How CloudCore and Two Shell are cultivating scarcity to create underground fan communities
Club music has always had a tricky relationship with attention. This is how it usually goes: First, a community digs down to make a small scene. Then, that scene is found, beloved by the masses, exploited by the music industry and sapped of its initial intrigue. Its most iconic figures lie in the shadows while their disciples take it and run towards hyper-visibility.
Take a scene such as UK garage, whose pirate radio beginnings morphed into an excess of Ayia Napa club seasons and newcomers with “bad intentions” in the 2000s that put its name through the mud. Think back to the days of Dubstepforum, which experienced this twice in a few short years—first, when the original dubstep scene was diluted (in their eyes) by Skrillex and the Brostep movement, then when James Blake and others reinvented the genre into post-dubstep before they became some of the most sought-after talents in music.
It’s not a net negative, but the outcome certainly kills the original scene’s intimacy and sense of community. How do you grow and sustain a community full of quality music without it being consumed by the dominant culture and diluted to the point of no return?
Two acts have found a solution: locking their social circles and music behind passwords and timed releases. Hyper-digital UK bass wizards Two Shell and sci-fi club label CloudCore have each found ways to build worlds for their music through these shared ideas. On the surface, this artist and this label seem faceless, but while they’re coy with revealing their identity, their creative decisions have built stronger connections than most ever could. They each centre their output on a philosophy that scarcity is essential to creating something special in a time when information is abundant.
Two Shell are an anonymous London-based duo who create club tracks rooted in an avant-garde blending of Y2K aesthetics and PC Music glitch pop. Their music is an alien blend of UK bass, hyperpop, breakbeat and bubblegum bass, and their artwork calls back to the aesthetics of 2000s video games such as Runescape, Zelda, Spyro, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Deux Ex. So far, the duo has remained cheekily concealed and microphone-shy, with a Boiler Room set in 2022 where they may or may not have sent body doubles, and a single interview for the Face that has since been “destroyed” and plastered with the words “snooze, you lose!” [Ed. note: I paid money to see Two Shell “perform” at Nowadays last year. They weren’t there.] Many have speculated their identity is another British club duo like Disclosure or Overmono. But if you were to compare them to anyone, their trickster streak is more reminiscent of Aphex Twin.
Looking through their Bandcamp or artist page on streaming services, you get the impression that they’ve released a healthy amount of EPs, singles and white labels in the last few years. But this is just the surface of an ocean of material you can find online, with so much unreleased and once-available material that there is no concrete discography that ties it all together. It creates an internet scavenger hunt for any new tracks that have that signature sound of oscillating bass, spatial mixing and vocoder vocals.
In their Face interview, Two Shell said of this move, “We want to make new ways for people to feel excited about the things they like, and to maybe change the perceived value of certain items, like music files.”
This mission is advanced through the shell.tech website, which is described as their “interface to the world.” Visiting the website, you realise they mean that in the most technical way possible. Greeted with a password box in the centre of a cyber wireframe background like some sort of hacker fantasy, shell.tech has over 75 passwords that will grant access to different files, documents and even fun Easter eggs if you enter common passwords like ‘12345’ and ‘password’. New passwords are regularly being added as official ways to access more of the Two Shell archive, including their radio show, DJ mixes and remixes.
Their desire to turn music files into precious items mirrors the dubplate culture of ‘60s Jamaican sound systems, ‘70s New York disco clubs, and ‘90s London jungle and garage producers. DJs would press their in-development and unreleased tracks on affordable acetate vinyl to play them in the clubs before they got a wider release. “You paid to get them made and no one could copy them,” said London jungle producer Dillinja in 2014. “It’d make people want it more! These days music isn’t worth anything.”
Two Shell reach for a similar, albeit lower-stakes version of exclusivity by hiding tracks in plain sight first, then keeping them in the control of an in-the-know community.
shell.tech also has minimal social elements that put you in viewing distance of a community beyond its domain. It once had a bare-bones, early-internet chat room that has since been hidden after doxxing attempts. Secret gigs have been sold under the radar through a password. There’s a Google Drive for fans to submit their demos directly to Two Shell, and a Google Doc that acts like a digital guest book. But generally, instead of creating a functional community hub, Two Shell seem to ask their fans to take on that work themselves. Two Shell fans have splintered and infiltrated other internet communities such as r/TheOverload and the CloudCore Discord server.
The only direct source for Two Shell news is through their dormant Instagram account that occasionally spills a new password, but key figureheads in the CloudCore discord particularly have become unofficial messengers. “There’s a hunger to always be aware of everything they’re doing, even at a distance,” said one fan. “It’s chaotic fun.”
One night, news broke on the CloudCore servers that the shell.tech site had a new password that gave access to an on-screen MP3 player from the post-iPod era with a batch of song snippets to play through. It contained a mixture of a few full-length tracks and many short, low-bitrate snippets. Some track titles had notes on them like ‘¥///0 $#£[[ x caroline polachek – [[she says we’re not allowed to play it lol]]’ (the track is mute), while one track in particular had a misspelt guest spot “ft Justin beiber (sic)”.
Though it was hosted on shell.tech, it gave the feeling of gaining access to Two Shell’s personal drive of rough demo files. Two Shell themselves never announced this new MP3 player directly, the information treacling through messengers instead. It was like hearing news of a leak that Two Shell weren’t aware of, when in reality, they had constructed the whole thing.
The sudden commotion within the community was similar to when songs from rappers like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert leak onto the internet, often disrupting plans for artists. Two Shell was flipping leak culture on its head by creating their own leak event that mimicked the mischievous delight of gaining unauthorised access to something you’re not supposed to hear.
Are these MP3 tracks teasers for upcoming releases? Are they throwaway demos? That remains to be seen. But by “leaking these tracks,” Two Shell fed scraps to a ravenous audience while enhancing the mystery around their art. Two Shell know exactly what to supply, which is never the full thing. They know wisecrack coders will inspect-element into the site’s code to extract the files, and thus the tracks in the MP3 player are obscured by low bitrates and cut off like an iTunes preview. When they released their newest EP lil spirits, the tracklist contained largely already-leaked songs, keeping up the perpetual cat-and-mouse chase between the fans and the artist. These unique interactions have come to define their cult following.
While Two Shell have used scarcity to create a bit of distance from its community, the British dance label CloudCore uses it to engage directly with theirs.
CloudCore’s business model functions on the artificial scarcity of downloads. Each week, its Bandcamp page presents a new release available for exactly seven days before it’s essentially archived with a price change to £999. Not only does the regular ritual bring the community together on a regular basis, but it means that files are distributed like rare Pokemon cards, with a limited-time run that culls the window of exposure before it’s tucked away into the price-gouged abyss (no, no-one has spent the £999 yet). New members of the Discord consistently ask to be able to purchase old tracks before regulars explain to them how CloudCore works. But from that, some of them make sure to never miss a week again.
When New York disco clubs became popular in the late 70s, one called The Paradise Garage became strictly members-only, where newbies had to be recommended to even get in. In an interview with Martin James, resident DJ and house music forefather François K pondered the decision. “To an extent, [it] helped the music to sustain an underground feeling even while the whole world was jumping on the bandwagon. And when the backlash against disco hit, the underground was still separate and independent so it survived to develop and push the music forward.” Disco may not have survived in the club scene if not for this.
CloudCore is similarly curtailing its growth by revealing its content for a short time to make it harder to spread across the internet and reach people who aren’t already around that circle. While interviewing numerous CloudCore users, many said that they were introduced to the label by YouTube curator BlueDollarBillz, who is likely the name you will see if you’re searching for “Two Shell.” The channel posting CloudCore tracks is one of the biggest ‘ins’ to the community.
There’s another element to CloudCore that creates a sub-circle of exclusivity in the form of CloudKeys, which are made for the first 150 or so downloaders of every release. CloudKeys are PDF posters that feature commissioned artwork and easter egg web links that give the artwork more context. Previously, the keys have celebrated the rich history of Newcastle’s World HQ nightclub, explored the relationship between music and mycelial networks, and paid tribute to a lost member of the community. These PDF files give you a password that allows you to download a selection of tracks from the CloudCore archive in the hopes of catching up on the collection. They’re like a VIP experience that rewards those who are front of the queue when the new release comes, and piece by piece, lets you get to know this initially sterile-looking label more and more.“ It makes it into a music thing and a collection thing,” said one user.
What Two Shell and CloudCore are doing represents the new ways in which music and music communities can be decentralised. That’s not ‘decentralised’ like the NFT and crypto BS we’ve been hearing over the past couple of years, but decentralised in how they make experiences exciting without using streaming services and public-facing social media, and in the case of CloudCore, use their community to feed directly back into the development of the label.
Streaming has made music easily accessible, to the point where there’s an idea that music doesn’t ‘exist’ unless it’s on streaming services. Two Shell talk about this idea in their Face interview: “we believe in letting go of our music and not having a hierarchy where the makers live up in the big oak tree and the villagers can’t get up to pick the good berries.” They’ve done that by creating a tier system of mainline releases for streaming services and the rest of the experience through free downloads to those who search for it. CloudCore negates streaming services completely.
The design of public-facing social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok means that communities are only activated as and when the artist or label posts. However, these labels and artists have kept hidden from those outlets and instead focused on forum communities and DIY websites, and the result is one-of-a-kind experiences that draw in the curious and self-sustaining communities that contribute even when the creators are inactive. One CloudCore fan said of the structure of the community, “It allows people to engage almost exclusively with the music and culture of the label as opposed to bringing in external elements that might create distancing. With the anonymous side of many things, anyone and everyone can feel personally involved without having to feel the need to fit in.”
The CloudCore community thrives on Discord despite not being a presence on any other social platforms partly because they focus squarely on the unique features of Discord. Take ‘Nectar,’ a server-wide event that allows CloudCore to connect with its international audience. Stylised as a virtual interstellar airline, users are invited on a coach trip to a distant galaxy to listen to CloudCore specials on independent radio stations in places such as China, Finland and Palestine. They are taken out of the usual Discord as though they have physically left the server behind to this new place, where everyone that’s been transported there can fully focus on reacting to the mix with “a load of shouting, hype, posting gifs and memes following the ebbs and flows of the set,” as one user puts it.
Cloudcore crowdsources resources and expertise from its community, helping break down some of the hierarchy between fans and artists. Looking in the Discord, you’ll find artists who have had releases on the label partaking in the conversation, posting work-in-progress tracks and receiving feedback about them from fans/peers. Much of the label is homegrown on the Discord, and you can watch it unfold almost every day. “I love being close to the fans, day ones, and many artists themselves. It feels as close to a local scene as the digital days are capable of,” one member said.
Two Shell and CloudCore have designed digital worlds that keep a controlled lid on their growth and avoid the trappings that led to so many scenes throughout dance music history to their boom-and-bust endings. There’s still that exclusivity that has been prevalent in club music since the beginning, but rather than VIP sections and Vegas residencies, they reward those who are willing to dig deeper – a “slowly-expanding circle” as one user puts it. Another pondered the deeper meaning behind these communities:
“I think if anything, the deeper meaning is that, just because something is digital-only does not mean a whole community and world cannot connect emotionally. This scene is as strong as any IRL from the perspective of collaboration, knowledge exchange, and fostering community. Don’t let it living in a Discord keep you from feeling alive inside. Perhaps.”