A Prehistory of the Pandemic

by Timothy Gabriele

18 July 2008


A partial digression from my previous post.

The summer of 2000 was when I first discovered Napster. After a bit of peer pressure, I was persuaded to download the software and start searching out MP3s, which were a new technology to me but not one that was completely esoteric. I had downloaded a few of them at tiny bitrates off the unofficial Tool web site to hear some their rarer, less available tracks. To my impressionable 18-year-old brain, it didn’t even occur to me that Napster’s services could be illegal or that they might even cause a wrinkle in the long-term spacetime continuum of music. At a 33k dialup connection, I could retrieve around one song per day before I started making significant dents in the phone bill. Without a CD burner at my disposal, I connected an ¼ inch connector cable from my computer’s speakers to my tape recorder and transferred 20 or so of the songs I downloaded onto a cassette so that I could play them in my car. It seemed no different at the time than taping those songs off the radio, except that I got to choose what the radio played.

Napster materialized as an ideal space to indulge my quirky tastes. I downloaded the Eminem song only available on the “clean” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, songs off the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack that I had been listening to diegetically since childhood, the Moby remix of “Beat It” I knew I’d never elsewise hear,  the Airwolf theme song I’d been humming for years but which no one I knew could validify, and many of the songs I’d heard and enjoyed in the pre-Amazon years through sound samples at the call service 1-800 Music-Now. Far be it for me to prognosticate the collapse off the behemoth music industry, I thought that Napster might have actually been doing the job of the major labels for them. Not only by promoting artists, but by eliminating the need for bootlegs, which at the time were running $40 or so for a single disc of live and/or rare material by major artists (which was still a bargain compared to tracking down overpriced imports) and, the companies claimed, hurting their sales significantly. As I continued to spend all the money earned from my summer job as a smoothie salesman on music, this previously illicit or overpriced material was the stuff I went for first on the free Napster service.

Looking back at all this now, it seems like a different world. Music thievery is practically a full-time job to some downloaders, who load up 800G external drives full of music that it would take a lifetime to sort through, let alone appreciate. CD burners come standard on any home computer and you can get five writable CDs for less than a bottled water. Bootlegs are pretty much nonexistent, as are import singles. All the chains I used to peruse in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY are gone: The Wall, Media Play, Sam Goody, Record Town, etc. Even the closest indie store I knew, Trash in Danbury, CT, a 40-minute drive from my house and the site of my first vinyl purchase, closed its doors after it was forced out of its location.

When I went off to college, I experienced a minor love-affair with my T1 Connection. Unaware of the speed of technology, I horded all the free music, movies, and software I could, fearing I would soon move off campus and never experience the lightning-fast joys of ethernet cable again. The transfer speeds remained undiminishingly novel as I devoutly watched the bars move across the screen. Within minutes, you could access any song. It was an instant jukebox, a radio station that didn’t suck. More than that, it brought the music closer and it brought all of us lonely freshmen closer together. My roommate Ben assigned a rule to our room; new visitors to 709B Cashin, which turned out to be quite a few people, had to sign his computer with a marker and download a song onto it. These songs got incorporated into his regular playlist and, by proxy, we inherited a little bit of the personality of the campus that year, as spazzcore, happy hardcore, and Shaggy co-mingled with each other.

With Napster, though no one was paying for it, every one was every one else’s Alan Freed. We all introduced each other to some kind of new sonic cultural experience. Detractors may say that all we were doing was stealing music. But that’s only half of the narrative. The larger story is that we were stealing all kinds of music, a shit-ton of it, and expanding our palettes in the process. Hippies were introduced to house, speed-punks found glory in electro and math-rock, hip-hoppers were able to track their roots in funk, and myriad others found out that Radiohead and Aphex Twin didn’t emerge from a bubble. It was the first and perhaps only time that I felt I was part of something important in music. It was not a democratization of music as some idealists still opine, but a full-fledged free-for-all. Anarchy. Autonomy. Freedom. Absolute leisure upon escaping the shackles of market capitalism. It was only forbidden to forbid. The concurrent college and rock star credos of sex, drugs, and music reigned. But you had to pay for drugs. You had to be careful who you slept with. The music just persisted, with or without you.

Yet, it was revolution communicated through the vernacular of mass consumption. Its problems persisted not in process, but in participation. Those downloading music were not all rebels trying to buck a corporate system. Some of them were just byproducts of a “gimmee” culture of entitlement. To them, there was no difference between ripping off the local band who pressed their LP with pocket change better served paying overdue student loans and the stadium giants hawking $25 T-shirts at their $75 concerts so they could harass hotel maintenance staffs and woo college-aged girls who had downloaded their latest album. It was almost a kind of absent-minded dadaist statement. The musician in absentia became the signatory to blame, for trying to make a living off of their art, or for trying to make art in the first place.

As income diminished for most of my fellow state school students, the cost of rising tuition meant that music, moreso perhaps than drugs and alcohol, was seen as something of a luxury item (and to be fair, it is). So why pay for it when you can just as easily get it free? Their market attention went elsewhere, and soon the cult of hegemony began to take notice.

Not everyone gave up so easily. I continued to spend whatever money I could scrounge together on CDs and concert tickets. So did plenty of others. Yet we were all criminals, victims of a pandemic of antisocial behavior. But perhaps that’s what felt so exciting. It was like prohibition, with industry playing the government’s role as moral policeman. As the lunatics had taken over the asylum, it had begun to look like culture at large, so quick to condemn and judge yet so slow to adapt, was our only real disease, our only lasting psychosis. The cure to this illness wasn’t file-sharing. It was the free flow of information and knowledge, the very thing going to college was all about. It was the choice to have musical literacy be part of our curriculum. It was the music itself, intangible sound waves unable to be captured, bottled, or stopped. It has continued to spread to the point of critical mass, nearly to where the music itself can no longer be governed, no matter how hard the mass media tries to gentrify it. Will we live to see the time when people finally forgo all this baggage and just listen to what they want regardless of what’s pertinent, what’s sanctioned, or what’s for sale?

This is the real deep-seeded fear of capitalism, which has always had an uncomfortable relationship with post-rock ‘n’ roll music (which frequently tries to sell its owners the ropes with which to hang themselves); that one day music will no longer be something they can control. In my previous post, I discussed how they’ve already lost part of that control by diverting its attention from its fragmented consumer base (instead opting to socialize its loses by pushing for federal lawsuits and ISP taxes). Next, I’ll take a look at those people like me, you, and everybody else you know, who take music that isn’t ours, but isn’t rightfully anybody else’s either.


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