Illustration: Ben Thomson
Darren Levin, the managing editor of Junkee Media, has a pretty wry prescription for Mess+Noise’s messageboard. “It was particularly unkind to n00bs and you really had to win the forum’s respect. There were hierarchies, lurkers, and all sorts of weird and wonderful personalities. It had its own language. It was like jail, essentially.”
Mess+Noise, “A Local Music Magazine dedicated to showing Australian music in a different and evocative light,” hasn’t updated for a month, but its messageboard, nicknamed the Shame Cauldron for its boarders’ uncompromising attitudes, is still simmering. It’s the most visible example in Australia of the decline of music messageboards. Anybody could tell you why they’re dying - the people entering the music industry now came up on Tumblr and Twitter, reblogging and retweeting each other endlessly with additions to the discourse, or on Facebook with private groups sharing bangers and turning over festival lineups, or on subreddits like /r/music, listentothis, hiphopheads etc., upvoting quips about Kanye West – but why does it matter?
Levin has one answer. Before Mess+Noise, Levin had a lot of fun on its precursor site, mono.net. “I made real life connections with writers and editors, developed my voice as a writer, met life-long friends, and learnt a lot about music. For better or worse, Mono was responsible for nurturing the nascent rock scene in Melbourne in the early-2000s.”
Those real life connections were a distinguishing element of Mess+Noise’s community. In the early aughts, events like the indie night Shake Some Action was a hangout for Melbourne boarders and bands where their online friendships and rivalries could spill into the real world. These days, everyone meets on the internet first, but 12 years ago that was still novel.
If Mono had the rock scene, Mess+Noise had dolewave, although as one boarder put it last week, “Dolewave [was] actually pretty terrible in hindsight.” No matter how you feel about jangly odes to being a deadshit, that ‘dolewave’ was coined on the messageboards there gets at another virtue: without having to appeal to a broad audience, boarders are free to dig into the kind of minutiae which’d bore most folks to tears. In the case of I Love Music, a forum started by British critic Tom Ewing in 2000, those ideas are then, sometimes, brought into the mainstream by their boarders. I Love Music functioned informally as a talent pool for several major music publications around the world – some of the most formative critics from Pitchfork, the Guardian, the Village Voice, and the New York Times were active there before they’d made their names – and having that space to turn over ideas until they could take shape was undeniably valuable.
“ILM was an overtly UK/AU populated board, and so I gravitated to that as an anglophile, trying to prove myself with that crowd,” says Chris Ott, a former Pitchfork writer during its most formative years. “Had various posters there not attacked or mentioned me, I would probably have never had a presence there, but I wanted to contend with them, or learn from them, because they operated on such a higher plane, intellectually, than US boarders I was going back and forth with.”
But every one of these messageboards, the longer they go on, come closer to the inevitable comments about the board dying. Last week, ‘mark’ posted in the Mess+Noise boards wondering ‘What happened to this forum?” Several boarders pointed out that the site disabling new users – Levin says “things were getting out of hand: bots, excessive trolling, you name it” – had marked it for death long ago, plus “We said everything cool and abnoxious [sic] there was to say, there is literally nothing left.”
That hints at the real reason which, besides social media centralizing online discussion, messageboards are dying: the cultures of these forums were mostly formed by a single kind of person – straight white men in their twenties – and if recent history has shown anything, it’s that there’s no desire to keep fostering communities which cater predominantly to them. Ultimately it’s a lot easier for minority voices to start Facebook groups than going to the trouble of adapting to a forum culture which wasn’t set up to welcome them, or even buying a domain and server space to establish their own.
Ott sees messageboards as having returned to their original purpose, “a place for younger or inexperienced music fans to feel things out, to learn and speak up about their tastes.”
“When I browse them I just feel like… there’s no place or need for my voice. If I have a strong opinion about a topic I scratch out a Medium piece or in the recent past a video.”
Levin has similarly aged out. “Most of the great music discussion that happens on the internet occurs in the private back corridors of Facebook. Reddit is still a mystery to me. I’m sure great music discussion happens there, but I’m not part of that community.”
These havens for the underground still exist in sites like Terminal Boredom, which offered grassroots support to Eddy Current Suppression Ring in their come-up, and newer sites like Sound Reliance are trying to recreate what Mess+Noise once was, but their days feel numbered. Even if dedicated messageboards themselves die out, hopefully their better traditions will live on. Less like a jail, and more like the real world forums they were meant to emulate in the first place.
Jake Cleland is a Melbourne based music writer. Follow him @sawngswjakec
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