Professor's Website Lets Music Flow Across Former Soviet Union


David MacFadyen, professor of Slavic languages and literature, has collected CDs, DVDs, cassette and VHS tapes, and vinyl LPs from all over the former Soviet Union. He estimates there are close to 600,000 mp3s alone stored in his office.

Difficult geography, limited communication and a collapsed music industry mean that many Russian bands and artists are limited to their local scene. But Professor David MacFadyen's website, "Far From Moscow," has given them a way to escape their isolation.

By Kelsey Sharpe for UCLA Today

WHAT IF THE Beatles had never made it out of Liverpool? What if Bruce Springsteen stayed in New Jersey? What if instead of living in industrialized, working-class cities, these artists had been born in a thousand-mile stretch of forest?
Isolating geography is just one barrier that many contemporary music artists living in Russia face today.
Luckily, UCLA’s own David MacFadyen, professor of Slavic languages and literature, is giving them an outlet so they can break out of national borders to share their music — be it punk rock, blues, electronic, dance or any other contemporary genre. MacFadyen’s website, “Far From Moscow,” is the result of years of collecting Russian popular music.
“By the time I was involved with material from, say, after the year 2000, it made no sense to use standard publication techniques, since they take shape so slowly,” MacFadyen explained. “So I had the idea for the site.”
“Far From Moscow” aggregates music and videos from around 1,200 artists in Russia and surrounding countries, including Ukraine and Belarus. Visitors to the site can find information on upcoming concerts and browse the artist database by country and genre. When an artist is featured by MacFadyen, their page includes background information, related articles, streaming music clips and videos.
But perhaps the most noteworthy feature of an artist’s page is a module showing a Google Maps display of his or her location. In a country that spans double the width of the United States, with villages and towns cut off by mountains, forests and rivers, an artist might never know that he is living one town over from a like-minded artist that he could work or tour with.

So why aren’t these artists finding each other or hearing their work on the radio, buying their CDs in stores or attending their concerts? That’s a second issue affecting Russian artists: “The Russian music industry — in fact, across all the ex-Soviet territories — has been decimated,” said MacFadyen.
“There are two basic reasons: the market collapse of the late ‘90s and piracy. The Russian Web has so much material floating through it that 90% — if not more — of media and software in the country is pirated.”
The result? “The great majority of performers give their music away, either through Creative Commons for free, or because they hope it’ll increase the sale of concert tickets.”
Most artists plan on making money by selling concert seats, but a third issue crops up when you consider the nebulous nature of communications in the far-flung country. Add to these obstacles the physical geography and the sometimes unstable political and criminal elements in areas these artists and bands might hope to visit.
As it exists now, “Far From Moscow” gives artists the ability to market themselves and to identify fellow artists in their region. But MacFadyen hopes to expand the interactive aspects by rolling out a new version of the site in December that will introduce social networking features.
“The idea is to open a social network for musicians all across the country, linked to all the media-rich platforms we know, that will help to create the two things that are missing currently: centralization and media aggregation.”
Artists will be able to register themselves, and their profiles will be linked to other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. Their pages will be expanded and updated to include discographies, similar artists, promoters and a Soundcloud-like functionality that will allow visitors to the site to comment on specific parts of a song they enjoy or think needs work.
Professor MacFadyen thinks that the website will have utility not just for the Russian artists, but also for Russian language students at UCLA: “Classes here would be linked to approved and regulated materials, which is why I’m also helping to design a central media repository on campus, together with the Center for Digital Humanities.”

The site currently has a mobile version that can be accessed on an iPhone, but with the advent of new Android phones and other smart phones that have flash capability, would MacFadyen consider developing a mobile app? “Absolutely!”
The new version of Far From Moscow will be unveiled at the end of the year, but MacFadyen has plans for the site beyond that. “The bigger goal,” he explained,” is to increase the role of the project as a social tool and help [encourage] creative or civic cohesion.”
So what’s the next step?
“Maybe the simplest thing would be to buy a bicycle and — using the “record” function on an iPhone — just ride around Russia, looking for talent,” MacFadyen fantasized. “I wonder if there’s a taser app to keep the bears at bay?”

Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010