I just downloaded Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from the Gnutella p2p network a few minutes ago. I’m listening to it as I write this, hoping it serves as a suitable jumping off point for my latest thoughts on downloading music. This is not only because it’s the most recent song I’ve “stolen,” in the RIAA’s parlance, but also because it was one of my first.
I was late to downloading, simply because I had a 56K modem and no patience. When I got a cable modem and took to downloading, Napster was in its death throes. But I did snag a poorly ripped version of this song, one of my favorite ’80s metal-lite anthems, and it has occupied three megabytes of my mp3 collection ever since. That is, until just now when it was replaced by a 256 kbps version. While the question of why someone would see Dee Snider worthy of such a staggeringly high bit rate is one for the ages, a more important question beckons. Why did I download the song in the first place?
Know that I own a copy of Stay Hungry, on which the song appears. When I first downloaded “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” that very record and the turntable on which I could play it were both within arms reach. Now they are in storage in a friend’s basement, perhaps making the second download a bit easier to explain. But the motivation for both downloads is that I just wanted to listen to the song. Seems self-explanatory. But why didn’t I grab that album off the shelf and spin it up to 33 rpms? Simple: convenience. The same reason my dad used to make cassette tapes in the 1980s of nearly every album in his collection of 5,000 jazz records. Back in the day, cassettes traveled. Today, mp3s do too, and they don’t take up so damn much space in my apartment.
So I downloaded a song that I already owned a copy of. A song for which the RIAA had already taken their cut. And I wonder, how many more records (or cassette tapes or eight-tracks) are sitting in basements while their owners download the music they’ve rightfully paid for? I have about 1,000 records myself. I might be the exception, but I would bet there is a not-insignificant percentage of Internet downloading that falls under this category, the “re-acquiring” of music. I am not saying this explains all downloading—certainly, there are no scratchy old vinyl copies of Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief rotting next to the hot water heater. But who among us has not purchased cassettes that are now too worn to listen, victims of cheap Kraco car stereos, now buried in shoeboxes underneath winter clothes that don’t fit? And don’t try and tell me that Classic Rock Radio, the biggest adult male format, doesn’t act primarily as an in-the-car/at-work surrogate for music collections that have been largely stagnant since the glory days of the Speedwagon.
This phenomenon of re-acquiring is an interesting one to look at. As my father, he of the giant jazz collection, is fond of saying, jazz record labels are living on the blood of the long dead, and they have been for quite some time. Like so many necrophiliac vampires, they reissued John Coltrane on eight track, then cassette, then again on CD, and then again on digitally remastered CD. So my dad, after buying 200 or so CD releases of albums he already owned on vinyl, went out and bought a CD burner and started checking discs out of the local library to copy for himself. He even does the booklets with a cheap inkjet printer and scanner, in essence, operating a private bootlegging operation as impressive as any in Singapore. And he does not give a shit about the legality or morality of any of this. John Coltrane has been dead since ’67.
Now Steve Jobs has also thrust his maw into my dad’s all-time favorite jazz artist’s decomposed corpse for yet another iteration, the AAC-encoded, copy protected, if-you-accidentally-deleted-the-file-you’ve-got-to-pay-for-it-again, $0.99 song download from the Apple Music Store. And as any of the mooks who shelled out $19.98 for a complete album download of The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd can tell you, this practice is not limited to exploiting the works of dead, sax-playing black guys. Which makes me wonder, how many times should anyone have to pay to listen to the same music?
Because listening is what matters. CDs, mp3s, or any other music format that permits us all to keep rockin’ in the free world—they all become eight-track tapes if you can’t listen to them. Which is what’s so damn freaky about the future of digital music. It’s not based on owning anything material, just the listening rights to something ultimately more fragile than a shellac 78, something that can be obsoleted more easily than those early laserdiscs. Of course, making copies—many copies—offers a certain protection against this fragility. But making copies brings up the specter of thievery, threatened and actual lawsuits from the RIAA, etc.
It also begs the question: If you paid Apple their buck for a tune and you accidentally delete the file, is it wrong to download the same song from Kazaa? Or better yet, since you’ve paid Apple for your Music Store collection, shouldn’t you be able turn around and sell those files (and your access code to them) to someone else, kind of like pawning that old Too Short CD that your wife won’t let you listen to anymore, or unloading that Led Zeppelin box set on Half.com?
As if the debate on the legal issues surrounding music “ownership” weren’t already complicated enough—thereby “gray” enough that any of the RIAA’s claims of widespread stealing/piracy/terrorism/etc. must be considered with a pillar of salt—Apple raises yet another imbroglio: sharing.
iTunes 4 allows users to share their entire music collections, meaning if I want to listen to a song, I need not download it. No, I just need to find someone who has it in his or her iTunes library and I can stream it to my computer, as if the song was really on my hard drive. Though in its infant stages, several Web sites are putting together indexes of people willing to share their music collections and bandwidth. It’s not hard to see what this means—given enough bandwidth and enough users, every song ever recorded will be available to listen to at any given time. Technology being what it is, it won’t be hard to imagine setting up your next generation integrated cell phone/PDA/iPod to play the stream.
When that happens, why own? The service would be so good as to make Napster seem like an AM radio version of PressPlay. Any song, anywhere, any time! Of course, we know it won’t actually happen this way, Corporate AmeriKKKa being what it is. Not that we even have to blame them directly; while I can still imagine the beauty of a network in which we all share what we have, history tells us that we in America don’t share on principle. Hell, many of my friends and the GloNo staff don’t even like to share with me most of the time. (Though that may be a personal issue.—Ed.) In this illogical reluctance to spread the wealth, you’ve got the secret of the corporations and their dominance of this game. They’ve got us all hoarding shit in our basements and repurchasing new versions upstairs only to send more crap down to the cellar after the next year’s Christmas. That’s the American Way.
But before I digress too far into a screed against the Sam Waltons, Ken Lays, and Dick Cheneys of the world, let’s bring this back to the music. As I’ve said before, the bottom line here, at least for the listener, is listening. The bottom line for the RIAA and their associated goons is money. To you, this is the cost of listening. Don’t think for a moment that they aren’t doing exactly like the aforementioned CEOs, and trying to wring every last penny out of each and every time my dad cues up A Love Supreme. Or you punch up Radiohead on the iPod.
Digital technology has turned a pretty simple business transaction with well-defined rules into the equivalent of a no-holds-barred street brawl with the pigs, like Chicago ’68 or L.A. ’92. Right now, it appears the downloaders are winning, but anyone who believes the RIAA doesn’t hold the upper hand (even if it’s so stupid it needs people like Steve Jobs to play it) is kidding themselves. The battle can’t go on forever, and someday soon we’re going to arrive at some sort of understanding about what it’s going to cost to listen.