(Grant Skelton provided these confessions.)
(Author’s Note: This article is not intended to be persuasive. It was written neither in support of filesharing nor against it. Instead, it recalls my experiences with filesharing and how those experiences shaped my consumption of music as both an art and a product.)
My family bought our first computer in 1998. I was 13. We had AOL 3.0 (You’ve got mail!). I spent most of my time on the PC playing games that a person my age probably had no business playing. Educational games like Postal, Doom, Blood, and Duke Nukem 3D kept me from completing many a homework assignment. Chat rooms were another productive and beneficial investment of one’s time.
I was still a burgeoning music fan in those days. My CD collection was sparse, and my ears were still very conditioned to ’90s grunge rock provided by local radio stations. I genuinely liked grunge, and I still do. But I always wanted something… more from my music. I wanted something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I wanted the grunge to be angrier, faster, meaner. I wanted music with more aggression. Something with fire and venom.
By 1999, my family moved. We also upgraded to a cable modem (holla!), which meant faster Internet. No more waiting 3 hours for AOL to load a page (and Heaven help you if you had to download something!). That summer, a friend played me an album by a band I had never heard of before. It featured 9 guys in masks and orange jumpsuits. At the time, I thought it was the most abrasive, violent, vicious music I had ever heard. But I still wanted to see what else was out there.
I used my new cable modem and my Yahoo search engine to search for “heavy metal websites.” I found 3 search results that would eventually become my favorites. Only one of them is still active, and that is theprp.com. The other 2 were shoutweb.com and megakungfu.com. On Friday and Saturday nights, I spent untold hours perusing Megakungfu’s review archives. It was littered with unsigned bands, regional and local bands, bands whose names were in languages I couldn’t even recognize (let alone pronounce!).
I read review after review, scouring band photos and listening to samples. Samples were all you could get. And if you found a sample that didn’t sound like it had been recorded inside a tin can, you were lucky. No going to YouTube and typing in “band name song title.” iTunes wouldn’t launch for another 2 years. Amazon MP3 didn’t see light until 2007. Bandcamp would make the scene even later in 2008.
Fortunately, Megakungfu brought me to an internet radio station. WSOU 89.5 FM, The station broadcast from Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. It gave me my first introductions to bands like Living Sacrifice, Zao, Hatebreed, Sepultura, Black Flag, Killswitch Engage, Down, Extol, Corrosion of Conformity, and many others. It shaped my definition of what metal was. I found out that metal could be fast, mid-tempo, or slow and still be “heavy.” I discovered classic albums released when I was still in diapers (and before) that rivalled anything modern I had heard. I also found current gems that went unnoticed by even the mainstream metal media. Thus began my transition from a steady diet of nu-metal to genres I never even knew existed (Sludge? Hm. Sounds interesting. Let’s check it out!).
Back then, you might have to browse the Internet for days to find a website that hosted .mp3 downloads of full songs. If I found a song on WSOU I liked, I’d look around for it, or perhaps more by the same band. Every now and then I’d stumble on a band that put a full song up on their fledgling Angelfire or Geocities page. But that was the exception, not the rule. I was still new to the Internet as a fan and consumer. So were the bands that were making this music that I was addicted to. If you wanted social media, you had to find a message board. Or sign a band’s guestbook.
In the late summer of 1999, a friend told me that if I wanted to find a good place to download music, I needed to go to Napster.com. He said it was a program that would allow you to search for any band, song, or album and then download it for free. Since my family’s computer was equipped with this fancy new gizmo called a “burner,” I decided to give it a go. I found Napster and began downloading songs.
I burned album after album, eventually filling an entire bulking CD binder. I found rarities, demos, bootlegs, B-sides, covers, remixes, and all points in between. If I searched long enough, I even found songs that hadn’t yet been released. I burned CDs for family and friends, and never thought anything about it. Why spend $15-$20 for 1 CD when I could get 15-20 CDs for the same amount?
After Napster collapsed in July of 2001, a myriad of other P2P filesharing clients became available. Kazaa, LimeWire, and Audiogalaxy were just a few. Everyone had their preference, and some people even used multiple clients. My downloading and burning trend continued through the end of high school and into college.
Downloading took on something of an addictive property when I discovered bittorrents. I would download music and then listen to perhaps a fraction of it. I’d listen to one song, and then usually forget the album completely. Whole gigabytes of files gathered digital dust on my hard drive. Much of it I never got around to listening to even once. I downloaded it just to download it. I might even score a band’s entire discography and then listen to a minute of one song. I wasn’t acquiring the music for the benefit of the artist. If I were to be completely honest, I was amassing music for the purpose of just having it on my hard drive. Having it just to have it.
If I saw a new or upcoming release appear on one of my favorite torrent websites, I would download it because it was something new. I wasn’t enjoying the music. I was enjoying the process of downloading the music. Those are 2 very different things. The morality of piracy wasn’t the point. The point was that if there had been an episode of “Hoarders” that covered music downloads, it would have featured me.. Worse still, I hadn’t even paid for any of the music I was hoarding. That trend continued for the next several years.
This habit was something that needed to go. Like kicking any habit, it was long and painstaking. And there were relapses. Several relapses, in fact. But when I reflected on my 10+ years of filesharing (or piracy, if you want to call it that. I’m not offended by that label.), I learned a few things. As I mentioned in the Author’s Note, the point of this article is not whether filesharing is right or wrong. I’m not trying to incite a debate. Like social media, filesharing has its pros and cons. But the particular way I went about it was negative and unhealthy. Below are a few reasons why I no longer seek to download music for free.
My conscience changed. I felt like I was stealing.
Again, the matter at hand is not whether filesharing is/is not stealing. I’m not making an absolute statement that applies to everyone. This is my conviction and it applies to me. As I got older, I felt like I had been a thief. I felt like I had taken something that did not belong to me. I had procured a good for which I did not return something of equal value.
If you don’t want to spend money on clothes, with some skill and know-how you can make your own. Likewise, if you don’t want to buy a new car, you can assemble the pieces yourself if you have the time and money. You can purchase a product from a professional, or make it yourself. Not so with media. Sure, I can join a band and we can make our own music. But I can’t make an Agalloch song. Or a Sylosis one. Or Saint Vitus, or whomever. That artist wrote that song, arranged the instrumental sections, tuned the instruments, booked the studio time, hired an audio engineer, rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed that song to perfection. With my frivolous downloading, I never took any of that into account.
You have to spend money to make money. And the bands that were putting their money into equipment, gas for touring, and studio time weren’t getting a dime from me. Without revenue, no business can survive. And in my mind there is something wrong with that.
I cheapened my appreciation for the music.
People listen to music for a variety of reasons. Different musical genres produce different emotional experiences for different people. In my opinion, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is the greatest jazz album of all time. I love jazz. Some think otherwise because jazz is improvised and sometimes chaotic. But they still value and appreciate other kinds of music.
I didn’t value music monetarily, so my emotional value also depleted. I hadn’t invested in the purchase of the music and therefore the success of the band that released it. I didn’t cough up money that I earned to put toward it. So it cost me nothing. As a result, it gave me nothing. No satisfaction, no euphoria when I heard a particular riff, or chorus, or drum fill, or solo, or noodly bass rumble. I just heard noise. I didn’t feel any connection to what I was listening to. I wasn’t moved. But that wasn’t the music’s fault. It was mine. Basic business principle. No investment, no return. That principle is true outside of business as well. It’s true in relationships, in life, and in art.
I wasn’t helping artists who I really liked make more music.
We’ve all heard the saying that every dollar is a vote. Nobody has infinite currency. We all have necessities. We have bills to pay. What do we do with the discretionary income left over? I wasn’t spending mine on music. The artists whose music I downloaded had no incentive to provide me with future albums. They had no motive from me as a fan to continue recording music. Because my fiat currency did not fund their recorded product. Because I found a way to provide myself with their music for free. My discretionary income went elsewhere, but I still had my album. And the artist had nothing from me.
Unpaid downloads don’t mean anything in the music industry. Furthermore, it’s no secret that metal doesn’t exactly produce Billboard chart-toppers. Even Slipknot were not immune to the recent anomaly of Americans buying less music. Sure, they sold over 132,000 copies the first week. That’s nothing to thumb one’s nose at. Some bands would kill just to get a fraction of that in album sales. But relative to the Iowa boys’ previous album sales, The Gray Chapter didn’t fare so well. I submit that I, as a recovering non-consumer of music, was part of that problem. I wasn’t voting with my wallet like I should have been.
Music fans have traded tapes and bootlegs since the advent of recording technology. In the ’90s it was not at all uncommon to play a CD on your stereo while recording it on a blank cassette for a friend. “Sharing” is nothing new. Technology helped sharing evolve into what it is today.
I’m not the person who can provide a definitive answer on the ethics of filesharing and piracy. Napster and other P2P clients made the music business pay attention to the demand for digital music. If not for these “free” clients, we likely would not have iTunes, Bandcamp, Google Play, Amazon MP3, and so on. Those companies saw a demand for a product in a new form. They saw that consumers wanted digital copies of music instead of hard copies. They met that demand with a supply. A supply that does not need to be reproduced again and again the way that hard copies do. No CDs to print means less money expended by the artist and the record label. There was a need for a new medium, and the industry stood up and answered.
What do you think about filesharing/piracy? What have been your experiences with it? What did you learn?