Well, this has gotten quite a reaction. After lots of hilarious social media back and forth, I decided that I needed to amend this with one more type of pre-Internet piracy, that of the Community Library type. A true classic. So many people mentioned that I don't feel like I can even cite someone as the source of it. Thank you social network!
Furthermore, let's get one thing straight--it's not cool when artists don't get compensated for their work. Compensation has meanings intangible and tangible, but hell yes filthy lucre is one of them, and that's how it should be. Hopefully between voices like my own, Lowery's, White's, and many others, we can figure out the bizarre quandary that the recorded music industry has found itself in with regards to monetary compensation.
On June 16, a 20-year-old NPR intern named Emily White wrote a short blog post called "I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With." In it, she breaks down her history of her relationship with and procurement of music. She notes with some wonder that she really hasn't bought much of it. Kazaa; Spotify; mix CDs; ripping music from her college radio station's library of CDs; legal; illegal; subscription model services; gifts from friends; everything except... buying The Thing and owning it. Probably a pretty typical story. She then ends by acknowledging that the brave new world of music revenue streams has some serious problems, she states a vague and earnest desire for something like Spotify but with broader catalog reach and a better revenue share for musicians--the kind of big-thinking-out-loud that is a common Millenial habit, and just seems to drive older people batty--and she's out.
Then David Lowery, a 51-year-old former alt-rock star from the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and now an economics teacher at University of Georgia, wrote a response. It's called "Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered." It's very long, touches on a lot of themes related to music and commerce, and got a lot of attention. I'm almost 40 years old and for a while it actually started displacing the torrent of pictures of friends' children that is my usual Facebook feed. That's an achievement. I would have shrugged it off as your typical crank-attacks-kid-in-media story if it weren't for my peers' reactions.
The aspect that my peers really bonded with, and horrified me, is that Lowery seems to feel that the theft of music is a new phenomenon that is unique to the young people of today. His piece full of things he needs to tell Emily about Emily and her digital klepto peer group. He's pretty qualified to do this because he's taught college for a few years. And man did my peer group eat it up. It was all over my facebook feed. Where did they get this awful new behavior? We never did this!!! Are these the wages of Attachment Parenting??? It really started to mess me up.
So look. I was in this band called The Dismemberment Plan, that was a large-club act in the late-90s and early 2000s. We were never as big as Cracker but we did ok. I'm 39. I still make music. I make no money from it anymore. I've had my ups and downs. It's all good. And I stole the f*** out of music before there ever was an internet, David, and then Napster came along and s*** got real. I'm going to take a moment to describe some of my memories and methods of wanting music so badly that I just reached out and grabbed it even before Napster made it easy and cool. Apparently, none of my cohort ever did any of this stuff; I had some majorly goody-goody friends it seems. Either that, or they are doing that generational-amnesia thing. We are reaching That Age... Anyways, like my man Usher says, these are my confessions.
Straight Up Shoplifting
This wasn't that common, actually. I was a middle-class kid with an allowance. But I had friends in low places. We used to go to the Olsson's in Old Town Alexandria, VA, now closed (probably because of little internet thieves like Emily White; my actions had no discernable impact on their P&L of course.) We went into the back cassette tape room. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling cassettes. My God. Public Image Limited! 10,000 Maniacs! Guadalcanal Diary! The Fat Boys! I WANT TO HEAR THEM ALL AND I CAN'T HEAR ANY OF THEM. So you'd strip the plastic wrapping off when the pot-smoker cashier went to Armand's for a slice, because it had this little magnetic strip that would get the anti-theft thing going at the door... slip it in your surplus army jacket... and shove that damn tape into your walkman as fast as you could, when you were out of sight.
Me and my friend Ed would agree on what records we both wanted, go together to buy the vinyl versions along with packs of blank cassettes, and then go home and dub copies... splitting custody of the vinyl in the end. For whatever reason, our favored venue for this was the Waxie Maxie's at Skyline Shopping Center. Poor old Olsson's. It's true--young people that steal have no brand loyalty! Ed would buy the Monkees' Greatest Hits and Tinderbox by Siouxie And The Banshees; I'd buy One Step Beyond by Madness and Listen Like Thieves by INXS; and then we'd dub all four. Sitting together, listening to the music, and discussing it. I learned a lot about how to listen and analyze music this way. (BTW, all four of those long-players are great. All of them hold up. Any curious young people should steal them on the internet.)
Taping Off The Radio
This was hilarious. I would psychopathically hound DJs at Q107 or WAVA to play this or that song. I would call the request line until my finger fell off from dialing. Please Please Please play Life In A Northern Town by Dream Academy in the next 20 minutes I have soccer practice at 4!!!! And then I'd sit. With my finger on the record button on my boombox. With more laser-like focus than a Central Park squirrel waiting for a German tourist to drop their pretzel. Please don't let the preceding song overlap too much; Please don't talk over the intro you douchebag DJ; Please no ads for Jerry's Ford ruining the ending. I always kept a tape ready in my boombox in case of suprises. The day that Q107 played "Ship Of Fools" by World Party--an unusual tune in the context of 80s pop radio, with weird sounds and misanthropic lyrics, my idea of a good time and probably an error that got a DJ fired--I swear to god I knocked over every piece of furniture in my room to hit record.
Duh. Do I have to explain this one? Suffice it to say that if mix-tape-making technology had been successfully eradicated, I probably wouldn't have gotten a girlfriend until I was 33 years old.
I went to William and Mary, a school for intelligent grinder kids and a tragic mismatch for me. But, we had a very robust FM radio station, WCWM, that was one of the older FM stations in Virginia. I think around 2,000 watts. You could hear us in Norfolk on a clear day. So we had a very solid vinyl catalog, and we were getting torrents of promo CDs. Our vinyl 45 collection was actually really amazing--Cannonball Adderly, Aretha, Ray Charles, all that stuff. I basically lost my mind taping things. Everything from Jesus Lizard to Charles Mingus. I do not know, for the life of me, how I could have stopped myself from making those dubs. I was like a crackhead--if they sold crack at CVS, and it was free. On top of that, would I walk out with some promo CDs? Oh hell yes. Although I remember once the Music Director asking me if I wanted a CD single of "Get Off This," David Lowery's piss-take of the entitled young that he recorded in 1992. (Homeboy seems to have some lifelong obsessions, huh?) I declined. My housemate had a dub of that record and played it all the time. He loved "Euro-Trash Girl."
Community Libraries Public libraries were one of the most important--and strangest--sources of old-school pirated music. You took them home to dub, but of course like anything from the library, getting them back was a titanic mental struggle and often times you'd just end up with it in your collection. At least when I was a kid, the music at public libraries were these sad little bins with about 200 records max. I can only begin to imagine how these "collections" were "curated." They tended to have five types of records:
- Classical (this was most of it)
- 70's hippie-pop-rock also-rans. The covers mostly featured shirtless, machosensitive, Edwin Sharpe-looking dudes with tight jeans, standing around in nature
- Academic folk compilations, like Dave Van Ronk Sings Etruscan Murder Ballads but no one even as famous as Dave Van Ronk
- Pop hit records of the day. Score! Except these would be gone within hours of going out on the floor. It was a miracle to find a-Ha, or Madonna, or Cyndi Lauper. You never let one of these get by you. A really ambitious kid could develop inside connections with the volunteer librarians that knew what was up. You didn't hear it from me but uhh... I hear we got some Eurythmics coming in...
- 80's hard indie-rock and punk. This was totally weird. You'd be standing there in the carpeted Quonset hut that was the Kings Park regional library on some hot summer day and after flipping by four identical LPs of Chopin etudes, you'd be staring at, like, Double Nickels On The Dime by the Minutemen. I could feel my brain softly bulging against the inside of my skull as it almost seemed to speak to me. Take Me. Learn Me. Absorb Me. I actually would move past these with the disturbed and ashamed hurry of someone that just got flashed. Too much too soon. Had to wait for college for this. (see College Radio above.)
Now, all of this happened well before Napster, which showed up when I was 26. I could write an essay about Napster, and the impact that had on my generation in our twenties, and the battles we thought we were waging against Metallica and big evil major labels that were destroying music... but most people know that story. (Except for maybe my peers? I think they think Emily White invented Napster when she was 10, not Sean Fanning and Sean Parker.)
(GOD I wish I had Spotify when I was 17. It kills me.)
Music is so important to people. It is majorly important to young people. And to me? Literally somewhere below water and air but above food. And I just went for it. I bought a lot of music; I got a lot of free music from whatever sources were at hand; I just had to have it by any means necessary. If you duped a copy of a Dismemberment Plan record in college or something, it's cool. I guess I'd like to have the money, but you know what, I hope you just listened to it with even 1/10 of the consciousness I gave to the music I listened to as a kid--copied, stolen, or bought. And you know, maybe take some of the sermonizing from my peer group with a grain of salt. I think some of them did some of the things I did. Or... maybe a lot of them.