Kids today. With their filesharing, anonymously hiding behind their campus IP address, stealing music in their fucking underwear. It’s embarrassing when you consider the art form that generations before them had to perfect just to get free music.
We called it shoplifting.
Don’t worry. I’m not about to steal your iPod at work or lift your Xanax prescription if you invite me over to your place. I’m not especially proud of my prior delinquency, but I understand that it is a part of me and my musical collective.
It began right around the time I began to get obsessive about music. I started reading things like Rolling Stone magazine and realized that there was a huge amount of music that I wanted but didn’t have the financial means to get. To simply wait for events like my birthday or Christmas to receive them as gifts was not enough to satisfy me. My allowance was horrifically minimal, to the point where I had to save the entire amount just to have enough at the end of the month to get one album. And when you’re at a point of discovering a band, you understand that waiting an entire month to discover the next release in their catalog is not practical.
I remembered that one grandmother gave me the same gift every year for my birthday: a $25 U.S. Savings Bond. The idea was for me to save them and then cash them in when I went off to college. My new love of the long player changed that plan.
I wasn’t sure how a savings bond worked, so I went to a bank in the mall and asked the teller if they cashed them in. After learning that they would, I immediately went home and got one from my toy safe in my closet. When I went back to the bank, I was surprised when the teller brought back $30 dollars, more than the face value of the bond itself. I quickly learned the concept of “interest rates” a few months later when I started to reach the end of my savings bond inventory. The money I received for those savings bonds were actually lower than the face value. When I questioned the teller why, she explained that I was cashing bonds before they fully matured.
It didn’t matter. I was hooked by the amount of new music my buying power afforded me.
Within the year, all of the bonds I had accumulated were gone. It wasn’t until college that I had to explain the whereabouts of my missing bonds. Even ten years removed, it was embarrassing for me to admit to my parents, particularly under the spotlight of collegiate financial constraints, that I had squandered all of my Grandmother’s birthday bonds on twelve-inch slabs of vinyl.
Even though I was broke, my favorite bands continued to release records. I studied the employees at the big Woolworths department store in the mall, after noticing how close their record department was to their front entrance. There was a record store in the mall too, but I didn’t consider lifting anything from them as their employees were always walking around, watching people, asking them if they needed any help.
Woolworth’s wasn’t like that. Their associates were always in some other department, leaving the two check out clerks as the only people attending to the front of the store. When a line developed at the check out line, they became distracted, enabling a prime condition for shoplifting.
The next challenge was to determine how to transport the huge pieces of vinyl in a manner not to draw attention away from the clerks. I noticed that they used special brown paper bags when you actually bought an album. The bag was perfectly contoured to fit a record and it was wide enough to hold a few LPs. I decided that I would actually buy an album and then return back to the record department and fill the bag with additional merchandise.
I should mention that I was incredibly scared at the prospects of being caught. Not necessarily for the legal ramifications, but the fear centered on my mother. She worked in the same mall and knew everyone who worked at the various stores. The shame of me getting caught was nothing compared to the shame that she would face every day she went to work. She would be known as “The Mother of the Shoplifting Kid” and would be met with disapproving glances each time she walked the long walk to her store, a woman’s clothing store chain.
I also remember her referring to one of the associates at her store who she busted for lifting some clothes as a “fucker.” For years after, whenever the conversation of the Judas employee came up, my mother would break her tradition of not using profanity by laying out the most choice swear words to accent her dislike of this young woman. Would she then refer to me as a fucker too should I get busted at Woolworth’s?
I didn’t have time to ponder this or consider her potential shame. Rush was releasing Moving Pictures in a week and I had to get a copy.
It worked so well that I continued shoplifting at Woolworth’s for months. On one occasion, I went back to the department after buying the album and filled the bag with as many records as I could. The bag would be so heavy that it required two hands to carry when nonchalantly walking past the checkout clerks.
I told a friend of my exploits after he asked me how I could afford so many new records. He went and tried my strategy himself while I waited for him on one of the benches near the store. Five minutes later, he came walking out of the store at a heighten pace, nervously looking behind him until he finally made it outside. I caught up with him a few blocks away from the mall and asked what happened. He still had the album he actually bought, but he said that the other ones he had attempted to steal were scattered across various departments within the store after he noticed the manager following him around, looking to bust him the moment he exited the front door.
It seemed that I had a talent for this whereas others did not. Regardless, I figured that Woolworths was now too hot to try and shoplift from again.
I used a similar strategy at the Disc Jockey store one day when they were very busy. They had an endcap that featured the new releases which was at the front of the store by the doors. I needed to get a birthday present for a girl that I liked and remembered that she knew the words to Eric Clapton‘s version of “Cocaine” whenever it played on the jukebox of one of the pizza joints in town. Clapton had just released the double live album Just One Night which featured the live version of that song and I figured the extravagance of a double album would set me ahead of any other potential suitors.
Since Disc Jockey used these impossibly flimsy plastic bags, I was forced to go back to Woolworth’s an ask the check out lady if I could have one of the store’s special brown paper bags. She carefully watched me, sensing I was up to no good, but then stopped worrying about what I was going to do as soon as she saw me walk away from her store.
Not only did I have to consider the staff at Disc Jockey when shoplifting Just One Night, I had to keep an eye out for mall shoppers who continued to walk by the end cap and see what albums had just been released. Finally, after 15 minutes of finding the right moment, I was able to get that record and give it to that girl for her birthday. It made an impact: recently at my 20th high school reunion, she came up to me and said that she loved that Eric Clapton album I gave her decades before.
The event itself was so stressful that I swore off shoplifting for good. I did occasionally scout the parking lots of the local hospital for unlocked cars whenever I had to walk by it on my way back to school from the orthodontist. Aside from Fleetwood Mac’s Live and Lindsey Buckingham’s Law And Order, there wasn’t much to refresh my desire to lift.
I did lift a few cassettes from the local K-Mart when it was about to go out of business. They were hard to remove from those plastic security holders and the effort it took to get just one album was not worth the risk.
The last time I shoplifted anything was in 1996. I was approaching thirty, legit, responsible, and reluctantly at a Wal-Mart. I noticed that they had the new Patti Smith album Gone Again, not up front with the other new releases but back in the catalog section. For some reason, the idea of a Patti Smith album at Wal-Mart bothered me and I figured that Patti herself would be proud if stole it. I carefully popped it out of its security holder and moved to an area of the electronics department that had a blind spot from the watchful eyes of the security cameras above. Gone Again is a pretty good album and it’s one that I am pretty content on retiring from shoplifting on.
I have to laugh whenever I hear the “You’re stealing if you download music” analogy. It can’t be. There’s no planning involved, no fear, and no limitations. I used to have to prioritize what I stole, factoring in what I could fit inside that brown paper bag. The bag is endless in cyberspace. You can download for free and immediately delete it if you decide it’s not your thing.
There are no real repercussions involved and, if you get busted, you’re immediately placed in the role of martyr, a hapless victim to record company greed and overzealous regulation. The last time I checked, stealing isn’t a political statement and shoplifting isn’t seen as a socially acceptable way to sock it to the man.
So don’t call it stealing. As a former record shoplifter, there’s nothing that you can say that will convince me that downloading an album for free is anywhere near the illegal activities that I went through back then.
To all you kids who’ve grown up in a world where music is considered a “free” art form, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. And since you’ve got a little bit of extra spending cash as a result of all of those free tunes on your hard drive, here’s a little bit of advice: hold off on cashing those savings bonds your Grandma got you. You’re gonna need them for better things than records, trust me.