A Random Walk Down Pirate Street

“Bring me a cool drink of water before I die.”
— John Henry

Here are some things I can’t do. I can’t download MP3s. Nor can I play them. I can’t burn CDs. I can’t trade files over the internet (as I have nothing to trade). I can’t watch films on my computer. I can’t listen to web radio. And I can’t read eBooks. I purchased my first and only computer (a used, first-run Mac PowerPC) two years ago from a chain-smoking forty-something couple desperate for cash. Its tobacco-stained appearance is a perfect complement to the rusty old operating system inside, and any attempt to challenge its rickety powers with, say, a sound file inevitably causes it to crash. Set me asail on the digital seas, and I’d make a pretty crappy privateer. Our major entertainment corporations have nothing to fear from me.

Yeah, piracy. You’ve heard it all already. The record companies have got their shorts in a bunch about CD-Rs and MP3s, while the filesharing community has taken its musical enthusiasm to charming and sympathetic extremes of libertarianism. Record companies react predictably to the new anarchy, taking revenge on an ungrateful public by hiking CD prices. Independent record stores, fearful of their own demise, have also brought out the sticker-gun and the pink slip. Meanwhile, the free files continue to circulate, and lots of dynamite tunes can still be caught for free both on webradio and via the underground MP3 free-trade zone.

Still, Joe Sixpack, Joe Cool, Sally Guitar, and I have all been following from a distance these ongoing (and increasingly strident) debates about filesharing, technological change, and “piracy”. All of us figure there’s nothing stopping this little techno revolution, but none of us wants to get screwed by it, either. We still want our music, and we don’t want to pay a lot for it. And so I’m writing this column as a sort of “outsider” perspective on the whole debate. I am as ignorant of the intricacies and protocol of filesharing as I am of the dizzy economics of Just-In-Time music distribution and warehouse bean-counting. But I love a good tune, and I embrace whatever technological changes I can afford. So share my flask and take a random walk with me down Pirate Street. We won’t get to see everything but we’ll see what pops up.

We are all stuck inside this revolution. Its progress is inevitable, but the final results are hard to foretell. Even history provides fewer clues than one might expect.

For example, let’s look at piracy. Though the RIAA loves to compare fileswappers to peg legged Bluebeards off the Barbary Coast, the fact is piracy (especially in the entertainment industry) has had its merits over the years. In the nineteenth century, for example, the US was a bastion of book piracy. Once Sir Walter Scott published one of his gothic romances, American publishers waited at the docks in NYC hoping to get a proof or a first-run which they could use to publish their own illicit American version. And Scott, of course, never saw a penny. Though this piracy (tacitly sanctioned by the American proto-capitalists) was considered to be a moral abomination at the time, historians today agree that it was almost necessary as a source of cultural diffusion and an ingredient in pop-starting the engine of commerce (especially in the nascent publishing industry). Indeed, American book pirates of yesteryear are pretty much the same as Asian tape pirates today. The captains of industry hate ’em, but why else do you think damn near every citizen of Jakarta knows the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie”? Well, I guess cultural diffusion does have its downside. Yep, large-scale piracy of the 19th century sort has continued off-and-on to the present. Today, Hollywood acknowledges film piracy as part of the cost of doing business.

But what of today’s filetraders? They are downloading music for free, but the only profit they gain is the prospect of a dynamite tune on their hard drive. Theirs is not a commercial instinct, rather, theirs is an entirely reasonable assumption that it’s ridiculous to pay for every single song that you hear. Basically we’re looking at two different forms of piracy. Large-scale piracy is all about entrepreneurship and free enterprise. Swiping something for free and selling it. It’s bad morals but good economics. “Home” piracy, on the other hand, is just a matter of refusing to pay for something that you can get for free. It’s not thieving — it involves little deception or risk. But it does deny the captains of industry (and their serfs, the artists) the privilege of prying that last dollar out of your wallet.

If there is a moral dimension to home piracy, it’s more a matter of consideration for the artist than it is about general principles or ethics. Some would argue that the artist profits through free exposure and alternative audiences. Hell, sounds good to me. But if the old 19TH century forms of piracy aided the (now dubious) literary reputation of Sir Walter Scott by giving him that free exposure, why can’t our own micropiracies argue along the same lines?

The story of MP3s and filesharing is the story of technological change, and this, too, can be processed through the lens of history. The 20TH century entertainment consumer almost always benefited from technological changes that were bestowed from above. And these technological changes bestowed differential benefits on different sectors of the music industry, which always generated nasty fights. By 1925, for example, just as wax records were taking off as the new medium for distributing and playing music, music publishers were in a panic. They thrived on radio and music-hall performances based on their scores, and reproducible recording technology would surely cause their sales to plummet. And indeed they did, although the nature of music publishing (though not many of the publishers themselves) began to adapt readily to the new technology.

Similarly, the invention of new forms of sound recording (the Wilcox-Gay disc recorder, the 8-track, and the audio cassette were the most prominent examples) created a new form of consumer: one who bought music with the intent of rerecording it in a different form. Of course, these new easy-to-use recording technologies invited large-scale pirates who for a few years scurried like big rats in and out of the music industry. But they were successfully defeated by the ’70S. Still, home taping continued unabated, and indeed the idea of the “mix tape” — now something of a cultural touchstone in the indie community — was a unique example of the consumer dictating the terms of engagement with the music industry. Music companies panicked, commissioned research, petitioned Congress, all to little avail. Remember the “Give the Gift of Music” campaign back in 1980? That was a last-ditch attempt by Warner Communications, Inc. to force consumers to spend their money on LPs rather than blank tapes. This sort of “home piracy” — piracy for personal use and no commercial gain — was impossible to stop.

And thus came the compact disc; a historical anomaly as far as technological revolutions are concerned. In a rare instance of cooperation between competing companies, Sony and Philips pooled their resources (Sony’s digital signal processing expertise with Philips’ mastery of optical disc technology) to create the compact disc and to create universal industrial standards for their production and playback. This was something of a revolution which hardly anyone noticed when the first CD (Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) hit the shelves in Japan on October 1, 1982.

Though theories abound about the “real” reasons why the industry cooperated so fully on this risky new technology, the fact that CDs were (a) audiophile-quality digital recordings and (b) not recordable, probably put joyous butterflies in many a music exec’s stomach. This was the way to defeat the home pirates! And it was also a way to make extra money on the same back catalog, since many of those pecuniary yuppies could be persuaded to “upgrade” their LP collection to digital quality. And so, for 20 years, the industry has grudgingly accepted the fact of home taping so long as they could continue to get the kids to buy CDs.

The stampede of MP3s (a form adopted, controlled, and revolutionized by the music consumer) certainly has the industry in a panic because there is no precedent. This happy technology — though still confined to those who can afford it — is a technological insurrection from below (the consumer), rather than a change bestowed from above (the producer). The music monoliths know that resistance is futile, no matter how many court decisions they can stir up on their behalf. The best advice for the music execs, if they care to listen to an ignorant prole like me, is to listen to how the filetraders (or “pirates”) offer a blunt critique of how the industry controls its artists, how it produces taste, and how it reproduces its own yellow profits by regurgitating only what it knows.

Buried Treasure
When someone burns a CD for me, or rips one of my discs, I can’t help but feel a pang that someone has been wronged. I’m just not sure who. Have I just deprived an artist of a couple cents in royalties? Have I stolen their work? Am I a pirate?

The moral and legal issues of recording, rerecording, and reproduction in general have been with us for a long time, and now the stridency is everywhere. Go to Kinko’s to copy a book chapter, and you’ll face a pretty stern interrogation from the staff, who are instructed to abide by copyright law at all costs. Still, filesharing seems to be an entirely different form of duplication. Quality diminishes hardly at all with each copied file. Although ripping takes a few seconds, the time involved hardly compares to the labor of recording. And you don’t have to go to Kinko’s to do it. This combination of privacy, speed, and perfection is an easy route to amoral libertarianism.

The most common refrain among defenders of filesharing is that “information wants to be free”. Indeed, it does. But “information providers” (e.g., musicians and studios) want to eat, and if they get nothing for their troubles there’s no point in playing the game, is there? Most fileswappers would not agree that they should be allowed to borrow discs free of charge from their local record store in order to copy for themselves. These moral shapeshifters still believe in commerce (else they wouldn’t be libertarians!) and so their principles adjust at the cash register, where the normal rules of commerce are hard to refute. Yet these same “pirates” defend their online fileswapping by noting that record companies constantly gouge consumers for concert tickets, t-shirts, CDs and other merchandise.

It’s hard to disagree, and basically what we have here are two competing moralities. One side (the industry) insists on profit at all costs while indignantly trying to protect its “property” against “pirates”. The other side (the filesharing community) insists on freedom to take whatever it wants without paying a dime, while simultaneously proclaiming that they’re siding with the artists (who need that dime) against the industry (who will probably get the dime).

I’m not copping out. I’m happy to choose sides here. Morally speaking, the artists deserve compensation for their work. But it’s very difficult to sympathize with the “needs” of the entertainment conglomerates. So I think filesharing is a wonderful innovation, which artists should learn how to use for their benefit before the music industry does. Most of the kindly “pirates” I know would happily pay for files on an artist’s website, but they would be loath to do so on an industry site. Eliminate the middle man, and bring the music back to the people. I mean, hell, the music industry today is a large, wet and angry hydra, and its many heads (publishers, engineers, producers, studios, equipment manufacturers, distributors, artists) stand both to gain and lose from the coming conflict. It should be obvious, though, that the future of music belongs only to the artists. If all the big corporations folded up and died tomorrow, not only would no one show up at the funeral, but music itself would continue to grow and thrive, because the artists would keep rolling out the tunes in their head.

Still, there is one minor ethical issue that remains, at least in my own head. Because the MP3 files are free to a fileswapper (when you factor out the cost of time), and you don’t have to actually listen to them while you filch them (unlike in the old tape-recording days) it seems to me that most enthusiastic fileswappers are also hoarders. They download and stockpile far more MP3s than they have time to listen to. Hell, I’ve loaned out several of my discs for friends to rip, and they’ve seldom given any indication that they actually listened to most of the tunes. The MP3s are there for reference only. It’s almost as if ripping is more about stockpiling for some esoteric library than it is about rocking out. To me, this is just wrong. Hoarding is harmless on its face, but it makes it look as though some pirates are out there only to swell their coffers, and not for a dip into the aural sublime. So if you’re gonna nick a tune, be sure to do the right thing and listen to it. Trade it away if it sucks.

Since the corporate culture of the entertainment industry is all about making money, you hear a lot of dull repetition, corpse posing, and tedious genre replication all over the commercial map these days. Though there’s still a minor tendency among the majors to cultivate edgy artists in a flinging-mud-against-the-wall sorta way (cf., the Strokes), we’re still faced with a dull and predictable smorgasbord every week. Another Who compilation. New Eminem. Soundtrack muck. Pepsi commercial tie-in. There is a reason for this. Keith Negus, in his masterful study, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (1999), argues that the idea of a musical “genre” is more a creation of the corporate cultures in the music industry than it is an aesthetic form in itself. No matter how unique or crazy a musical artist is, the current commercial climate forces him to squeeze himself into a particular genre before he can get his recording contract. And the formal (and commercial) constraints of the genre reproduce themselves from artist to artist. This is why all the new country tunes “sound the same”.

Sure, some genres evolve and others dissolve into each other. Some get exhumed while others briefly illuminate the soundscape like heat lightning. But it’s all a corporate trap, really, and it’s almost impossible for an artist to sing herself beyond the immobile straps that bind her in once commerce is on the table.

Think of it. Unsigned artists — like felled trees in a quiet forest D— have often gone unheard simply because the vast music industry ignored them. To me, this is what the MP3 revolution will cure. When an artist pursues an independent and risky avenue to fame, you know that they’ve got something more than just talent or ambition on their side. They’ve also got a singular vision that doesn’t fit the commercial mode. They set up a website, and they put their tunes there for anyone to hear. They have no need to mold their saddle to the cash cow. They can roll out their vision and hope for the best. Yeah, there are quirks to this new liberation. An artist still needs to acquire enough resources to set up a site and lay down the MP3 tracks. And in 2002 they need to know that their audience is probably gonna be mostly computer-leisure types and college kids. But to bust through the genres, to dismiss the needs of commerce, and to make one’s art the center of everyone’s attention, that seems like a pretty damn good use of the new form.

Still, here’s one thing that’s bugging me about this filesharing thing. Poor kids are stuck with expensive CDs, crap radio, and lame fish-eye videos, while the hep digital-indie kids can dig all sorts of eclectic MP3s, wild webradio, and edgy graphics. The music audience is increasingly polarized, with the working classes remaining passive consumers of music (as dictated by an increasingly homogeneous industry), while MP3 kids are active rearrangers and molders of their own unique music community. Innovation, liberty, and a dip into the aesthetic sublime now belong only to those who can afford it.

Let’s look at the situation. The record companies say they are losing millions of dollars in sales to ripped files, burned discs, and traded MP3s. Last year, CD sales declined by an astonishing 10 percent. Many college record stores either closed or cut back on staff and stock. Yet the bigger record stores continued to grow and thrive. Most people lack the proper technology for filching free tunes. A good tape recorder cost as low as $30 in 1972, but to download MP3s or burn discs today you need to own a pricey array of computer equipment. Home recording in the ’70s was open to nearly everyone, but rampant filesharing seems mostly confined to the digital-leisure classes, who have both the time and the equipment to create and circulate those MP3s.

If you’ve gone down to your local record store during the past year, you’ve probably been struck by a bracing dose of sticker shock. Compact discs are once again quite pricey, and if your disposable income is as dicey as mine, you’re better off just listening to the radio than trying to buy a CD. Yep, already this conflict is screwing the more cash-strapped among us by hiking CD prices, and no wonder sales have declined so precipitously. Not only that, but the CD selection at two of my local record stores seems a bit more generic, as if the local warehouses are thinning out of stock, or are replacing breadth of stock with just a handful of guaranteed moneyspinners.

Seems to me, from my humble position as a non-digital consumer (and maybe even a pirate wannabe), that this revolution is keeping a lot of us paycheck-to-paycheck kids from getting access to great music. Either we get overpriced discs, or a bland selection. And it feels like we’re getting screwed. Maybe this is just some sort of cleansing storm, and within a decade we’ll all be using retinal triggers to download MP3s directly into our cerebral cortex free of charge. But right now it just kinda sucks, and I wish the figpeckers and bean counters who command the sticker guns and inventories would lay off the price ambushes.

John Henry was an unstoppable and huge force of nature, but he died only when something even greater than himself — the steam engine — challenged him to battle. That parable of the industrial revolution is now being told in reverse, as meek and subtle digital technologies threaten to wear out the mighty bigwigs. The chaos and cacophony of tunes through the past 50 years is both an embarrassment of riches and an aesthetic conundrum. Most of it was all about making money. Sociologists and critics who want to ponder our musical era are often confronted by this wall of commerce, but the current filetrading conflict is something utterly new to all of us. Really, I’m not much qualified to speak on it, since I can’t even listen to a damn MP3 on my own computer. But it strikes me that beyond all the sermonizing from both sides we’re about to see a resurgence in the autonomy of the artist in making and marketing music. And this is no small thing. Certainly the industry will figure out how to cooperate (again) in its battle against piracy. But maybe, like John Henry, this time they’ll hammer their fool selves to death.