The Long Read: Confessions Of An English Music-Pirate
By Paul Rayson
UK Consumers Of Illegal Online Music On The Decrease runs the headline from 18 September in M Magazine, which is published by PRS for Music Limited, the UK music copyright collective. Whatever. Personally, I’ll never know why more people don’t have supermassive music collections. You can illegally download hundreds of thousands of songs. Everybody has broadband nowadays. Plus, all it took to outfox our internet service providers was that little word “proxy”. OK, it still might take some time to find an unblocked proxy. Anyway, hard drive space is cheaper than ever!
OK, OK, I do know. You’re thinking, “What’s up, daddio? Is this 2013?” People don’t have music collections. They have subscription services, Spotify and Tidal and the like. Ha! Not Tidal, obviously. That was a joke. Anyhow, when people do have music collections, it’s more that they’re carefully curated vinyl selections, if you please — the analogue nod of the true music aficionado (say it quick and low: usuallyrenderedpointlessbydigitalmastering). Nobody wants some virtual, supermassive collection.
Old-time nerds tell me music used to be a rare commodity. Then came popular radio stations. Then music was in lifts, and at the end of the phone while you held, and then it was even squeezed between songs on the radio, tucked beneath the disc jockey’s banter. Milestones pushed ludicrously close together and, by the time I joined the story, music was everywhere. I had one of those cassette Walkmans. I forget I’ve long qualified as an old-timer. Arrested development is part of our glorious condition.
I’m tempted to say “back in the day”, but we’re nocturnal sorts, so: back then, with a torch and a copy of NME under the covers (ha — remember the nights before we blew all the money we had on music, those nights of the NME/torches/bedding?), we did our best to decode what a record might sound like from its review. That most abstract art. It was an innocent time: nobody knew how to straight talk, least of all those gatekeepers of music. You’d concentrate on the critique that felt most right somehow, or rather least wrong. You’d go to the record shop, pluck up courage to ask the assistant to play your choice. The assistant remained impassive unless that choice were particularly tedious, in which event, with great cheer and volume, he’d play it and single you out with a fully loaded, sarcastic thanks. You’d give it a month and try again, and that was fine because everybody knew it took years of indignity to build a collection.
And God created Google. You could Google anything. I once went through a phase where I’d vacuum bits off my bedsheets — when I had bedsheets, before I blew all my money on music — rather than wash them as often. I naturally felt ashamed, so in an attempt to find solace and to see if I were truly alone in the universe, I Googled vacuum bed. I certainly felt less shame but, whatever you do, don’t Google that. Anyhow, then you could Google anything and hear even obscure bands. And you could, of course, download much of this stuff illegally.
Some music lovers never got over the internet age’s level of access. Music became a plentiful magic where once it was a commodity restricted by hard cash, by the NME, disc jockeys, record-shop gatekeepers. We could research and acquire our source of joy endlessly. It was enough magic to make us sick. It was enough to make us long for the gatekeepers. When evil corporations tried to get us to consume virtual product with the adoption of subscription models, many of our weakened comrades surrendered. The vinyl revival — partly another effort to concentrate the music, to limit the magical overflow — signalled a further method by which many of us sneaked out of the illegal-download game.
I began to collect albums, that long-form symbol of seriousness, way before the existence of Napster or LimeWire, let alone Pirate Bay. Vinyl was just about still king. You probably disregard it as babble to hear how heyday vinyl sales would dwarf this millennium’s resurgence, but I’ve travelled through time with all the marvel of a science-fiction hero — albeit in the conventional direction and at the usual pace — to affirm its truth. Everybody bought vinyl back then. Meanwhile, I added the odd used compact disc to my small vinyl and cassette collection. And then, in the tradition of any sinister path, most of my discs were compact before I knew it! Sinister!
Yes, people thought CDs were wicked. Regardless of what revisionist hipsters might say, though, those digital records still counted. They were just always uncool. Thanks evil corporations, thanks yuppies, etcetera. Compact discs had more worthwhile attractions, honest, but one was that they were compact, which was agreeable enough if sacrifices to music (career and so forth) kept you in a bedsit. Hard drives took even less physical space, though, and when I could download music, I downloaded so much that I couldn’t keep up with it.
Music lovers are, as you know, often fetishistic collectors. I saw it as an expression of love as well as a practicality to get the music into the best shape I could. Piracy stole time, and this will burst your brains but, if you think about it, time is a kind of money. The time I spent on label basics. Music can come down from the clouds, where the internet lives, in bad shape. It can in one way or another be mislabelled or glitchy, and you can find such problems whether you buy or steal. I needed to be able to find, among an insurmountable mass, what I wanted to listen to, and I employed the precision of the collector in that service. The digital files that made up an album needed to show the right titles, and the other bits of metadata needed to be likewise right, consistent. Track numbers had to play the album in the correct sequence. Songs had to be in the relevant album folder, and the album had to be in its artist folder. Sufficiently simple you’d think, but the amount of pirates who barely seemed to care was scandalous.
It’s a carelessness that provoked me to buy more. Say what you like about the legal side of the street, tags are less likely to have errors, are generally neater (let’s pass by the supposedly professional metadata service Gracenote). Illegal downloads prompted me in less ridiculous ways to buy more too. They led me even deeper into music. They led to artists with albums, and editions of albums, unavailable on torrent sites. Research of these artists led to other artists, ones entirely unrepresented by piracy, which also seemed criminal in its way.
Illegal MP3s became a means to preview an album. Even I grasped with some speed it was easier to use YouTube and streaming services than search out pirated copies, and that gave the artist a chance of a miniature payment at least. Lossless audio became my version of vinyl snobbery around this time: rather than MP3s and equivalents in any old bit rate, I got into larger FLAC files. It pleased me that if I backed up my CDs as FLAC, the quality stayed the same. The format pushed me further from piracy. FLAC torrents were rarer than MP3 ones. Even then, a FLAC file might be counterfeit, actually a conversion from MP3. I saw dull discussions about verification methods, and although my tiny music-world concerns still overlapped with those of illegal downloads, the secondary world, the world of piracy, continued to shrink.
FLAC files from legit platforms were likelier to be, you know, legit, as opposed to MP3 transcodes. I took up offers that emerged from Boomkat, Zunior and 7digital. Smaller artists became an ever-bigger part of my collection. I bought the Chilean krautrock of Föllakzoid on Bandcamp after a friend played a song. (Er, trigger warning. Yet another way I’m a characteristic music nerd: I’m tediously eclectic.) I read how albums by Ela Orleans, the multi-instrumentalist from Auschwitz based in Glasgow, rendered in sound with unparalleled success David Lynch’s seductive hinterland. CD Baby and Warp Records’ Bleep were routes to her stuff. One evening on Radio 6, I heard a Brazilian girl-boy group called Travelling Wave, in the tradition of The Jesus And Mary Chain, and I was back on Bandcamp.
I bought more CDs. I treasured them more dearly. Limited boxsets. Beautifully presented editions (and often therefore Japanese). Expertly connected compilations. Specialist labels dominated: say, the reissues company Ace; genre-hopping Soul Jazz (which hops well beyond soul and jazz); Awesome Tapes From Africa; FTD, Sony’s Elvis Presley imprint that features collections of alternate takes; reggae-stalwart Trojan (now multinational owned). I disregarded my backlog of illegal downloads. I began to delete.
My thoughts became feral. It’s possible the internet is here to stay for a while after all. And, It’s possible YouTube and the like are good enough ways to listen at least to secondary stuff. I quickly re-swore my commitment to preserve, in preferred formats, the music I cherished most. Cyberspace won’t give ready access to every important record anyhow, I reasoned, certainly not all the juicy variations. (We used to say cyberspace regularly.)
But let’s spool back a bit. Let’s take that admission of eclecticism a couple of paragraphs ago out of its parenthesis. As with any language, as well as to engage in earnest conversation, we can use music to exclude. Nerds might by definition be almost entirely bereft of social lives, but we’ll try to repulse people even more anyway. Collections become weapons. You mean you’ve never heard Heavier Than A Death In The Family by Les Rallizes Dénudés? You only own 37 records by The Fall? You still even listen to that fraud Bob Dylan?* (*I have; I do; I do.) Let’s cut us one slack, though, and remember that other aspect of eclecticism, the attempt to engage with the world, to amplify, perhaps even to unite disparate and especially neglected voices. Rather strong social aims for a people whose main interactions tend to happen at a supermarket till, but aims nonetheless.
Those contrary urges that inform the nerd’s catholic tastes, exclusion and engagement, doubtless helped piracy escalate. Yes. I put it to you, they’re what compelled nerds to download more music than we could play. I mightn’t have time or even the inclination to listen to most of this crap but one day I might learn to like, well, maybe learn to like that album, for a start maybe. Hastily translated subtitles for such a path of thought: “If I liked this crap, it could help me exclude-engage.” A piece of music often transmits instantly to its listener combinations of transcendence, love, other magical properties, but these transmissions can also come ponderously, an eventual byproduct of our confused efforts both to repel and attract. (That is, we can see a piece of music’s intrinsic worth incidentally, after our interest in it as a means to help secure membership of some wildly cool, albeit non-existent, club.) My second bombshell that helps account for the piracy eruption: we’re all nerds. Some have greater intensities than others, but we’re all nerds.
“Home Taping Is Killing Music” went the infamous 1980s music-industry slogan. They made the logo, a cassette in place of the death’s head on a Jolly Roger, too cool (Sonic Youth found it an irresistible steal). Regardless, both music and the industry survived mixtapes. Perhaps recording judicious extracts as the week’s top 40 singles unfolded on Radio 1, and copying a friend’s copy of A Kind Of Magic by Queen, even helped. Perhaps such criminal acts were all part of an inscrutable, absurdly successful indoctrination process into music and its attendant business.
Cut to today, and music lives. The industry is worth a good few billion per year less than it was in the 1980s. It’s a decline that prompts major record companies to rise, in the eyes of some, from villains to victims. The bonuses seen in the 1990s thanks to those yuppie CDs are certainly gone. Life’s keynote speech is change. Even the long-term illegal download trend is downwards. Piracy is in somewhat of a blip thanks to stream ripping (saving streamed music). However, the average time available online lengthens across the world, and here’s the question that the main culprits — 16-24 year olds — will eventually ask as they stream-rip their favourite Taylor Swift track: Why bother? Streaming itself in the US has already seen a 17% rise (to £4bn) in the first half of the year (the Recording Industry Association of America counted up that). We harder-core nerds have already found pretexts to avoid the excessive torrent game, have already fled to our preferred suppliers of succour. Meanwhile, the internet industry, to adopt the relevant financial terminology, is unbelievably tickety-boo. The question of how much home taping has affected music and its industry becomes subsumed in the fact of how much the internet industry has had its effect on everything. It quickly became a necessity because it gave so much. One of the big costs is it’s given far too much.
Do we indulge the social whirl up in the cloud-things that we have access to and cut interactions on the earthly plane to the briefest commercial exchange, a couple of words of courtesy for the supermarket assistant or delivery driver? How many ways do we let it crush us, the countless advantages of the World Wide Web? (That quaint limited term, once a catch-all.) The internet industry translates the data it has on us into algorithms, saleable content, prisons furnished ever more hospitably out of our tendencies. But wait, dramatic digital convicts. Even Tinder users, apparently sex-crazed lumps of hot flesh who know for a fact everything’s about sex, they’ll surely one day stop at least to ask what sex is about (I know it has something to do with Serge Gainsbourg). Play a video game until it becomes work, lose sleep because you binge-watch on Netflix another series that hooks rather than enthrals. You’ll surely wake up. The fatigue of what you want will free you, and you’ll want something else.
Too many songs and too much everything else. The algorithms of evil corporations continue to help us, push us. Fans of x might like y and z. It overwhelms until we understand we need strategies for the endless magnanimity of the internet and its attached strings. Some music lovers, traumatised by the superabundances of the internet that piracy typifies, have gone on to reject even online database-cum-marketplace Discogs. (I’m totally friends with it, have used it to find everything from cheap Motörhead albums to Andrew Weatherall mixes to particular performances of Beethoven. Er. Trigger warning.) They’ve given themselves another noble, self-imposed limitation to work in tandem with the vinyl-only rule. Discogs is a cheat. Records must be discovered “in the wild” of bricks-and-mortar shops. It’s a healthier kind of commerce, it’s part of the experience, part of a thrill that the internet kills.
If piracy were somewhat a response to the greed of the evil music industry, then the industry’s response was to concentrate efforts. Concentrate on endless updates of bankable albums, concentrate on the bankable artists. Buy the vinyl, the CD, the MP3. Now buy the vinyl again. Buy the expanded version. Loyal fans, they’ll have to make up for the fall-off of the casual consumer. It’s the grey pound, right? Sell them super-deluxe collector editions for £50, £100. I don’t know. Maybe throw in a one-size-fits-most T-shirt. Stress the tangible. Sign some posters, put em in a black-painted wooden box with Exile On Main St and name your price. I mean it. A run of 800 at thousands of pounds each. Ha! The possibilities, limited-edition endless. Keep those boxsets of rehearsals and whatnot coming too. It’s irresistible to completists. (Bob Dylan’s last was 36 CDs of every recording, amateur or otherwise, of his 1966 tour. The one before that was 18 CDs of “every note” recorded for his studio sessions of 1965 and 1966.)
Do you feel it, fellow fans? The bittersweet fascination and fatigue? You don’t have to buy, right? Right. Saturation of the market has doubtless sent a fair amount at double speed back to the good ship Piracy. There’ll always be John Peel types who thrive on a supermassive collection. Balance, though, is for most of us the best response to a combination of a cynical marketplace and the opportunity, embedded in a technology that itself overwhelms, to steal countless songs. Balance is the obvious answer all along to anybody not stupid-drunk on music, but that rules out a surprising number. The music industry, the listener and the internet have settled on the compromise of streams. We can honour music and artists in better ways, but even intensely nerdy listeners can make use of streams. I’ll still buy music (plenty of used records), still spend plenty of time, but I’ll try to stay on the right side of out of control. Perhaps even 38 records by The Fall is too many from another perspective (the last release, New Facts Emerge, just turned up).
Filesharing is in decline, whereas overuse of the internet by other major measures is more rampant than ever. Those smaller piracy numbers, perhaps they’re cheerful signs of how we’ll finally handle our encompassing technology. Illegal downloads are something many a nerd had to go through. It was an opportunity to overindulge grotesquely a compulsion to own. It was, to wit, the kind of directionless demon that previously saved the bulk of its torment for the rich.
Filesharers buy more music than those who abstain. The biggest downloaders spend the biggest amounts. And, People never forgave the industry when it conned them into buying their collections all over again as overpriced CDs. And, The artist neglect, the monster promotion of landfill indie! Pop-R&B! Business dug a grave instead of its way out. And, The global economy is in trouble, it isn’t just music sales. And, Pirates download stuff they’d never buy, so they aren’t lost sales. And, Music has bigger challenges. It’s all Facebook, video games and hardcore pornography nowadays. The perspectives, the histories. Layers accrue. It’s impossible to evaluate interactions between piracy and the music industry’s decline with precision, but it’s certainly had its effect.
Pirates download stuff they’d never buy, though. We filled hard drives with folders we’d never open. Who knows? Perhaps the abandonment of our work on supermassive music collections will allow us to get away from our screens occasionally. Perhaps we’ll even go for a walk. Alone, obviously. Regardless, rather than on an insurmountable mass of data, it’s a relief to concentrate again on music we love.