Revolution at 3.5″: Inside Vaporwave’s Mini-Boom of Floppy Disk Releases
Sterling Campbell had co-founded a cassette label and a VHS tape label in Ottawa, but needed a new creative outlet after moving back to Cornwall, Ontario, to be closer to his daughter.
“I was like, ‘I need to start something up for myself here,'” he says. “‘What’s the most ridiculous thing I could do right now?'”
The answer was Strudelsoft, the label that the 36-year-old bills as the first vaporwave imprint dedicated exclusively to releasing music on 3.5″ floppy disk.
The misty, Internet-fueled subgenre has long thrived on nostalgic physical formats. Vaporwave’s sound, often produced by slowing down and/or reverb-drenching existing songs to walk the line between the sentimental and the sinister, is a perfect match for cassette tapes, those beloved relics of hissier times. Now a boomlet of patient and creative label owners are recovering an even more esoteric medium: the Eighties and Nineties artifact once used for Windows installations, AOL trials and sessions of Doom.
“Floppies are cheaper than cassettes, they don’t have to be tediously dubbed, they look appealing, they’re available in a lot of colors and have cool designs that people like,” says Matthew Isom, 40, of San Diego plunderphonic vaporwave label Power Lunch, who notes that floppies also cost substantially less to ship overseas than cassettes.
There are less convenient aspects to the format, of course, but floppy aficionados have found ways to work within its limits. “I discovered, after playing around, that you can actually release about 11 minutes and 38 seconds of 8-bit audio MP3 on a floppy disk,” says Campbell, who has released six floppies so far via Strudelsoft. “The first one that I did was this vaporwave artist called Cat System Corp and I had a run of like 20 floppy disks. And it fuckin’ sold out in 8 seconds.”
Campbell sourced his first batch of disks on eBay. When that proved too expensive, he sent a call to the employees at the contract manufacturer where he works in IT. He followed that up with a post on Canadian classified site Kajiji, where he offered to pick up floppies from peoples’ homes. He wagers he currently has about 400 or 500 floppy disks in his basement.
“You find some interesting stuff on them, like pictures of I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island,” he says. “People’s family photos and stuff. I found, actually, a Trojan virus on one, which was called hotguy.exe. Good thing I didn’t click on it.”
Vlad Maftei, 29, of Constanța, Romania label Sea of Clouds hit up his country’s online marketplace, Okazii. “Guys will have thousands of them in their house, and they’re giving them away for very cheap,” he says. “So I met with a bunch of shady dudes in alleyways and got a whole bag of them. … I think the biggest challenge for me definitely was some of the floppy disks were so old and written and rewritten so many times, by the time I got to them they weren’t really working anymore. And sometimes I had to try to write an album five or six times on five different floppy discs until I found one that finally worked.”
Despite – or because of – the obscure format, these labels’ floppy disk releases often sell out promptly.
“I released it one evening, and woke up in the morning and it had sold out,” Power Lunch’s Isom says of Eggo Jams by Sponge Person, released in a few cassette editions and a run of 20 copies on “waffle-yellow floppy disk.” “People love that release. It’s a collaborative work between a few different vaporwave artists, so it’s sort of done anonymously, but it’s probably a bigger success than any one of those single artists have ever done.”
“The thing about it is, people in the vaporwave scene love physical releases,” Campbell says. “You got guys in the Vaporwave Cassette Club on Facebook that post up these cassette tape collections that are worth thousands of dollars. It’s insane. And a lot of these people, I don’t even think a lot of ’em play the shit. They just kind of put it on their shelf.”
The original explosion of musicians releasing floppies occurred during the mid-Nineties, when discs were sometimes packaged alongside CDs as a way of providing bonus content, like for tech-savvy plunderers Emergency Broadcast Network and Billy Idol’s industrial misstep Cyberpunk. Sony’s “Music Screeners” series featured 3.5″ disks with video clips and screensavers for artists like Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson and The The. By the aughts, however, floppies were mostly the domain of European electronic acts and subterranean experimental groups.
The 2010s have seen occasional use of the format among big-name noise acts – Eighties cassette pioneers like the New Blockaders, GX Jupitter-Larsen and Maurizio Bianchi have all released floppies within the last decade – and experimental labels like Hungaria’s Floppy Kick. Miami Vice’s Culture Island, released in 2012 in an edition of 25, is generally regarded as the first vaporwave floppy disk – “and apparently it’s just fuckin’ insane to get ahold of,” says Campbell.
Even retro-minded jazz-funk group (and Kendrick Lamar collaborators) BadBadNotGood got in on the fun when their label Innovative Leisure wrote a 40kbps mp3 of non-album track “Up” onto 100 floppies before the release of their 2016 album IV.
“We would mysteriously place them in different locations around the world, whether it was a coffee shop, boutique, record store, and then we would take a photo of the floppy, tag the location and some lucky fans received a nice surprise,” says Innovative Leisure co-founder Jamie Strong. “Now it sells for $40-$50 online. Maybe we should do another run?”
Beyond the obvious nostalgia factor, the floppy is a natural fit for vaporwave, music that is often lo-fi even before it’s compressed down to fit into such a tiny space. “One floppy holds 1.44 megabytes of data. So, the most I’ve been able to fit on one was three songs,” says Sea of Clouds’ Maftei. “They were compressed to hell, but still very listenable. I listened to them from the floppy and I couldn’t complain. It sounds good enough.”
But floppy heads say the utilitarian aspect is important, too. “It’s even cheaper to get into floppies than it is to get into cassettes,” says Isom. “Cassette players, they’re not really manufactured anymore, and the prices are going up on used ones. They’re getting scarcer, they don’t always work. It’s a little daunting. But a floppy drive? 10, 15 bucks and they’re ready to go. Pretty much anybody can afford to get into doing this.”
The bottom line? “It takes up a lot of your time,” Campbell says of the process of collecting, ripping and mailing Strudelsoft’s catalog. “And sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. But then of course it’s worth it, you know? ‘Cause I got a fuckin’ floppy disk label.”