Home Taping Is Thrilling Music
remember the circumstances surrounding my first forays into downloading music with absolute clarity.
It was the spring of 1999, and I was due to graduate from college in two weeks. Three or so weeks before that, I had been forced rather suddenly to move out of my apartment on campus and back into the dorms. I was deep in the final stages of my school's equivalent of a senior thesis, and the marriage that had been due to take place shortly after graduation was suddenly history. The amount of work I would do for the rest of my time there was heavy, intense, and much of it new to me (like having to learn HTML and construct a website in one week). The living I managed to pack in during this period is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The musical growth that occurred while all this was happening went even beyond that—extremity of emotion took me to the place where everything was worth listening to.
Central to this was the sudden, previously uninvestigated avenue of downloading songs on Hotline. For several years I had been immersed in making music of a certain nature and listening to a fairly narrow contingent of artists reflective of that. I was in "a scene," if you will. When the sudden emotional, physical, and spiritual shitstorm erupted all around me, I found that acid folk, isolationist ambient drones, and analog synth noises no longer had the ability to move me in quite the same way. I needed "More Than a Feeling," "If It Isn't Love," "Boyz N the Hood," "Rock the Bells," "Erotic City" and "Crazy Train." P2P to the rescue. The CDs I bought in this time were almost all hits collections or singles sets (The Immaculate Collection, Prince's Hits & B-Sides triple CD-set, The Very Best of Otis Redding, We Sold Our Souls for Rock N' Roll). I also played my old dub cassettes of albums by Uncle Tupelo and the Afghan Whigs that I had made earlier in the decade, and began to seriously accumulate old vinyl. Mostly, though, I downloaded lots and lots of songs and made kick-ass party mixes. But more than just playing catch-up with old high school tastes, I was using Hotline (and later Napster) to delve into the very first music I loved (80's hip-hop) and discover a rash of things I had either fronted on first time around (Boyz II Men's "End of the Road") or simply not heard (The Pharcyde).
For most of the next year I had no internet connection and no real steady job (this is how novels get written, folks). What I had was plenty of whiskey and those damned tapes. What had begun as an emotional release continued into the slow developing of an ideology—I began writing again, at first in songs and poems, soon in fiction and non-fiction, mostly because I found music exciting once more. The crux of my school studies had been the interaction of text and sound, and I had allowed myself to disappear in the smoke of my own creations by telling myself I was "focusing" on "my work." Fixation was what it was, and it was a problem—but by unleashing my downloading id, I found that diffuseness, amateurism, and ruddy joy were the answer. Breathing returned to normal and the blood receded from my massive swollen head. Sure, I might've played the Geto Boys "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" a few more times than was strictly necessary, but what matter if the end result led me out of my own mental maze? This is art, people. There are bound to be a few broken bones. And so what if the early products of my newly-unrestrained pen were less than certifiable classics (there's a reason why you've never heard my western swing song "Free Range Women")? The return of the creative impulse was victory enough.
Since my first experiments with downloading songs, the expansiveness of my musical taste has only increased. I've since rediscovered everything I'd ever fallen in love with (even the things I originally turned away from as I began downloading) and delved into vast new areas of music I had never "gotten" before (reggae, bluegrass, house, etc.). Once I began making money again, I resumed my love of dropping sick amounts of cash on records and CDs—and you can be sure that since the time I downloaded my first mp3, I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars I would never have otherwise. Most of my first purchases were things that I had previously downloaded, but wanted to own. The ability to hear music on demand, even just a single song, was the most crucial turning point in my evolution as a listener. I snaked my way out of scenes, genres, artists, and discographies and went straight to the place when the sound slapping against your eardrums is all that matters.
Despite market research, university studies, and plain old common sense, the RIAA insists that downloading is killing the music industry, and that $18.99 CD list prices have nothing to do with it. Look at statistics or look at your heart—all the people I know who download (legally or not) also purchase CDs and records, attend concerts, buy band t-shirts at them, read magazines and online sites and are on Myspace. I'm not naive enough to think that there aren't people who download and never buy a thing, but they don't constitute the backbone of music fans that generated enough interest for there to be a music industry in the first place. And those who buy or steal a single track are mainly responding to the industry's seeming self-willed obsolescence. No singles? $20 CDs stuffed with filler and craptastic remixes? Albums released, then put out again three months later with the new hot single tacked on (a la Usher's last)? No thanks. Hard-drive destroying copyright software and the filing of lawsuits against listeners? There's no more perfect way to alienate what's left of the record-buying public.
Since the advent of the cassette medium, listeners have had an ongoing love affair with pirating music—taping from LPs and the radio, then dubbing CDs. Finally, we've reached the era of the mp3 and the sudden availability of reasonably high-quality copies downloadable at the click of a mouse. But the primary users and abusers of such practices are the ones supporting whatever is left of the "album" market, and the music scene in general. Being treated like the enemies of the industry is hardly going to encourage a positive response—in fact it's but another adverse effect on the consumer's desire to actually part with their cash. This newer faster version of dubtapes is not killing the record industry—they're doing that just fine all by themselves.