A Different Kind of Blue

Ever wanted to hear Miles Davis in 8-bit? Kevin Nguyen talks to the minds behind Kind of Bloop, a chiptune cover album of cool jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue.

Miles Davis was often dubbed the Picasso of jazz, and 8-bit music has been called the punk of electronic music. What then, does that make Kind of Bloop, the track-by-track tribute to Davis’s Kind of Blue?

Commonly referred to as “chiptunes,” 8-bit music is created with sound chips from old videogame consoles. The genre is generally conflated with videogame music, since most of the chiptunes you’re likely to have heard come from your favorite early Nintendo titles, but there are 8-bit covers of pop songs, indie songs, and entire albums. And yes, there are an unfathomable number of videogame music covers.

Sure, recreating familiar songs on a Commodore 64 sounds interesting in theory, but is it enough to lift the concept from the realm of mere novelty? Or, as Kind of Blue‘s opening track cooly asks, so what?

To the Tune of Chip

24-year-old Samuel Ascher-Weiss has a fairly traditional music background. He started learning jazz piano at the age of seven and has been playing ever since. In fact, Kind of Blue’s centerpiece, “All Blues,” was one of the first songs he learned.

“I’ve probably played it over a thousand times since the first time I ever touched a piano,” Ascher-Weiss said.

As a chiptune artist, Ascher-Weiss goes by the name Shnabubula. When asked what attracted him to write 8-bit music, he explained that his first taste of the medium’s potential came from the album FX by venerable chiptune artist Jake “Virt” Kaufman.

“In [Kaufman's] 8-bit music, I found something that I had never imagined: he had created music that didn’t succeed despite the limitations of the hardware he was writing for; it succeeded precisely because of them,” Ascher-Weiss said.

“I realized that 8-bit music was a completely separate and unique aesthetic with its own set of rules. A good chiptune is written so that it sounds ideal within the given sound set, so that if the exact same notes were replicated without alteration in a different setting, the result would be far less appealing. It’s this quality that sets chiptunes apart from being just a simple product of nostalgia.”

But paying homage to the greatest jazz record of all time is a daunting challenge. Stripping down an album known for its sonic complexity is bound to be tricky, and the very idea of Miles Davis chiptunes could be seen as, well, blasphemous.

Ascher-Weiss explained, “The question was: how do we preserve the album without just doing complete dyed-in-the-wool faithful covers? That would make us basically just sound designers and not really contributing musicians.”

The Bloop team discussed various approaches to the project, communicating primarily through IRC. According to Ascher-Weiss, the album’s original solos were the biggest point of debate. The group finally agreed that each Miles Davis solo should remain relatively intact, but from there, each artist was given the space and freedom to do what they wanted with the material.

When we spoke, I had heard Ascher-Weiss’s work-in-progress — a rendition of “All Blues” that starts off loyal to its source material, but eventually riffs off into its own kind of 8-bit monster by the end. In many ways, Ascher-Weiss’s cover encompasses both sides of the spectrum, showing faithful restraint at times and wild, artistic flourish at others. For Miles Davis’s solo, Ascher-Weiss added playful call-and-response elements and exaggerated the use of dynamics to texture the song to the rhythm of the solo; but for John Coltrane’s tenor sax solo, which closes the song, he only kept the first few melodic phrases, developed them into a climax, and added an entirely new solo of his own. In many ways, this balance of constraint and creativity illustrates the strength of chiptune music.

Can I Kick(start) It?

Andy Baio, best known for his blog Waxy.org, was surprised by the absence of 8-bit jazz on the web.

“I went looking [for jazz chiptunes], and there was nothing. I just couldn’t believe there hadn’t been covers of jazz songs,” he said.

Or at least close to nothing. After another more exhaustive search, Baio finally came across a Japanese chiptune competition called Famicompo. In the covers category — mostly dominated by videogame submissions — Baio found three jazz covers. Two years later, he would commission and organize Kind of Bloop, asking two artists from Famicompo, Ast0r (Chris Hampton) and Sergeeo (Sergio de Prado), to appear alongside Shnabubula (Ascher-Weiss), Virt (Kaufman), and Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland).

Baio wasn’t going to fund this project out of his own pocket. Instead, he turned to a new online fundraising platform called Kickstarter. The basic idea is traditional: campaigns are set up with specific monetary goals and a timeframe to raise that money. But Kickstarter sets itself apart through several innovative mechanics. Most notably, it employs a system wherein contributors are only charged if the project meets its pledge goal by the deadline. If not, no money changes hands.

“Any place where you need to gauge market demand and where there are costs or upfront risk, Kickstarter works really well,” said Baio, who is also Kickstarter’s chief technical officer.

“You’re basically pre-ordering something that doesn’t exist yet. People can go and buy it, I don’t have to keep track of the number of sales, and I’m not risking anything higher or lower. I just make as many as people want. It ended up being the absolute perfect venue.”

Figuring out the demand was particularly important for Bloop to come to fruition. Unlike using samples from a song, where you have to negotiate with publishers, getting the mechanical licenses doesn’t require permission from the publisher or artist. It can be done entirely online, through the Harry Fox Agency’s licensing tool, SongFile, which represents over two million published songs in the U.S. The Agency, however, charges both a processing fee and a per-license rate, so licensees need to know how much music they plan to sell.

“If you guess too high, you’re left with licenses you do nothing with; if you guess too low, you have to keep buying more licenses and keep getting dinged for the processing fee,” Baio said.

With production costs, licenses, and payment for the chiptune artists for Kind of Bloop, Baio reckoned the project would cost $2,000. On Kickstarter, he set a deadline of three months to raise the money. A mere four hours after the project went live, Baio had passed that mark. Bloop‘s deadline ended at the beginning of August, and in three months, Kickstarter users have pledged over $8,000.

I asked Baio if he thought the overwhelming reception was a testament to the demand for chiptune jazz or Kickstarter’s model. Baio believes it’s both. He admitted that even the idea of chiptune jazz was a “love-it-or-hate-it” concept and that a big motivator in getting the project funded was piquing users’ curiosities.

“It’s a cool idea, and people might download it. But I’m not really sure how many people would put their money behind it,” Baio said. “Users are involved in the process because they want to see the thing exist. The model feels very game-like, even a bit like gambling in the early stages.”

Kickstarter thrives on the involvement of its audience. Those who pledge get exclusive access to project updates, and different donation levels offer different rewards. In fact, the users who pledged $100 were treated with a personal call from Baio himself. In some ways, Kickstarter proves that while the internet is known for its speed and viral nature, engaging with people on a personal level is still an effective means of promoting an idea.

Kickstarter is still invite-only for project creators, but it has found a lot of early success. While reaching the goal within four hours is abnormally successful, Kickstarter projects that reach a quarter of their goal have a 94% chance of eventually receiving full support. The nature of the model encourages users to put their money behind things they might ordinarily pay for if it was already a real, existing thing. Personally, I willingly pledged the five dollars for a digital copy of Kind of Bloop — and I can’t even recall the last time I actually bought an album.

“I am psyched at the possibility of future projects,” Ascher-Weiss said. “I hope that Kind of Bloop is just the beginning.”

Though it’s a genre built around self-imposed limitations, even 8-bit music looks like it has a lot of room to grow. And yet Bloop represents just one idea that could succeed with Kickstarter. Baio and I talked at length about the site’s potential for not just music, but t-shirts, movies, books, and independent videogames. Kickstarter might be the solution for those looking to connect with their niche audience.

Kind of Bloop is available today, 50 years after the release of Kind of Blue, for all Kickstarter pledgers, and available to purchase on Thursday for everybody else. You can hear samples of each track at the official Bloop website.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.