Warnings and Promises
503 · 2 June 05
I write today in what began, at least, as a conflicted mixture of resignation and alarm. Probably you do not recognize my name, but it's both embossed and encoded on my credit card, so possibly you should. I have been one of the staunchest defenders of your copyrights ever since the virtualization of music distribution began to challenge them, and I've been one of your most dedicated personal patrons since I was old enough to spend my own money. Originally I was a customer of necessity, of course, but I'm a computer and internet professional for a living, and have been fully aware of every iteration of the technical possibilities for acquiring music without paying for it. And yet, I have continued to pay. In a single year, not too long ago, I bought 1000 CDs, and most of them were yours. I continue to pay still. I bought two CDs this week, and will almost certainly buy more than 100 over the course of this calendar year. I have paid for legal downloads, as well. I have stubbornly forgiven you your trespasses against everyone you nominally serve, and kept supporting the idea of music as a Big Business. I have never condoned your numeric monopolies and tasteless denominator-lowering, but I support the dream of musicians being able to simply make music for their living, rather than operating themselves as a business, and somewhere far back in history that was what Industry allowed.
But I have also now started stealing your music. I haven't stolen much, but I'm sure you will agree that the moral issue is not merely one of quantity. I have been one of the last independent apologists for a moral kernel, elusive now to perhaps the point of imagination, in your corrupt and desperate retreat, but now even I have given up. I still buy, but now I also steal. You have forfeited your right to my loyalty. And maybe you're too lost and beaten to care, and even more likely it's too late to matter, but for a few minutes I'm going to pretend that neither of those things are so. I'm going to pretend that you're still capable of awareness and reason, and in a spirit of truth that you long ago stopped deserving, while I've still taken little enough to list, I'm going to tell you exactly what I have stolen from you, and why.
I have stolen from you where you have tried to steal from me. This Idlewild album came out months ago in Europe. It will come out in a couple more months in the US. Don't you realize that I know this? The world is all connected now, we are not beholden to you for information. An import copy of this record would cost me $26. The domestic copy will cost me $13 at most, probably less. I refuse to pay you to play these pointless games with arbitrary dates and obsolete borders. I can outlast you. I refuse to pay you twice for withholding music when it's supposed to be your job to bring it to me. "You say something stupid like", they sing, "'Love steals us from loneliness'", but I doubt you've even listened to this. We are in here talking to each other about solitude and connection and our grandest mistakes, those of us for whom music is human, and you are outside in the streets shouting about damage and margins and some venal thing you've obscenely labeled sacred, and insisting you are always right. And we are in here listening to records without you.
I have stolen from you where you won't let me buy. Kyo are a French band I had to go to France to discover, and wasn't that supposed to be the kind of thing I'm paying you for? While you were watching people vying on TV to be the next disposable idol, I was wondering what the rest of the world sounds like. Half the time it doesn't sound all that different, sadly, because they're probably watching those same miserable shows, but sometimes the small differences are enough to make me happy. Kyo skip and crackle and soar in tones surprisingly similar to the ones you so happily and briefly exploited when they were Savage Garden's, but your greed isn't even loyal to itself, so how can you hope for loyalty from anybody else? I'll buy this the next time I'm in Paris, if there are still record stores by then. What's the last promise you made and kept for years?
Armin Van Buuren: 76
BT: Movement in Still Life
I have stolen from you where you've refused to learn how to sell. Thirty-second samples are enough for some purposes, but you picked that format out of fear, not insight. For some things, thirty seconds aren't nearly enough. I'm trying to find my way into a new genre, in which songs are long and evolve slowly. You should be eagerly welcoming me; new loves always mean new records. You should have people following me around with piles of CDs in their arms, trying to help me learn what I love, instead of all these security guards wearing ear-plugs and standing by the exits. I will buy 100 records once I figure out which ones they are, so why are you trying to make it harder and more expensive for me to get through the first dozen I have to eliminate to find them? But you never understood this before, why should you now? If you want money for this music I'm stealing in order to explore, I'll give you some right after you retroactively rescind decades of petty no-return policies and give me my money back for all the records I've uncomplainingly bought and hated. I'll give you some as soon as you help me find more records that balance Armin Van Buuren's steadily cinematic atmosphere with BT's show-off energy, and vice-versa. Some of these things I've stolen from you I don't even listen to, I'm just keeping them to spite you.
Jan Garbarek: In Praise of Dreams
I have stolen from you where you've refused to learn about my world. I sometimes need mood flows, but I hate radio. I don't want a stream of randomness, I want a stream of variations on a theme. I want to define the theme. Some nights I just want three hours of dinner-party music that is unfamiliar in specific, but reliably semi-anonymous and evocatively meditative. I need a dozen albums from which I'll hear a third of the songs once each and that's it, and I'd pay you what that's worth, but with the price you ask, the nothing I pay by stealing them is a whole lot closer to the right value.
John Zorn: Love, Madness and Mysticism
I have stolen from you because I am confused and afraid, and intrigued by confusion and fear. I don't know whether this John Zorn record alienates me or fascinates me. I certainly can't decide based on excerpts, and I probably won't have even the most tentative guess until I've listened to it several times, more or less against my existing will. If I decide it's mind-expanding genius, I'll happily pay for it. If I decide it's stochastic crap my old parameters justifiably excluded, I'll delete it. If you believed in your music, and in me, you'd take that deal in an instant. My patience costs me dearly, after all, and yours costs you nothing. But you don't believe in your music. Most of the time you don't even know what it is. And you certainly don't know me, or where my curiosity leads or misleads me. So you invest nothing, and you shouldn't be surprised by your returns.
Cyndi Lauper: At Last
I have stolen from you where you refuse to acknowledge what I've already paid. For the price you ask for concerts, you should throw in CDs. For the price you ask for DVDs, you should include the audio files. For the price you ask for real albums, you should give away covers records.
I have stolen from you where you are being stupid. Do you know what's on this album? Do you know how much it costs in the US?
Tristania: Widow's Weed
I have stolen from you because you never learn. Never mind how long copyrights last in law, sometimes they should be waived years early. Sometimes a band so decisively supersedes itself that an earlier attempt is rendered moot. This Tristania album is like a charcoal sketch for an airbrush epic. Three completed airbrush epics later, the old sketches should be gifts of trivia for the truly dedicated. Paying for my own trial and error is bad enough; paying for yours is inane.
Joe Jackson: Big World
Joe Jackson: Blaze of Glory
I have stolen from you where you have betrayed the music. Why are these two great Joe Jackson albums out of print? Go ahead, sue me. If you were doing your job, I'd have paid for them already.
Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles
And at least once, I admit, I have stolen from you for mostly no fault of yours. I think there is a copy of this record somewhere in our house. Possibly we have only Pirates Choice, not this, and possibly it was all a dream and we don't own either. We had all of Belle's African dance music out when we were working on our wedding soundtrack last summer, and after that we're not sure what happened. Belle's theory is that I re-shelved them in my collection, and now they are lost. This is a subjectively reasonable guess, since from her perspective CDs go magically from my current-rotation crate by the window, where one can easily be found among a dozen or two, into my shelves, where the act of searching for one among thousands tends to become overwhelming long before the collection's internal organizational structure has a chance to explain itself. I, on the other hand, both understand my shelving and know how hopelessly out of character it would be of me to put a CD that isn't in my database onto my shelves. My best competing theory is that she misplaced this record somewhere, which is subjectively reasonable because she doesn't even have a database, and obviously people who do not keep databases are the sort of people who lose things.
And clearly this is not your problem, Industry, by its intrinsic nature, but that doesn't mean you're entirely exonerated. The African dance albums ended up in a different pile mostly because we feared that the American three-minute spasm-pop ethos had rendered sinuous six- to nine-minute African dance songs untenable. That wasn't our doing. Nor was the fact that it was easier to steal this album online than to find it in our house, which is much more a function of the net than our house. If you insist on ignoring this reality, you share some responsibility for the way our culture warps. If you try to rely on deliberate obscurity, you will lose. If you bank on valueless repackaging, we will show you another sense of "valueless". If you copy-protect CDs knowing full well that law-abiding listeners want to play them on laptops and iPods and Linux boxes, you precipitate morally correct resentment and defiance. If, with the resources of an entire industry of full-time workers and decades of catalogs and data and precedent, you serve music listeners less well than listeners and their hacked-together tech kludges serve each other, then you are defeated by your own market forces, and by your own market.
And these are only the handful of reasons I have for stealing. Arguably some of them are good, some are not. Other people may steal less, and for better reasons, and I'm sure plenty steal more for worse or none. But know, in the end, that you created this crisis. You had decades of control, and you spent it on complacency and greed, and so evolved this inevitable rebellion. You took everything you thought you could get away with, and now you are wheezy robber barons begging the government to protect your dwindling hoards. I've defended you for far too long. You smiled when you first got away with selling a Billy Joel LP for $8.98, and you can damn well smile again now when we fold the worthless thing into jagged thirds and ram it up your ass. You created the aesthetic of disposability, and now you are its most beautifully disposable work. We will mourn you in infinite song.