Back to the Stratosphere: How the Rarest Music in the World Comes Back
In February 1998, an atmospheric indie rock band from San Jose, California, released their debut album, Stratosphere, on the Seattle independent label Up. The primary members of the band were Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber, both of whom sang and played guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums, and soon they added a regular drummer, Jason Albertini. Duster’s music moved slowly and referenced interstellar travel. The “meaning” of their music was found in their sound, rather than in the lyrics of their songs, which were often hard to make out. A guitar chime or synth cloud or processed vocal might bring to mind the image of a lone astronaut drifting through the vacuum of the cosmos, conveying a druggy isolation that could feel blissful one moment and freighted with anxiety the next. It was music for dark spaces and closed eyelids, deeply psychedelic but without sprawl, ambient music with a serrated edge of punk.
Other records released in the first two months of 1998, which Duster would have been competing against for record-store rack space, included Air’s Moon Safari and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Duster’s label-mates, Modest Mouse, had recently released their breakthrough second album, The Lonesome Crowded West, and they’d been touring relentlessly in late ’97 and early ’98, building an audience for their mix of fractured indie rock patched with the introspection of emo. Early in February, a review of the new Modest Mouse record appeared in Rolling Stone—three and a half stars—and it compared singer Isaac Brock to the novelist Richard Ford, another writer known for dramatic tales set in wide-open Western spaces. You could tell that Modest Mouse were going places.
Duster, in comparison, were not. They were another tiny indie band in an endless sea of tiny indie bands. Information still traveled slowly in 1998—just 40 percent of the U.S. population was online—and what little was written about the band barely traveled at all. They put out an EP in 1999 and then a final full-length, Contemporary Movement, in 2000. Like many thousands of musicians before them, Duster’s members moved on to other projects and formed new bands.
For most groups, that’s typically where the story would end. The CDs get ripped and tossed and then the hard drives fail and then, a few years later, maybe, the handful of people who enjoyed the music the first time around revisit it on a streaming service. But in the years after their dissolution, Duster began to accrue some interest. In the past 10 years, bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive were able to return after decades-long layoffs and play to crowds much bigger than they ever did while they were first active. But these bands at least had a starting point, a scene with which they were identified. They had already been canonized. Duster’s cult basically grew from nothing, in places where people obsess over music online—message boards, Reddit, YouTube comment sections, Rateyourmusic.com. Duster are not, were not, and never will be, a “big” band. But the intensity of their fandom, and the shadow of their influence, is remarkable, and serves as a good case study for measuring how some artists are rediscovered while others are forgotten completely.
I wrote about Duster’s records when they were first released, for the then-new webzine Pitchfork. I put on their music with some regularity over the years, and mentioned it in passing to other music fans now and then. No one I talked to seemed to remember them. I got an inkling that something was up with Duster only in the past three years when, purely as a way to satisfy my data obsession, I scanned my record collection into the online database Discogs. Launched in late 2000, Discogs is both a source of information about physical music media and an online marketplace, and the site’s growth in the past decade has closely tracked the steady increase in the sales of vinyl records. Launched in late 2000 by Portland-based music fan Kevin Lewandowski, Discogs initially grew out of his desire to collect information about his favorite electronic music producers. It was an early example of wiki-like collaboration, as anyone could submit data about the records in their collection and the accuracy of the information was voted on by the site’s users. Two years later, Discogs became a hub for connecting buyers and sellers, with the site taking a percentage of each sale. Over time, it became not just a place to buy and sell records—eBay and the Amazon Marketplace also have a long history in this space—but also for seeing what the people who still care about physical media are interested in.
On each individual release page, you can see how many people and shops have that record in their collection, how many people want the record, and what the record has recently sold for—a high, low, and median price. Looking at my collection after I’d entered it (I chipped away at the project over the course of a year), I noticed that the Duster records I owned—the 1975 EP, an LP from a side project, and two 7-inch singles—were among my most valuable records. That side project album, released under the name Valium Aggelein, routinely traded hands via Discogs for $250 or more. The debut, Stratosphere, sometimes went for $400-plus. How did this happen? The Have/Want ratio of these records, with 150 or so circulating on Discogs and 1,300 or more people who wanted a copy at any given time, underscored raw capitalism at work. Supply and demand. Even CD copies were trading for serious coin—$78 is the median price for a CD of Stratosphere as I write this. The original promo CD in a cardboard sleeve, which I was mailed back in the day and have long since discarded, sold for $60 recently.
Streaming media is limitless. Licenses come and go and songs can disappear from a given service, but the music never runs out. If you pay your monthly fee, you can listen to a given album as many times as you like. The supply is infinite by design, so play counts reflect awareness and individual desire but not scarcity. A live show, of course, is limited by venue capacity, so the relative success of a given concert is not just based on whether it sells out, but on how many tickets are on offer.
Used records work differently, because the supply is fixed. For a given release, X number of copies exist in the world, and Y, a subset of X, is the number of copies that might be available in the marketplace. The “Want” and “Have” listings at Discogs represent some fraction of the total number of copies of a given record in circulation, since most people don’t bother to put their collections on the site. Many independent record stores, on the other hand, do have a presence on Discogs and sell records that way, in addition to through their physical stores. Because of this, as any record collector can tell you, prices for used vinyl have become standardized—an out-of-the-way shop run by an owner with less knowledge of a given record’s value still has access to Discogs, so there just aren’t as many vastly underpriced rarities as there used to be.
Taken together, between the more serious collectors, the individual sellers, and the record stores selling online, Discogs offers a useful snapshot of what’s out there, who has a given release, and who wants it. We’re in a new era because everyone wondering about the relative interest in an artist, a song, or an album is looking at the same numbers. And because on Discogs these lists and selling prices are in the open for anyone to see, it becomes a way to gauge desire, to monitor records that go in and out of fashion. So if, like me, you own an original copy of Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, you can look at the prices on offer and see the amounts tick up a few dollars when Pete Shelley dies. It’s happening in real time. Because the thing about those Buzzcocks records, and the Duster catalog, is they’re not making any more of them—at least, that is, until the reissue labels step in.
Earlier this year, Chicago’s Numero Group announced Capsule Losing Contact, a box set containing Duster’s complete works along with some unreleased rarities. The label was founded in 2003 with the express purpose of salvaging forgotten music from oblivion, and they first made their mark with their series Eccentric Soul, which focused on local soul and R&B scenes and now-forgotten labels. Released like Light: On the South Side, a wide-ranging look at Chicago soul, and Ork Records: New York, New York, which focused on an early punk and new wave label, were nominated for Grammys, and have set a standard in the reissue world for obsessive focus and care. In the past few years, Numero has added to their offerings comprehensive sets documenting bands that would seem to be a world away from geographically isolated soul scenes of the 1960s and ’70s. Their 200 series spotlights indie rock acts from the ’80s and ’90s, with hefty boxes focusing on Codeine, Bedhead, Unwound, Hüsker Dü, Blonde Redhead, and, now, Duster.
Numero’s interest in Duster extends far beyond the relative demand for their records—Ken Shipley, one of the label’s founders, is from San Jose, and knew the band from when they shared a hometown. Adam Luksetich, the Numero employee who oversaw the Duster set, told me that the idea of a Duster box had been discussed in the office for several years, and that it took some time to bring the members of the group around on the idea. When word started to spread about new Duster activity last year—the band set up an Instagram account, and mentioned that they were recording—response from fans took the label by surprise. “Any time we would tease doing Duster, it would set off a frenzy,” says Luksetich. “It was obvious early on that this project was going to be bigger than we thought.” After seeing the online reaction, Numero increased the run of the printing from a more typical 2,000 sets to 3,000.
Purely by owning some records by Duster and realizing that I could sell a 7-inch single for $90, I knew that there was a certain amount of demand out there, but the situation is more complicated for an imprint actually thinking of reissuing the music. I spoke to Luksetich, Matt Sullivan, founder of the label Light in the Attic, and Cameron Schaefer, head of Music & Brand of the subscription imprint and reissue label Vinyl Me, Please, to get a sense of how they find records to reissue and the tools they use to help them understand the marketplace. All three made clear that they looked at Discogs, YouTube, and Spotify on a daily basis to understand what is being bought, sold, and streamed, but all were equally adamant that numbers are only part of the picture, and that the urge to press records and introduce people to something that may have been overlooked is ultimately an extension of their own passion for music. To that end, the most important source of information for what obscure music might benefit from a physical reissue are the conversations they have with other record collectors and people they work with. Still, there’s no getting around the reality that pressing records is an expensive risk, and an understanding of the demand for a given title is essential before taking that leap.
In 2017, Light in the Attic reissued guitarist Link Wray’s self-titled 1971 debut, a record prized by collectors. “When we do release something like that Link Wray record, you can go to Discogs and see that it hasn’t been in print in a decade, and is going for more money than it used to, so that’s helpful,” Sullivan told me. “But we’re not going to be the label that simply looks at Discogs, sees a record going for $200, and puts it out.” Light in the Attic, like Numero, has been around for quite a while. They started in 2002, still the doldrums as far as vinyl sales were concerned. Like virtually everyone in the record business, Sullivan sees the current market for physical product as oversaturated.
Major labels are in the process of assessing their own catalogs to see which potential reissues might capitalize on the resurgence of interest in vinyl. In late 2017, Universal Music Group launched Urban Legends, an “editorial content site and ecommerce platform” that has issued deluxe editions of the company’s rap and R&B catalog, including releases by Slick Rick, Gang Starr, and Tupac. Sometimes, according to Schaefer of Vinyl Me, Please, which has put out records that weren’t initially on vinyl by major label artists like Fiona Apple and Juvenile, conversations with the record behemoths can be a balancing act. “You have to do this thing, where you convince a major label that it’s not worth it for them to do it but it is worth it for you to do it. It’s a funny dance that’s been going on in the last five or six years.” In every case, the motivation for understanding the demand is obvious. “We start with three questions,” Schaefer tells me. “Do I want to own this? Can I tell a story about it? And is there a demand?” Sullivan puts it this way: “The last thing you want to do is print 3,000 records, sell 500, and throw 2,500 of them away a few years later.”
Putting Duster’s music back into the world involved crunching numbers, but the precise figures are all relative. As part of the reissue campaign, Duster have reunited and are playing shows, and I’ve heard from Luksetich and others that the crowds have been surprisingly young. Last year, Stereogum published a piece outlining how Duster became a touchstone for young bands like Girlpool, Hovvdy, and others, groups whose members would have been in elementary school when Duster shut down. You can’t help but wonder, “Why this band?” A quick glance at Up’s roster from when Duster finished their run is filled with bands that truly have been forgotten, unless there are cults for Violent Green, Satisfact, and Mike Johnson that I’m unaware of (Johnson’s 1998 album I Feel Alright is very good, by the way).
The internet is so vast and information spreads so widely, it’s easy to forget that so much of it routinely disappears. And the years between roughly 1997 and 2002, when Duster were active, are something of a black hole for information on under-the-radar music. The handoff to the digital era was complicated and fumbling, and a lot of music fell through the cracks.
MTV’s 120 Minutes, which offered glimpses of the underground since its 1986 inception, was off the air by 2000. Record guides, which serious music fans over the previous two decades had regularly turned to in order to see what was good, relevant, and available, were no longer being published. The Spin Alternative Record Guide appeared in 1995, the final Trouser Press record guide, the Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock, appeared in 1997, and Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Albums of the ’90s, his last book-length record guide, came out in October 2000. (Christgau’s website, which gathers the contents of this guide and all his others, was still a few years away at that point). Rolling Stone would issue one final Album Guide in 2004, but it immediately felt like an anachronism.
The idea of compulsively documenting what was happening in music in print was falling out of favor—replaced, we assumed, by the internet. But the internet during those years was ill-equipped for the job, and was surprisingly ephemeral. Pitchfork, where I wrote and later worked as an editor, was doing its part to map what was happening, but by 2008, much of the site’s pre-1999 content was no longer available, for reasons having to do with both its quality and the inevitable degradation of data across redesigns and format changes. (The Allmusic Guide, it should be said, has through all these shifts been the exception that proves the rule, and it’s not unusual to find an Allmusic review for a given release that is the only piece of writing online for a given record.)
File sharing, which exploded with Napster in 1999, was a chaotic space where competing services—Audiogalaxy, Limewire, SoulSeek—would pop up and then disappear, and the meticulously organized private networks of torrents were still a few years away. By 2003 and 2004, mp3 blogs and Myspace would step into the breach, and when YouTube launched in 2005, suddenly there was a place accessible to all, that showed up in Google search results, to store and share obscure music, sometimes permanently (a space that was inconsistent about compensating rights holders, to say the least).
Reddit, which also debuted in 2005, was the message board that would never go away, and the conversations happening there could be indexed and then discovered by future generations. We’re now in the process of moving these conversations and commentary to social media, which presents a new set of difficulties. But that turn-of-the-millennium black hole was a true in-between space for media, one into which we could imagine Duster slipping, never to be heard from again. Up, Duster’s label, shifted dramatically after the 2000 death of founder Chris Takino, and would soon stop issuing new records altogether.
But Duster had a few things going for them that made the band irresistible to young people discovering indie rock online. Even while they were active, there was an air of mystery around the band. There weren’t many pictures of them in circulation, and their record sleeves tended to be light on information. (Numero’s box set reissue will honor this fact by not including the wealth of documentation that typically graces its releases.) The audience for the kind of music they made, spacey psych-rock, tends to prize rarity, so the fact that there was little information about them available and physical copies of their record were hard to come by may have actually helped build their mystique. And like some bands that outlasted obscurity before them—Galaxie 500 comes to mind—they had a compact discography, and never released a record that was less than good. Bands that stick around tend to change, and eventually, and inevitably, lose some people along the way. In some cases, if the later music is of lesser quality, it can prevent fans from seeking out the rest of their catalog. Duster had a distinctive sound that varied very little from one release to the next—they made some music, played some shows, and then they were gone.
And now they’re back, reminding us how human memory is becoming dependent on and intertwined with a steadily decaying digital archive, and what happens when a collective memory gets set aside and blurred and then comes flashing back to life. Duster were remembered fondly by the few who heard them at the time, but the physical reissue of their catalog in 2019 owes everything to the younger people who discovered them later.
History didn’t seem to want them, so that meant that a group of people who heard something special in those heavenly guitar tones were able to claim them as their own. And it sparks the imagination and makes you wonder what else might be out there, what half-remembered scraps of culture are floating in the digital ether, waiting to be rediscovered and find someone who needs them. Sometimes it happens. Against the odds, Duster’s earliest transmissions remained faintly audible, a quiet sound at first that eventually became a small roar.
Mark Richardson, the former executive editor of Pitchfork, is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.