Why not a more reasonable bitrate, like 128 kbps, or even just 64. Why not nice music that more people would want to listen to. And why even bother making low bitrate a thing that should become a category of netlabels or a subgenre of netaudio.
And then the obvious answers.
haz ran out of harddrive space. An anecdotal explanation, which at the same time might serve as some kind of founding myth for a proclaimed lo‑bit movement. You know―he said―I was downloading a lot of MP3s, as I was in an MP3 release group (EMPHASiS), and as harddrive space was running low, I decided to reencode my own productions at 20 kbps and upload them to a webserver to make space.
An argument from scarcity: 20kbps begins when many people are still on 56 kbps dial‑up internet, and if the kbps at which a person can download is to be a resource, that means people generally had less of it then than they have today. This might also explain why Russia seems to be a place where lo‑bit has gained a larger volume of popularity than in other places, since, from what I've read, broadband access was more expensive than in other countries, and for a longer time. But, honestly, I don't think it does explain.
An argument from aesthetic: and there are actually two strands to it. One of them is punk DIY aesthetic lifted into the digital age, which is the formula that Malcolm McLaren wants to apply to chiptunes in a 2003 article in Wired, in which I am mentioned. Except with 20kbps, it would not be about 'aged' technology being repurposed in a creative way, but about an aesthetic which, regardless of the technology that is used to create the work, is not shy to state that someone made this. On their own computer―if I wanted to be mischievous, I could call it Marxist and, being a musicology graduate, add a reference to Adorno and Horkheimer.
The other strand would be that the encoding artifacts have so much aesthetic appeal that they sufficiently legitimate a lo‑bit genre. I'm not sure anyone truly feels that way. I don't. I mean, sure, there is something special about the sound of music encoded at ultra‑low bitrates, and it might even be turned into an element of the work in its own right. But there does not seem to be that much to the encoding artifacts, not enough, in any case, to allow for a genre of music to be based on them.
The question remains, then.
And, just like haz when he is asked about the inception of his netlabel, I can only answer the question as to why I have created so much lo‑bit by anecdote.
The year was 2003. 20kbps wasn't even one year old when a friend of mine (pIMURI) tipped me off to it after he had somehow got to know the daftN0!ze people, one of which is haz. pIMURI showed me Adolf Neger - Rettet die Welt (20k033), and I was much impressed. It's by the guy who ended up singing Ich bin zu jung as Dagobert on ZDF Fernsehgarten ten years later. A fun fact on which haz let me in only a few years later.
I think the whole concept of netlabels was still new to me then, and 20kbps was the first of them I heard about ever. I had started creating music on computers some years before that, using ProTracker on Amiga and later various 'PC' (MS‑DOS and Windows) tracker software. My audience were pIMURI and other folks to whom I could play my music in my room, and some Amiga scene people with whom I swapped floppy disks by mail. Later I would start publishing some of my music on a now long defunct personal website.
Being introduced to 20kbps marks what might be called the experimental turn in my creating. I had been experimenting before that, for sure, but much of what I was creating using trackers would still be in line with the synthpop / traditional VGM styles popular in the demoscene. Hearing/seeing those releases on 20kbps was a liberation. I realized I could create anything and there would be a place where it would be welcomed and made available to other people who are into this kind of digital art―and that's what it indisputably is.
This is the background to which my first ever netlabel release, Dorfkrüppel - Vorhautentzündung (20k050), was created. This and being a fan of John Waters and his movies, especially the Trash Trilogy, which had opened up a world of trash and campiness to me not long prior. And also Todd Solondz and Harmony Korine, and by way of tracing John Waters' influences, George Kuchar. There's a lot of things in life worth living for, isn't there? In general, my netlabel work has been inspired by film and TV at least as much as by music. I am one of the Generation Catalano who have actually watched My So‑Called Life when it was on TV. Dawson's Creek still feels like an imaginary home to me after all these years, and it doesn't matter that I come from a lower class background than many of the beloved characters, the most important of which ended up on the cover of The Hardliner - Suicide Bag Safely Locked Away (20k340).
I think it was obvious to me that with the things that were released on 20kbps, music wasn't actually the main constituent. This is something about which I haven't really seen any discussion yet, safe for a few remarks in casual conversation about how shit my music on 20kbps actually is, and that it's only a vehicle for publishing the titles and the other things for which the music is used as an excuse for publishing. While I do think that at least some of the music I've released on 20kbps has an appeal in itself, I have always, more or less explicitly, known that the work that is presented on the netlabel is actually the entire package of words, music and images. I would go so far as to claim that 20kbps is actually an art gallery. The album cover and the titles weigh much more here than they do in a recording artist's work that is made with the intention of getting airplay.
Which brings me to the subject of radio. Not only was 20kbps my entry into netlabels, it has also led to the things I was releasing on it getting some airplay. haz and dk9 of daftN0!ze have consistently been creating their radio broadcast SlackJackerz through the years. Coming from different but not too distant provinces, we would meet on several occasions: in the studios from where they would broadcast their radio show, at demoparties, and for my rare, ultra‑rare 'PAs', which are all, without a single exception, due to haz's organizing. I still have a clear memory of how he handed me a CHF 100 bill of the money that he had got from cultural endowment as I entered the record store at which he was working, and which was used as a venue for my own and some other people's PA.
So, as much as 20kbps has been a portal into new realms of creativity, it has also been about meeting friends, and moments in my life on which I will not be able to look back without succumbing to nostalgia―which I will do gladly. I don't know how much 20kbps means to other people. It sure means a lot to me, and I think it has not nearly got the appreciation it deserves. It's still very much underground after all these years, despite having become legendary to the people who 'have the proper affinity'. Being underground might be part of the appeal. I for one would like to use any opportunities I might get in the future to make its name more known wherever. It is, in my eyes, not only an important part of my own story with digital art, but one of the more sizeable phenomena in digital art on the internet. One that should not fade away so quickly.