronic dance music with its own distinct history and customs. Partly because of its unique origin on the beaches of Goa in the late 1980s, psytrance developed in varying degrees of isolation from electronic music culture as a whole. This unusual situation fostered a great deal of creative experimentation; the music of psytrance culture is anything but homogeneous, encompassing a wide range of approaches from high-energy beats for the dance floor to chilled and relaxing sounds for deeper moments of contemplation and introspection. If you’ve never heard it before the best way to get a feel for the range and diversity of psytrance music is to explore the site and listen to whatever catches your ear.

My involvement in this culture began when I first encountered psytrance at a party in 1996. Not long afterwards I was browsing the web and discovered a web site offering psytrance MP3 downloads. I was hooked by what I heard and rapidly became a devoted fan, record collector, and DJ. When I founded Ektoplazm in 2000 it followed that I would focus on my musical interests at the time, namely psytrance and several related styles of electronic music. Back then it was just a personal homepage for my activities in the local scene. Before long I decided to start a record label, naively settling on vinyl as my release medium of choice. My first (and only) release with this label in 2002 was a total disaster but I learned a lot about the music industry in the process. For a while I gave up on running a record label and returned to music fandom.

In the years that followed I became embroiled in the ongoing debate about file-sharing and music piracy. The Napster revolution had come and gone, forever changing how we consume music, but the recording industry was doing everything it could to resist progress. Apple launched the iTunes Store with major label support in 2003 but this didn’t do a lot of good for fans of an underground style like psytrance. Even if you actually wanted to pay money for digital media you were out of luck: there were no legal download shops offering a wide selection of psytrance releases (and perish the thought of being able to procure lossless/CD-quality audio files). Pirate sites had it all, of course.

At this point (around 2003–2006) the labels and distributors of the psytrance scene could have joined forces to innovate and offer something better than free to combat rampant piracy and weakening sales. Instead, they took a cue from the major labels and sunk most of their effort into shaming potential customers with an anti-piracy campaign. Their dubious choice of slogans: “copy kills your music” (and no, I am not making this up). When a few emerging services began to offer legal psytrance MP3s they were always priced above the average per-unit cost of a song sold on physical media (e.g. the cost of the CD divided by the number of songs on it). This struck me as particularly insane: charging more than the cost of a CD for a lossy version of the music it contains? The selection in these shops was quite limited as well, though it wasn’t necessarily the fault of the shop itself. I suspect that a lot of label owners believed digital downloads would eat into their CD sales. They were probably right to be concerned—but their failure to adapt to changing listener habits did nothing to address piracy. Guilt trips and expensive, poorly-stocked MP3 shops appeared to be the extent of the underground establishment’s response.

I observed another issue, one that is somewhat specific to smaller musical subcultures: as sales figures dwindled labels were becoming increasingly risk-averse. Unconventional artists and newcomers were having a tough time getting their music released—and there was no way to reach listeners except through established distribution channels because no one paid much attention to anything else. The labels, then, were the gatekeepers—and they strongly preferred trendy, marketable music from well-known names. Meanwhile, many long-time fans were griping about the creative bankruptcy of newer psytrance releases. This situation struck me as being antithetical to psytrance culture itself—after all, this culture values the unconventional and elevates “thinking outside the box” to a virtue, but the industry itself was playing it safe. Unconventional artists were always welcome to start their own labels—and many did—but the distributors were not always helpful. Since the market was contracting in this time period every additional release forced existing label partners to accept a smaller slice of the pie. For a lot of artists the choice began to look like this: conformity or obscurity.

After digesting countless books and articles about free culture I relaunched Ektoplazm in 2006 with the intention of promoting free music licensed under the Creative Commons as a viable alternative to the traditional music distribution system in the psytrance scene. I meant to agitate for change, lead by example, and disrupt the status quo. I aimed to provide artists with another choice beyond conformity or obscurity: massive exposure, artistic freedom, and good karma. At first there wasn’t much of a response to the concept; no one—not even the free labels and artists—took free music seriously in those early days. “You get what you pay for” was a common refrain. To address this sentiment I became a tireless advocate for higher quality standards in free music. My vision: free releases every bit as good as what could be bought in stores. This called for high-resolution album artwork, lossless/CD-quality audio files, and proper mastering. Gradually this vision became a reality as more and more labels and artists came on board with the concept. Nowadays there are many examples of free albums that rival the quality of their commercial counterparts.

Ektoplazm fulfilled its primary mission to legitimize and popularize the distribution of free music in the psytrance scene sometime around 2010. Since then I’ve focused on adding more and more releases to the site to keep up with surging demand for new music—and for access to the platform. By now (summer 2012) Ektoplazm has served more than 6.7 million full releases and 30–35 million tracks to millions of listeners all around the planet. This is rather impressive given that Ektoplazm has catered to such an obscure niche market. To put this in perspective, Bandcamp, the most comparable distribution service for independent musicians of any genre, claims to have served up 34 million downloads to date. How can this be? I attribute the success of Ektoplazm to a number of things:

  • Ektoplazm is a curated resource. I pick and choose what I post on the site. It isn’t like YouTube where just anyone can upload music. I have a rather stringent process for demos and release submissions. I can’t promise that every release will appeal to every listener—but I can promise that the releases on the site will tend to meet a minimum quality standard.
  • Ektoplazm is committed to artistic expression. Commercial labels have to play it safe and keep an eye on the bottom line but I consider it my duty to take a chance on weird and unusual releases. This is the other side of “free”: not only are you welcome to download the music free of charge (gratis) but I also do my best to remove restrictions on artistic expression (libre). This benefits artists as well as music lovers everywhere.
  • Ektoplazm connects independent labels and artists with a massive audience. This is not just a happy accident; the site was designed to take advantage of the power of digital distribution. With no registration necessary the barriers to access have been lowered and individual releases are primed to go viral. Ektoplazm regularly facilitates 5,000–10,000 (or more) downloads per release. How does this stack up against the other options? Assuming Beatport, the largest commercial portal for electronic music downloads, has 1 million tracks in its catalog and 80 million sales, that’s about 80 sales per track, each earning less than a dollar. If an artist is keen to earn some cash for their work (and not everyone is) they might be better off giving their music away if it leads to even one paid booking. How about other free offerings? Bandcamp allocates 200 free downloads per account per month. Ektoplazm presently has no such limit.
  • Ektoplazm is fanatical about lossless quality audio and kick-ass metadata. Why should we take a step back from the quality standards set in the 1980s? Bizarrely enough, some commercial shops still refuse to offer lossless/CD-quality downloads. The shops that do often impose frivolous “WAV handling fees” (I’m looking at you, Beatport). Ektoplazm offers a choice between WAV, which is still useful for burning direct to CD, and FLAC, a newer, more compressed (yet still lossless) format that allows embedded metadata such as album artwork and track information. And that’s another thing—buy a song from one of the commercial shops and you’ll be stuck downloading some horribly-named file (e.g. “92809_The_Muddy_Morning_Hymn_Original_Mix.wav” from Beatport) lacking any kind of useful metadata. Ektoplazm does it right: simple, standardized file names with all the obvious metadata embedded alongside album artwork and BPMs (for all the DJs out there).
  • Ektoplazm feels good. Independent labels and artists share music here because they want to. Music lovers enjoy guilt-free downloads. Everyone wins!

The wonderful thing about working on this project is that I don’t have to simply talk about the music—you can hear it yourself! To start you off on the right track I’ve selected thirteen releases reflecting the creative and stylistic diversity of Ektoplazm’s offerings from 2006–2012. This part of the guide is available on the original version of this article that appeared on the Ektoplazm blog. Thanks for reading and enjoy the music!