Jon (VSF): Jeremy, howdy. You existed online under the banner of HI54LOFI, and have now rebranded as High Five For... Could you unpack the original name a little, and how it came into being? How/why did you decide it was time for a change?
Jeremy (HI5): Sure, Jon, let’s start off with something nice and light like IDENTITY :)
Well, the HI54LOFI name (that’s pronounced “high five for lofi” for those of you that see it as “high fifty-four lofi”—I’m looking at you Greg from the Apple Store) came about many years ago from a friendly exchange on the briefly brilliant social media / DIY music mecca called Myspace. Basically, someone left a comment on my page like “dig these lofi tunes” and I replied back something like “high five for lofi!”. And then, because I am a fan of dumb word play, I immediately started thinking “woah… ‘hi-fi’ is like the opposite of ‘lo-fi’, but ‘hi-fi’ also sounds like ‘high-five’ and holy shit the number 4 is pronounced the same as the word ‘for’ and…”
The first iteration of the name actually started out as a ‘Not A Record Label, Not Not A Record Label’ called HI54LOFI RECORDS, which began as a fake label name to release a free bedroom artist compilation and then it eventually became a real fake label website that looked like a normal record label site (ie. with release pages, and artist profiles, and etc). Except, on HI54LOFI RECORDS, all the artists were independent/unsigned (called “Friendlies”) and they released their own albums at prices they set themselves and they kept all of their sales (if there was any). It was more like a small bedroom musician hub. This was around the time that Bandcamp had just started and no one really knew where to go now that Myspace had sunk (“Is Facebook the next Myspace?” was one of the questions being pondered at the time)—so maybe the faux record label concept of “doing it alone, together” was attempted at a bad time on the internet. Especially with everybody involved in it living in different cities and countries (online is powerful, but some IRL is really important too if you want to build a community feel).
Eventually, I started to realize that maybe what I was actually trying to create was a music blog, so I slowly removed the ‘RECORDS’ from the name and just became HI54LOFI.
The recent HIGH FIVE FOR rebrand thing is still something that is kinda in motion and I’m feeling it out, but it basically came about as the HI54LOFI name began to feel less representative of a “music blog” and more just my personal internet handle—especially as the music blog side of things would often go on stretches of silence as I recovered from bouts of blogger burnout. I really noticed this identity shift when I moved to the mountains and started another site called 95EH and when I would meet people they would sometimes say “ohhh… so you’re the 95eh guy”, which would always make me think, “well, actually, I’m more the HI54LOFI guy who made the 95eh site” while nodding anxiously because I suck at talking to new people.
So the re-brand is really just an experiment to see if I can separate the HI54LOFI name as more of my personal internet avatar (the @jeremy handle was already taken), and then I hope to make the HIGH FIVE FOR and 95EH sites more collaborative, where HI54LOFI is just one of the people contributing to them (and maybe some other collaborative projects can be started up and function in the same way).
But, as my answer to your question shows, I don’t have things completely figured out yet.
Given your recent name change, I guess it is only natural for me to now reverse the same question back on you Jon. So, can you walk me through the different stages and thought processes you and your blog have gone through—from first starting out as Wake The Deaf, to finding your feet and growing an audience over the years, to then changing the name + expanding on the concept as Various Small Flames? What was the plan/goal when you started and what is it now?
Well, the idea for a blog started when I was in university the first time, where friends and friends of friends got taken in by the MP3 blog idea as it was back then and decided to make our own Tumblr. I think maybe it was because we were mostly doing science and engineering degrees and this felt like a more creative outlet. Wake The Deaf was actually set up by the others, and Liam (my twin brother) and I were asked if we wanted to contribute, and it continued as a Tumblr blog for a few years.
Then, as the others graduated and did adult things like get jobs, I started taking over more and more, writing about music because I had nothing better to do and it felt semi-productive. I started trying to write more in-depth reviews, rather than just post videos or mixes or whatever, as a way to practise writing if nothing else, and found that the acts at least seemed to like it (the most common reaction to our stuff is ‘thoughtful’, and I’ve been called worse). It turns out that if you refuse to go away on the internet then little by little you become the tiniest bit less obscure than the year before, and soon we had friends in other countries who read the site and sent us music. And once you feel that obligation, well there’s really no hope of stopping.
Fast forward a few years and the original creators had phased out of posting entirely, pursuing things like relationships and happiness, so I felt like it was now ‘our’ thing. Liam got a full-time job too, and I went back to university, so I became the self-appointed editor and started thinking about a rebrand. I’d never been attached to Wake The Deaf, beyond it doing that name thing where you don’t really see the words any more, but we had a few instances where deaf people got in touch asking us to explain it. Obviously, it was never my intention to offend anyone, and I couldn’t really explain it--it was just what we were called.
So last year we decided to take a few months and start a new website under a new name, Various Small Flames, which is more or less the same as before but with a few more book reviews, a few less obligations to PR people, and less readers (note: changing your name online is not good business practice). It tooks us months to come up with the new name, and we spent an entire Christmas period throwing possibilities around before settling on VSF. As for the name itself, we went through the thematic reasoning behind it a bit here, but don’t want to overdo that really. It’s actually a super-obscure reference from a book, which will remain unknown to all bar those who really want to find out.
As for the plan and goal, I’m not sure there really is one. I think we’ve hit a plateau where expanding any further would require time/funds we don’t have. Liam works all day, every day, and I’m doing a full-time PhD--I have to spend all day reading and writing (and teaching) anyway, without even thinking about music. We’ve tried experimenting with guest posts and the like but ultimately we can’t pay people and so I’m not comfortable with that system. Maybe this level is fine? I think of myself as a writer, but not really a music writer. It’s never been my hope that if I can just do this one more year I can do it full-time.
On the issue of plans and goals, could you perhaps delve a little deeper into why you do what you do? What’s your primary motivation for logging on every day, and running the various projects and websites? If you want to get further into the identity stuff, how exactly do you see yourself and your role in the culture? Blogger, curator, writer?
JS: Shit. This is getting really heavy. I feel like we're only a few moves away from getting down to talking about existence itself, realizing we're wasting our lives and packing it all in and moving out to the woods (oh shit… I kinda already did that).
As someone who has recently blown his blog up and is still trying to figure out how to put it back together (same could be said about my life), I've actually been over-thinking these questions a lot. In fact, I wrote a blog post on a New Year’s Day hangover entitled 'Why I Bother Blogging', which was an attempt to figure out why I keep spending so much time on something that provides no real monetary gains. Although, it should be noted, in the few months since I wrote that post the HI54 blog has started to earn a little bit of money and I also became a board member of the local Chamber of Commerce off the back of my 95EH mountain town site existing (it’s a volunteer gig, but still, forward motion is forward motion).
The gist of that ‘Why I Bother Blogging’ post was this:
“Even though the logical gauges of society suggest I should do otherwise, I keep coming back to it because I think blogging puts me in a better place than wherever the version of me that gave up before starting would be at now. It's almost as if fractionally improving on each of the moving parts that come with running a blog—the writing, the designing, the networking, the collaborating, the editing, the creating, the strategizing, the putting yourself out there, the temporarily overcoming self-doubt long enough to post something, the pondering and all the etcing—well, it's almost as if those are some pretty useful skills to routinely work on.”
I also feel like the internet is the greatest gift a suppressed society like ours could ever have been given, so when I’m not revelling in all the knowledge and art and truth and GIFs my deprived old media brain grew up without access to, I feel it’s only right to try and pass on the stuff that resonates. For the most part, that has been mostly done through a musical lens, but as I spend less and less time trying to keep up with the constant distraction of the music industry #content stream, the blog voice will likely reflect that.
As for my role in the culture or a title for what I do… I don’t know. I’ve been on a stretch of intentional unemployment for a while now and I’ve yet to come up with a good way to answer that common small talk query of “So, what do you do?”. It seems that if you don’t make a living from doing something, you’re not really allowed to call yourself a writer or curator, or even the lowly title of blogger—I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it does seem to be the rule.
So I guess I’m just a person with internet access trying to express and connect on said internet with other people interested in similar things. And having your own site is an amplified way to do that. If a living wage ever comes out of it, I’ll get back to you with my professional title :)
Alright Jon, as much as I want to fling an existential crisis question back at you, I’m going to instead ask if you can give an example of the kind of moments that have made you go “This is why I keep blogging”. Also, to balance out the good vibes, an example of the kind of moments that make you go “Fuck this shit, I don’t know why I even bother”. You know, like what are some of the highs and lows, the motivations and frustrations, of Jon’s #bloglife so far?
JD: The funny thing about blogging is that some of the most interesting and gratifying things I write end up getting little to no views, and then the next day we could premiere a video with four sentences and get a ton of hits. I don’t think I’m necessarily playing the internet game too well, and the stuff I really care about ends up being too long for us to expect any sane person just looking for new music to just do anything more than just scan read.
But I guess that’s the reason why it’s such a good thing too? It’s a space where I can write anything I want about whatever I want, in whichever style I feel like. And there’s definitely something to be said for continued, considered writing as a way to (I hope) improve. Like, articles and essays for university are ten times easier than they used to be just because I’m used to knocking out thousands of words a day. So if nothing else, it’s a kind of testing ground for writing. Plus, getting sent albums and books early is a perk for which I am eternally grateful, because there’s no way I could realistically fund such listening and reading habits otherwise.
As for actual highlights, it’s basically whenever an artist writes us back to talk about our interpretation of the record. I remember Chris Porterfield (of Field Report) just saying “dude gets it” after our review of their album Marigolden, and there’s a particular sort of buzz that comes with having really sat down and thought about something, and then learning you were on the same kind of track as the artist.
The bad stuff is constant and kind of obvious. First of all, in the grand scheme of things, or even in the tiny scheme of things that is the indie music community, what we do has very little impact. I’m not sure we’ve ever boosted sales or made a career or anything like that. Which is why stripping it down to the communication between us and the artist is a healthy way to think about it. Let Pitchfork and Stereogum and the like shift units, and we’ll just listen as carefully as we can as try and put our thoughts into words.
Then there’s stuff that used to bother me a lot more, like when you have a premiere lined up and then find it cancelled for mysterious reasons only to find it on a slightly bigger site the next day. The very worst thing is getting more music than it is humanly possible to listen to, because I can just imagine how it feels to be a new artist sending out these carefully crafted emails and taking each reply/non-reply as some validation or judgement of their talents, when in reality it’s just because we can’t get through the sheer volume of emails.
With that bittersweet opinion of blogging in mind, I wondered if you had any advice or words of wisdom to people looking to start up a website and get into this game? What would Jeremy ten years ago have benefited from knowing most?
JS: I think the most important thing is that if you feel drawn towards doing something—whether that be writing, or making art, or literally whatever—you just need to start doing that thing and doing it on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how good you are in the beginning or if you have much of a plan, because once you start doing more of it, you’ll get better and figure things out you didn’t even know you needed to figure out. That’s just how things work. You suck at first and then you incrementally suck less the more you keep at it. So just start.
Also, take comfort in knowing that no matter how good you get at something, there will always be people who think you suck. Always. So if you can get into the mindset of just enjoying the personal process of trying to improve at something you enjoy and not worrying about how others rate you—and if you add in a healthy dose of patience—you’ll be golden. The sooner you can realize that other people’s opinions are just temporary made up thoughts in other people’s heads, the sooner you can realize how dumb it is to give any weight to the shit show of scattered thoughts banging around in someone else’s skull.
Besides, worrying about the shit show of scattered thoughts banging around in your own skull is more than enough to try and deal with every day. So do yourself a solid and stop adding other people’s insecurity projections into your headspace.
I guess what I am really getting at is: everyone should start doing a daily meditation practice, future blogger or not. Because becoming better connected to and better understating what’s going on inside the body and brain you have on loan for getting around in this reality is a subtly powerful life hack that I wish I had started way earlier than 6 months ago. Taking a few minutes everyday to breathe, clear your head and find your center is a real game changer—and it really is way too easy not to start (I mean, who can’t sit quietly with their eyes closed for a few minutes every day?).
Or at least “start meditating” would be the one piece of advice I’d tell the Jeremy of ten years prior if I could only tell him one thing and if I also wasn’t allowed to just give him foolproof investment advice from the future.
How about you Jon? Any closing life tips for anyone out there looking at trying their hand at spending a bunch of time working on things like blogging that don’t come with a guaranteed pay out or end game? Any Back To The Future wisdom you’d leave in a notebook for younger you to discover?
JD: Well first of all, I agree with the incrementally sucking less thing. There’s something really satisfying once you commit to doing something and can gradually see yourself improving, or finding the task easier.
Assuming you genuinely enjoy writing (if you don’t, just stop), I think a key thing is to try as best you can to ignore all external factors and just keep going. Google Analytics and blog stats are interesting, and it can be good to get an overview as to what was well received and what wasn’t, but checking stats too often is a one way ticket to the liquor cabinet. Similarly, don’t compare yourself to other sites, be they other blogs or whatever else. You might get 50 views on a well-crafted piece while the Youtube video of a 13 year-old kid unwrapping Pokemon cards has 50,000 views. That’s just the way the internet works. The more you can think of it like cultivating and maintaining your own corner of the internet, that operates according to nothing beyond itself, the more enjoyable the whole process will be.
As for Back To The Future Wisdom, I’d tell myself not to sell any internal organs to fund a domain name. But hindsight is a beautiful thing.