We’re all parasites drinking John Coltrane’s blood

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.

25 thoughts on “We’re all parasites drinking John Coltrane’s blood”

  1. >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?

    –If you bought a vinyl version and accidentally melted it, is it wrong to lift a copy from your local record store?

    >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?

    –And I wonder, how many quarters have been fed into jukeboxes to pay for songs that are on rightfully paid-for records, cassette tapes or eight tracks that are sitting in basements?

    Caveat emptor.

  2. Wow, very interesting Senor Sabu. I enjoyed that article quite a bit. “Stay Hungry” was one of the first cassettes I ever purchased with my own money, and although I haven’t rushed to get it on CD, I actually downloaded it also. I’m waiting for The Future when everyone will have every song ever recorded implanted in their brains on a tiny little chip. Then no one will have to share anything and bands will just make money off of t-shirts and all that money from government arts funding. 2019, here we come!

  3. –If you bought a vinyl version and accidentally melted it, is it wrong to lift a copy from your local record store?

    Mac, Sabu is referring to the specific fragile nature of “owning” digital music, something intangible. You can not hold the digital file in your hands and ensure it’s kept safe. How many files have we all lost when Windows froze up while we were looking up nudie pictures of that chick from Ed? Now, contrast that with how many times we’ve melted records. I have in fact only melted two records in my life and one was on purpose.

  4. Also in response to Mac, wouldn’t a closer equivalent of what Sab is talking about mean taping a friend’s copy of an lp you melted rather than running into a store and stealing a brand-new copy? And what do you say, Mac, to the question of how many times are we supposed to pay for the same music? Hell, not even the same music. We all pay to see shows where artists are going to perform songs we’ve heard countless times. How many times are we expected to pay for the exact same recording of a given song? I’d never thought of that before.

  5. Well, as I have set myself up as the petit-defender of intellectual capital here, try this one:

    Say you buy a book. A hardcover. So have paid for the words. You have paid the vendor. The publisher. The distributor. And the author might make two bits, too.

    Let’s say that for some reason, you have lost, tossed, or otherwise found yourself without that book. Further, let’s say that a paperback edition has come out.

    Same book. Same words. Same author. Same distributor. Same vendor.

    Do you automatically score said book because you’ve already paid once?

    I recently bought an ebook copy of an 18th century novel (of which I own several physical copies). My pocket PC fucked up and everything on it–including said book–was lost. Consider the data “melted.” When I re-synced with my computer, which had the book on it, I found that I cannot open the book. So I’m out of the digital book. If I want it again, I have to buy it. Should I deserve a free copy, and if so, why? In this case, the author is long dead, so he won’t make anything whether I buy it or not, unlike many of the musicians whose music is downloaded (John Coltrane notwithstanding).

    And while caveat emptor may be a bullshit concept rooted in whatever, given that it is a concept that was first codified during the Roman Empire, seems that it had legs (1) before there was a capitalist society and (2) long before Darwinism, social or otherwise, had been considered relevant. Pissing on it won’t make it go away. It’ll just make it soggy.

  6. I think the issue of replacing destroyed copies of digitally distrbuted media is pretty simple. You have already paid once, and all the parties have received their pieces of the pie–however small they might be. There is no incremental cost incurred by the publisher when you download another copy. Therefore, the right to download a replacement should be guaranteed. Further, there is a long running precedent for this practice in the software industry.

  7. Tech support: Mac, when you re-synced your Pocket PC, did the software to read the ebook get transferred too, or just the ebook file itself? I would attempt to reinstall the ebook “reader,” whatever that may be. And then try re-syncing again. Can you read the ebook on the computer that had the book on it, but not on the Pocket PC? I wouldn’t give up on it if I were you! All hope is not lost.

  8. The music industry, and even some in the publishing world want a future world where they charge per occurance. What this means is that something like a song file can only be opened a limited number of times. An electronic book would erase itself once you finished it, or page by page as you read it.

    If you think this is a joke, the joke’s on you. This is serious. There are lobbyists for the recording industry in Washington who are pushing laws that anticipate this type of media environment. Librarians, who actually represent a strong interest group when you consider the volume of books and music purchased nationally for libraries, are very much opposed to this type of thing.

    Imaging a world where much of your media is essentially Pay-Per-View. If you think that the big universe of the Internet will keep you free, you’re fooling yourselves. The recording industry is already using viruses to find individuals who download files, and then sueing them in court!

    This all reminds me of Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s concepts for the book did not stem from a belief that the State simply becomes totolitarian, but that business itself becomes totolitarian through the state.

    Big Brother is here today, my friends.

  9. >This is serious.

    You couldn’t be more correct, Scotty.

    > You have already paid once, and all the parties have received their pieces of the pie–however small they might be. There is no incremental cost incurred by the publisher when you download another copy.

    In point of fact, Jeff, there was probably no cost to the publisher when I downloaded the first copy. One thing that the Web has done is that it has made us do the work, sort of like self-service gas stations.

    But we seem to be concentrating here more on delivery mechanisms (digital, scratches on pieces of plastic, ink on paper) than on the content and those who have created it. Where do the “artists” get their due? Just the first time?

  10. “Where do the ‘artists’ get their due?”

    I think most are wondering the same thing. When and where have they ever gotten their due?

  11. All of my favorite music was taped or burned for me. What is the deal, Jeff? Friends are supposed to give you music. Is it you or them. But Jeff as a result, you’ve written a good article. Chalk one up to your shitty friends.

    Love, your friend,

    BP

  12. Oops. I’m the anon above.

    Don’t the artists get something when there is the exchange made: your money for their music (yes, yes, I know that there is a fine sieve that keeps whatever gets to them exceedingly tiny. But something is, after all, something.)?

  13. I’d be interested in knowing what some of the artists think about the topic of downloading music more than once. Do they expect their performances to be paid for in a pay-per-listen manner? How would they feel about paying twice for something they like listening to? Fact is, most artists make their money on the road from concert receipts and merch sales. Only the biggest selling artists see much in the way of royalties, and ironically, it seems that it’s the artists with the biggest bankrolls and the fattest big-label deals who do most of the bitching.

    And I still contend that this issue wouldn’t be such a hot button issue if consumers weren’t being ripped off by the labels. And you know the labels are aware of this. They know how much it costs to produce a cd, and they know how shitty the terms of most contracts are for the artists. They screw the consumer and the creator, and now they are looking for new orifices to penetrate via the web and digital media.

  14. If you reference Steve Albini’s article concerning the financial wrangling of the music industry, you HAVE to quickly realize that the artist, the ones who create the product, the ones who inspire the product, the ones who perhaps are often above the product, get screwed, screwed, screwed. I guess everybody knows that by now. This discussion is all abt corporations squeezing people dry in every way. yes, exactly. caveat emptor! b/c we have to be so aware, we should make every effort to support our favorite music through concerts, merchandise, and the other avenues they actually make money doing. and we should equally try NOT to support corporations who still insist of selling a $4 CD for $17, all in the name of their right to get a (reasonable?) profit.

  15. Excellent article, it was not only entertaining, but it gets the point across very well. Mac, I think you are making the concept less clear with your analogy about physical property. A hard disk is like vinyl that we can recut at will. We own the disk already, but can choose to re-arrange the bits and bytes as we wish. I take issue with your concern for the artists as well. Depending on your definition of “original” one could argue that all music based on the western scale is “unoriginal”. For example, whomever invented D# is no longer getting royalties -they should be paid by artists who choose to use the note D#, or any chord which uses D#? I think the upheaval of the current industry will have a profoundly GOOD impact on the quality of “art”, for in my opinion, good artitists make their art because they have a passion for it, and want to communicate it to everyone, not just those who will buy an album. I hope the future of music will be in performance, and all good music will be freely distributable, with the good will of the artist behind the distribution, as they will know their message will get heard.

  16. gr00vy:

    Even if the future of music is performance, I would assume that the performers, whether they are passionate or not, will need to be paid at some point. Which generally takes the form of a ticket. So you go to the concert for which you have purchased a ticket. Does that mean that you henceforth have a free pass to all future performances of the musicians because you have paid?

  17. mac: “Does that mean that you henceforth have a free pass to all future performances of the musicians because you have paid?

    Of course it does not. Why would it?

  18. gr00vy:

    >We own the disk already, but can choose to re-arrange the bits and bytes as we wish. I take issue with your concern for the artists as well. . . .I hope the future of music will be in performance, and all good music will be freely distributable, with the good will of the artist behind the distribution. . . .

    My point is that there seems to be a thread among these threads that tends to argue the pay-once theory for music and that your lines excerpted here seems to indicate that the performers (be they live or recorded) somehow don’t get paid for their good efforts, that their good will is sufficient. So, if the future of music is performance, and if there is a pay-once approach, then it seems to follow that you buy an endless E-ticket, as it were.

  19. This is such a hot issue. I personally have no sympathy for the recording companies, who have been unfair to artists and consumers alike for the sake of profit. Now, I do beleive in capatalism and I don’t begrudge anyone making an honest buck, but come on, they recently lost a class action lawsuit brought against them by consumer advocates for price fixing CD’s in the mid-nineties. Too bad for them if they did not have the foresight to anticipate how digital technology would affect consumer demand. If they are too lazy to change their business model, that’s their problem. It’s so typical that they are chasing after the “quick” buck of lawsuits rather then actually come up with new ways of doing business. They cried foul when recordable cassettes first came out, too.

    As far as the artists are concerned, it would be great if somehow they had more control over whether or not their music would be accessible over the internet. I mean, some artists have embraced the technology and used it as a promoting tool, while others do feel they are being ripped off. This to me is the main issue, because I would not work for free (but, of course, as a performer I did many times) and I don’t expect anyone to have to work for free, or not get fairly compensated for their work, so this is what really needs to get worked out. Fuck the record companies, they will survive, like they always have “on the blood of John Coltrane”.

    As for the fans, I honestly feel that the majority of music fans that are sharing files do so because of the passion they feel for music, I beleive (at least from my circle of friends anyway) that they are still spending their entertainment dollars to see their favorite artists live and buy their latest CD’s, this is just one more avenue to be fanatic about. Like collecting bootlegs. You love a band so much, you just want to own everything they’re in, even a shitty bootleg.

  20. I have downloaded sooo many tunes and albums that I had owned at one time or another on LP, Cassette, or CD. WHen it comes down to it though we still love the feel of the real album in our hands, the “ownership”

  21. As an unsigned musician, I have used and continue to use the Internet to promote my music and feel that all self-respecting artists should make “some” of their content available for free trade/copying/piracy/whatever via the Internet. Otherwise, why would anyone even be interested? Why even have a website? “Oh, here’s this band I found on the Internet, but what do they SOUND like?”

    MP3’s are just like cassettes in the sense that everytime you copy them, the quality degrades. I’m fine with those being traded in greasy frat houses and to Uncle Joe’s “frankensteined” 133MHz 56K piece of crap.

    Here’s my incendiary bit: Kazaa and Napster are illegal and should be stopped. Just because they are “free” does not mean they are good. I certainly wouldn’t want my entire catalog available for people download from an entity that is not responsible for its creation, especially if a format comes along that is compact enough and not “lossy” for people to download. Unless of course they pay for it and I in turn get paid. I have the good stuff available on my own website for free, so why should I allow Napster and Kazaa to make money with their annoying pop up ads? And I am certainly not going to let random people onto my hard drive for file sharing as that is asking for trouble and this is the only computer I have.

    There is nothing wrong with file swapping among friends. If they have the bandwidth and the time, let them. That’s the same as copying an LP to tape, or CD-CD or 8-Track to MP3. That doesn’t matter.

    What matters is when some third party entity (i.e. Napster, Kazaa) puts their ugly mug in the picture and makes money without dealing directly with the creator of said downloads. If they pay a royalty, it makes it slightly less shady, but it still smacks of impropriety. Especially if, as the creator of a song, I have not turned that song into a digital, downloadable format. Even if Napster and Kazaa don’t make money what they are doing is wrong because they are taking control (or providing the context for someone else to take control) over something they have no right to control.

    And that’s what it boils down to: control. Am I in control of my own work? Or is Napster, Kazaa, or Big Brother subjugating my rights?

  22. Just a technical point:

    > MP3’s are just like cassettes in the sense that everytime you copy them, the quality degrades

    Nope.

    Granted, a file can be corrupted in transmission, but that’s very rare. An identical copy of an mp3 is just that – identical.

  23. um, i’m an unsigned musician too, but i use samples, so i believe that its not just me who makes my music, its the whole of music history filtered through my head! Following on, i can only hope to be paid for my performances and remix work. Being unsigned, i am cool with anyone downloading my music, cos they might like it! the way i see it, the industry is a dinosaur that eats musicians for breakfast and as soon as we get a good paypal type system of net music distribution, it will be extinct. Bring it on!

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