Inside the world of the chiptune artists

Although nights such as Micro Rave are doing their bit to help chiptune music gain popularity in the UK, there's already a much larger chiptune scene in America. One of the more famous proponents of chiptune music there is 8bitpeoples, a music label and community who describe themselves as a collective of artists interested in the audio-visual aesthetics of early home computers and videogame consoles.

Along with Josh Davis and Mike Rosenthal, one of the co-founders of 8bitpeoples is Nullsleep, otherwise known as Jeremiah Johnson. He's an electronic musician and artist who has already taken his chiptune music on successful world tours.


"I handle most of the day-to-day operations related to our music releases and artist relations, along with help from Josh," he explains. "The three of us work together to organise events such as Blip Festival and plan more long-term projects. And, of course, there are many artists that are actively involved in ongoing projects, be it music, graphics, or hardware and software development."

10 years of chiptune

8bitpeoples has been around for over a decade now. "The first 8bitpeoples website was hosted on a desktop computer that was sitting in my dorm room when I was a freshman at Columbia University," says Johnson. "It came out of an idea that my friend Mike Hanlon had for an artist collective. The name was his suggestion as well. It sounded great to me – I'd just started writing music and it was a way for me to get it out there and meet other people doing interesting things.

"The low-tech influence was there from the beginning but over the years, I think the sounds have really matured, and the quality of the work we put out has continually increased."

Johnson doesn't believe that the label is about 'videogame music': "I don't think we'd consider what we release on 8bitpeoples fits that description, despite the fact that many of the artists utilise videogame hardware to create it," he says. "It's more about using these old electronics to create new works that are generally far removed from what you would expect to hear in a game."

All equal

When asked who the biggest names are on the 8bitpeoples label, Johnson is quick to point out that they don't think in these terms. "We've had great experiences working with a wide range of artists from all over the world and we treat all of them with the same degree of respect," he says.

"I think this extends to the chip music community as a whole. It really seems like everyone is on a relatively even playing field and if your music is good, it doesn't matter if you've been playing for six months or six years – you'll get the same amount of recognition."

This philosophy is evident in a lot of chiptune music concerts too. Johnson explains: "With 8bitpeoples' events, there's never mention of 'headlining' and 'supporting' acts – we just try to put together lineups that showcase the diverse styles and approaches present within the chip music scene."

With all this experience behind him, does Johnson think it's possible to make a living from chiptune music? "I don't know," he says, "but I'm about to find out. I just received my master's degree and I've made the decision to pursue music and art full-time. I'd say the chances of making a living off chip music are pretty similar to any other kind of music at this point. In other words, it's pretty difficult – you've got to be hard-working, talented, clever and lucky. I've got the first one down so I figure it's time to give it a shot."

As it's clearly something he's happy to dedicate a lot of time to, what's the draw of creating 8-bit music? "The most exciting thing is the mistakes," he explains. "When I'm writing a song and I insert the wrong value somewhere and a totally unexpected noise comes out of the speakers, I just run with it.

We think of computers as perfect machines compared to humans, but we ignore the fact that they rely so much on us feeding them data in the 'right' way so they can parse it and operate on it as they're supposed to.

"When we make a mistake or intentionally throw junk data at them, you can get these beautiful accidents. It feels like it brings the machines closer to man."