... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Metallica Died of Starvation and It's All My Fault

I've made fun of a friend of mine who seems to be downloading songs at every opportunity, choking up his hard drive with everything from ABBA to some bossa nova tune he heard in an Oil of Olay television commercial. I've smugly pointed to my shelves of compact discs, all legally purchased from amazon.com, Best Buy. (Well, maybe most of them were bought in used record stores, but it was legal).

I've never downloaded songs myself. Well, maybe a couple. When Napster was first released, I installed it on a computer at work. I was managing a lab at the time and I wanted to see how it worked. I knew that the kids, with access to a graphics imaging lab containing workstations with CD burners and big honkin' hard drives wouldn't be able to resist. Yes, I downloaded a couple of songs, but deleted them. They contained glitches or sounded like something coming through a transistor AM radio, so they didn't find a place in my record collection.

Downloading songs directly from strangers always seemed a waste of time; afterall, my tastes don't exactly match those of pimply teenagers who are waiting with baited breath for the latest in aural wallpaper from Brittney Spears. Sure, there are a lot of classics on these services, like tunes from the Beatles or the Who, but I already have that stuff on vinyl and CD -- what would I want with more copies of those?

I didn't really think about it any more until today. The RIAA announced an amnesty program where individuals who have downloaded music could admit their guilt, promise to never do it again, erase their illegally gotten booty from their computers and be free of the wrath of the RIAA lawyers. With the threats of lawsuits and settlements they've already made with college students who are paying thousands of dollars for their transgressions against ... well ... whatever groups these whippersnappers are listening to nowadays, I've suddenly felt some guilt myself.

I am a reformed illegal music sharer.

As I said before, I haven't used the Net to download or share music. But, I did something far worse -- almost singlehandedly, I feel I am responsible for ruining the careers of many former pop stars.

I remember in high school when I started picking up money from part time jobs. I had always loved music, but something came over me. That newly discovered disposable income had a strange impact on me. I started frequently record stores, buying pieces of plastic with a groove in them. We called them "singles" or "45's".

It was amazing -- you heard a song on the radio and you could buy your own copy to listen to any time you wanted. I had quite a collection in those days, maybe three or four hundred. I'd listen to "American Top Forty" and scour the local library for the latest copy of "Billboard" magazine. I'd make lists of singles I wanted and bug the local record shop owner in my tiny little home town in the mountains to special order discs for me -- obscure tunes I heard on mysterious college radio stations at the lower end of the dial. I should have known that I had a problem, but things only grew worse.

When I went to college, some better part time jobs followed. I discovered albums -- "Sgt. Pepper", "The Joshua Tree", "The Who Sell Out" -- whole collections of great songs, many I'd never even heard played on the radio. Having access to cable TV for the first time and seeing MTV, my tastes started to change. I reveled in the pop delights of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna; I pined for the fascinating world of strange European artists like the Smiths or Dream Academy and seemingly distant and artsy performers like Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads; I rocked out with Van Halen and Aerosmith. I even bought albums by the Clash and the Sex Pistols. It was all so new and exciting for someone who grew up listening to his relatives records of Elvis, Buck Owens and the Supremes and suffered through the vast wasteland of disco, bubblegum pop, and "Baker Street".

I suddenly found other people at college who were just as fascinated with the music as I was and a whole new world opened to me-- they had imported albums, strange large vinyl discs known as "12 inch singles" and even discs of bands that had never been played on the radio. I soon found myself in the depraved world of unreleased tracks, concert performances, and, yes, even unedited tracks.

They also had something else that I didn't have: a cassette deck. Witnessing my musical interests being outstripped by my meager income, I bought my own tool that proved to be my own moral downfall. It might start with a simple exchange. "Here, take this tape of Police remixes," a dorm mate might say. Pretty soon, I couldn't let a day go by without scoring a hit.

Oh, the collections of songs we traded -- dozens of songs fit on those tiny cassettes, with more expensive Chrome tapes and new-fangled Dolby noise reduction seen as the cream of the crop for music sharers. Hundreds, thousands of songs were added to my collection. And, yes, I admit, thousands of songs were copied from my own singles and albums, sent out into the dark world of music sharers, completely free of any charge whatsoever. It was a different, more experimental time -- everyone was doing it and I guess that made it okay.

I remember finding myself in some seedy dive, negotiating a trade for a copy of Prince's nasty unreleased "Black Album". I had heard rumors about it for months and it remained a tantilizing and tempting Holy Grail, and, here it was in my grubby little hands. I could finally hear it for myself, brag about owning a copy and, if you were hip and cool enough, I might dub a copy for you. Trembling, I rushed back home -- no, I wouldn't listen to this on my crappy Mustang's cassette deck; this deserved to be played on my real stereo system.

My palms sweating, I carefully placed the precious tape in the machine and pressed play. But, then something happened.

Listening to that sixth generation dub and realizing that it wasn't a really great album was like waking up from a strange, dark dream. The "Dark Album" wasn't really that great after all -- a decent album, for sure, but not something to risk a few broken knuckles to get.

I faced the facts: I was letting my addiction control my life. I had a problem and something had to change.

The trading stopped. It was difficult at first, but eventually, the tapes broke or were worn out, replaced by records and those shiny plastic and metal CD's that used to be so nifty. I grew to appreciate the permanence and quality of a well-pressed vinyl album or a nicely mastered CD. Of course, having a full-time job after college was helpful.

I don't have any cassettes left nowadays, except for a handful I've used to interview folks in my writing projects. I was able, finally, to overcome my addiction, replacing my ill gotten gains with legally obtained discs.

My tastes have changed a lot since then; I only have a few of my favorite albums and CD's from the old college days. I might even get out something by Men at Work if I'm feeling particularly winsome. Tuning around the radio, I might run into "Like a Virgin", "She Bop", or "She Blinded Me with Science," and appreciate just how much I've matured. These days, I might try to track down something by avant-garde composers Harry Partch or Luciano Berio or try to find a copy of one of big band leader Stan Kenton's classic fifties albums or get excited when I discover a nice new compilation of early country string band music of the 30's.

Now with the spotlight on the damage done by music sharing to the industry, I can't help but feel a tinge of guilt. Yes, after cassettes became so widespread in the eighties, you could see a definite decline in the fortunes of many artists. Springsteen retired to relative obscurity and poverty, only recently overcoming the grief over his failed career to produce an album. Steve Earle turned to writing novels, of all things. There's even been rumors recently that Michael Jackson might sell his Neverland ranch to amusement park developers to make ends meet.

God, what ever happened to Prince? He must be flipping burgers in some seedy joint in Minneapolis these days. And Van Halen, U2 or Metallica -- did they die of starvation or something? Were John Mellancamp's music sales so poor that he wound up working in some middle class job, trapped in his own little pink house?

Yes, I know that the RIAA receives a royalty on every blank cassette sold, but that's no excuse for my damaging criminal activity. I take full responsibility for all of it. Madonna lost so much money from my music sharing that she was forced to make a movie like "Swept Away". ABBA is so hard up that they've debased themselves by selling their songs to some fly by night Broadway show. Boy George is reduced to giving tours of his quaint English cottage to the prying cameras of VH1 and Ozzy Osbourne has even opened up his whole family to the harsh lights of MTV's reality television crews, reducing the former bat eater to a shadow of himself. Even Fleetwood Mac is so impoverished that they are subjecting us all to a reunion tour. Oh, the humanity! These scourges on our planet are all my fault.

And it's not just the artists that are the victims here. When I think about all of the music executives, concert promoters, handlers and roadies that I put out of work with my tape recorder ... oh, the shame of it all. When they got their pink slips from BMG, MCA and Universal Music, I'm sure they just dived right off the top of the Capital building in Los Angeles and the headquarters of Warner Brothers/Reprise records in beautiful downtown Burbank. Their blood is on my hands. I'm really surprised there's any music industry left at all after the carnage and destruction I caused.

You guys in the dorm with all my cassettes -- you know who you are. You rednecks with those bootleg eight-tracks -- confess! You hippies with miles of reel to reel tapes of the Beatles and the Stones -- repent before your addiction destroys you! Yes, perhaps it's time we all came clean here and admit the damage we've done.

Sometimes, I'll tune around the dial and run into "Africa" by Toto. No, I'm not ashamed to admit that I used to like the tune. (Okay ... maybe I'm a little ashamed.) But, I resist the temptation to drag out my cassette deck and press "record" or to run to the nearest computer to boot up kazaa. I even tell myself that someday, I might even buy the whole Toto CD just so I can have that one song.

But I can resist that temptation, too. I can just buy a DVD instead.


Disclaimer: The above article is a piece of satire. The author does not admit to nor does he condon illegal sharing of copyrighted materials. (Except for that Neil Young album that consists soley of guitar feedback. Nobody actually listens to it anyway.)

(c)copyright 8.Sept.03