Demo Scene and Music Scene:
Another Split?

Simon Jay/Visuale

First, a little disclaimer: this article may be partially about music, but its implications are relevant to the whole demo scene, so don't worry; this won't turn into a discussion of complex chord progressions, perfect for curing coders' insomnia...

Recently, I took it upon myself to finally download the demo compo and music compo entries from Assembly 1999. After watching and listening to them, I was rather surprised at the general lack of quality. I noticed that the music entries had largely gone downhill compared to Assemblies past, and that hardly any of the demos submitted had truly memorable musical accompaniment. After reading through most of the articles on these subjects, I came up with some thoughts of my own.

Cast your minds back a few years. Remember how a great deal of entries to the big demo parties had really good, really appropriate music? Now, at the risk of sounding like a cranky old skool revivalist, this no longer seems to be the case. As several people have recently said to me on IRC - whose nicks I leave out in case they'd rather not I quote them directly - there appear to be three kinds of demo music at the moment: average sounding "demo-synth-funk", grating pseudo-drum+bass, or turgid, uninspired techno.

Now, before you all reach for your poison pens: I am not claiming to be the world's greatest musician, who can produce works of Mozart-style genius at the drop of a hat. It has to be said, however, that although there are a lot of highly talented scene musicians out there, they don't appear to be mainly associated with demo groups anymore, or entering the compos at "big" demo-parties so much as used to be the case. On the other hand, the main entrants at music compos, music charts, etc, now seem to be people with handles like "D33J4y-D3str0y3r!??!!?!?!?" (whose latest releases, like "Yet Another Use For An Overdriven Kick Drum - Volume Three Million.xm" reach number one on every tracked music chart there is).

Again, don't get the wrong idea; anyone who knows me can tell you my passion for virtually all forms of music, and my fondness for more than a few nights out of banging techno, drum+bass, trance, and house when the mood and/or bank account lets me. And true, I have released my fair share of crap. However, there is a great deal of difference between a fantastic new drum and bass release from Flytronix or Grooverider, and, say, another terrible so-called "drum and bass" XM or IT. Other genres don't escape this either; the beautiful trance sounds of Van Dyk and Tilt are insulted even by the current 'trance' in the mainstream European charts, let alone by a lot of so-called 'trance' in the scene; while the horrible noises some people make attempting to recreate the classic "demo music" sound of synth-funk-ambience would make Vangelis turn in his grave. If he was dead.

The point has to be made: Where have all the skilled musicians gone?

And the answer is this: To their own, largely seperate scene.

For a fair while now, the music scene has been independently growing. It is over the last couple of years, however, that the split between the music scene and the demo scene has really started to become apparent, at least to this writer. Go to any of the big tracked music sites: the MOD Archive, TraxInSpace, United Trackers... and count the number of mentions of demos, or the demo scene, on the fingers of one hand. Of course, some people will say "They're tracked music sites, why should they mention demos?" I note with interest, however, that sites relating to scene code, and scene pixelling, rarely shy away from mentioning the wider demo scene. This whole point can really be summed up in one encounter: I was IRCing with a reasonably skilled tracker the other week (whose nick will be withheld to avoid embarrassment). I mentioned the demo scene. And the response? I kid you not: "What are demos?"

In fact, the whole demo scene problem is rooted in the fact that the vast majority of skilled trackers nowadays aren't even interested in the demo scene. In any given group of trackers, you will always find far more of them in music groups than in demo groups. On one of the tracking channels on that I go into, I'm pretty much the only demo group member in the whole chan. Now, I can't be the only demo-scener who feels that this is rather a worrying situation. Of course, there will always be people who want to just release their music independently, and there's obviously no Law Of The Scene: Thou Shalt Be In A Demo Group. But it seems to me as if tracking is turning into just another way to try and get a record deal.

What happened to community scene spirit? What happened to the philosophies of such demoscene-aware music groups as Five Musicians, who still believe in quality, freely distributed music for everyone to enjoy? And what happened to skilled trackers in demo groups? Radix, for example, is a fantastic example of someone who's still giving back to the demo scene with his membership of TPOLM, amongst other things. It's a shame that every tracker doesn't have the skills and attitude towards the demo scene of musicians such as Mellow-D/TPOLM, Smash/Razor1911, and Makke/Visuale (and Hugi, of course, but those group designations were just the demo groups those people are in). And yeah, I know I'm also in Visuale (although mainly as - shock! - an MP3 musician), and hence likely to have a rose-tinted view of that, but I never claimed you had to be in a legendary group. And before the "h0w d4r3 j00 cr1t1c1z3! j00 mp3 l4m3r?!?!" flames start pouring in, let me tell you that I've been tracking [though not necessarily releasing] on and off since before some people in the modern scene were old enough to talk.

I guess this whole issue is pretty close to my heart, as I personally got into making music - of any sort - largely due to the demo scene. Were it not for that, I would never have realised that an average guy like me could produce music and release it to a wide group of people. It's just that as the popularity of tracker programs was kick-started almost entirely due to the existence of what we now call the demo scene, maybe some of us musicians should think about putting a little back into something which is largely responsible for the music scene that we so often take for granted.

Simon Jay/Visuale