"Sharity" Doesn't Begin at Home

In his article on "sharity" blogs in the Wire magazine [no. 297 - November, 2008] Simon Reynolds recounts a defense of these Web sites given by \m/eta\m/inx - as the operator of Sickness Abounds calls herself. She compares them to second-hand retail shops, except that the blogs allow more listeners, across a theoretically-global expanse, to hear a wide range of more artists. Certainly within the ever-expanding realms of experimental music, the ability to listen to a particular artist before one buys one of their record is limited. College radio is never as radical and open-minded as the rhetoric of its excitable young participants insists, and what you find at a second-hand shop is less likely to be a ideal pick if the artist in question is prolific, with all sorts of side projects.

Moreover, those attempting to crack down on the sharing of music files among listeners (and at least one buyer, somewhere out there, unless the original was a promo copy) must recognize that their argument against file-sharing should, logically, extend to second-hand shops. What right does a purchaser of someone else's intellectual property have to sell the property to a third party (albeit for a meager profit)? And what right does the shopkeeper have to re-sell it at a profit sometimes greater than that made on sales of new items? If, as proclaimed by the self-anointed defenders of the copyright, the intellectual property is still to some extent owned by the artist despite having been sold, should he not the profit from the re-sale?

Of course now we are in the territory of potential laws not worth the trouble of enforcement. But in these post-Napster years, we have seen that perhaps the same is true of file sharing. A simple "search engine" request allowed me, after a few futile links, to download the new Kanye West album, 808s and Heartbreak, with ease, only a few annoying pop-ups appearing and no computer viruses attached. Have all efforts at control failed? Sure, some of the popular file-hosting sites had removed .rar files of the album that had been uploaded by unscrupulous pirates. But eventually, I got it. And it wasn't very good, certainly not compared to its predecessor, Graduation; I'm quite glad I didn't buy it. Tough luck, Kanye.

In the late 1990's, when the controversy over Napster had not yet arisen (that is, Metallic hadn't heard of it yet) many of the same arguments against file-sharing were made against C D R's. Didn't stop me, though. I made copies of C D's my friends owned, and of C D's that had been sent to W R E K, the Georgia Tech radio station where I worked briefly. The station even had a stand-alone burner, so that bands who'd just played on the Live at W R E K program could immediately get copies of their performance. Everyone knew, though, that the "ops" (disc jockeys) made copies of records they especially liked.

I also developed the habit of making a copy of every C D that I re-sold. No matter if I just didn't like the album all that much, or hated it, I still burned it before taking it to local stores to get my few dollars in trade, with which to get more C D's.

Indeed, an oft-heard argument in favor of burning and ripping goes something like this: those most likely to burn C D's they didn't buy or download music for free are also the ones who - no matter much music awaits at home, in some cases not even listened to yet - still go to stores, real or Web, to buy records. For them, shopping is fun. Of course, the problem comes when the shops disappear, or those running them grow weary of the entire venture.

So, we've come to the subjects of (1) actually listening to all this music and (2) what file sharing will do to the record industry....

The copious amounts of music available now free of charge have lead to what Reynolds calls "collector-itis," a condition he compares to constipation, and that frequent visitors to "sharity" blogs will surely empathize with. My way out of the rut, reflecting my stubborn argumentative wont: I resist the quasi-hippie ethos of contemporary experimental scenes, especially those arising from the fringes of the Indie world, instead embracing critical inquiry that emphasizes a diverse, but small, number of artists across a wide swath of cultural activity. Those who want to dwell in the morass of certain periods and certain scenes bore the hell out of me. I want to listen to individual artists, or singular collectives, who do not shy from pretension and grandiosity. To be frank, while "sharity" blogs have allowed me to listen to artists I'd unwisely ignored for too long [The New Blockaders, Smegma, Masayuki Takayanagi, Joe Maneri, Current 93], for the most part I've used them to explore the massive oeuvres of artists already familiar to me [Anthony Braxton, Boredoms, Charalambides, Cecil Taylor].

The problem is bigger, though, than the poor consumer not having enough time to digest his downloads. Indeed, bigger even than the artist not being compensated for his work. What is also missing from the "sharity" culture is any semblance of critical engagement with the music. We do have, at times, decent descriptions of the music, and some historical background, but the recommendation is always: listen. You might decide you don't like it, but at least give it a listen. Apparently, in the magical land of the Worldwide Web, we all have all the time in the world to listen to all of the records ever released anywhere anytime. Who's there to tell us, as I might for example, that Archie Shepp's Blasé is worth more of your time than his Four for Trane? One can find M P 3's of Group Ongaku on Ubu Web, but little information that could explain precisely why you'd want to pay any attention to a group that existed briefly in the early 1960's with only 3 files available (and indeed you do want to listen to them!). I enjoy Closet of Curiosities and Avant Garde Project the most precisely because of the relative wealth of textual information provided alongside the aural at both sites.

When the file-sharing controversy was at its peak, the comparison one heard more commonly than to C D R's was to the rise of the audio cassette in the early 1980's. The assumption I saw many commentators making, that a cassette copy of either an L P or C D was less of an ideal copy than M P 3 files, is debatable at least. Nevermind of course that the record industry's spokesmen initially did portray cassettes as a serious threat. But as it abandoned efforts at discouraging cassette copying (such as attempts to outlaw twin cassette decks, or forbidding owners of shops that rented video cassettes from selling blank tapes), and as the C D gradually attained its dominant position, the received wisdom of the time came to disparage the quality of audio cassettes. The contrast with the present social milieu is startling: the notion that an M P 3 file replicates the sound quality of the C D is often taken as a given - or, if not accepted, the problem is ignored, as if the entire issue of sound quality is irrelevant.

First of all, even if one attaches their computer to a good stereo system, and makes certain only to download high-quality M P 3's, the sound of the files when played back will not compare to a C D R made from those same files played on the same system. That is to say, the quality of your "hi-fi" matters, even regardless of the quality of the media in question: play a C D on your computer drive, through any stereo system, then play it on a C D player, on the same stereo; you'll hear the difference. Audiophiles have been dealing with this problem for several years now. Check out these articles at Stereophile magazine [1, 2].

Nonetheless, the devices (or high-end sound cards) enabling a sufficient transfer of a high-quality M P 3 from your computer to your stereo remain rare, fringe-market commodities. Many listeners of the present day, if they own stereo systems, let them lie dormant in favor of their computer or their I-Pod, with those ridiculous little earphones that sound horrible. In the '80's, when one obtained free copies, you probably got a cassette someone had made of his L P or cassette; you played it on your stereo, and it sounded as good as a purchased cassette would have at least, if not the vinyl as well (and let's not even get into those early C D's, when analog-to-digital transferring was the pits). There were walkmans, but the attention they drew seems quaint now, given how ubiquitous anti-social creeps with earphones a-blastin' have become.

The major social transformation going on in the past decade or so, then, is not just the decline of the record as a disparate entity [an important change, though, for those of us who love the album] but also the decline of the sound quality of play-back systems consumers use to listen to recorded music. Moreover, another decline - of the stereo system as a important part of residential spaces and the socialization that takes place therein - suggests that a larger historical shift is taking place. This shift will result in a culture wherein music no longer has the high position it held during the Rock era.

Now, the industry side of the equation.... As described in the Reynolds article, and another piece by Phil Freeman in the same issue, these blogs for the most part focus on out-of-print records, or recordings that have never even been published. Freeman suggests that labels with large back-catalogs of older titles should check to see which of those records are being downloaded frequently, or at least made available at all. Reynolds, though, wisely points out that listeners who have already downloaded the music are less likely to purchase official reissues once they come around. Indeed, one cannot but think that albums originally published by the kind of labels Freeman discusses (India Navigation, Flying Dutchman, Strata-East) which would probably not be reissued by the original company anyway but by newer labels either founded for the sake of unearthing "lost" classics or publishing some reissues in addition to their regular roster, are now less likely to be made available again, let alone in fancy editions with bonus tracks.

The C D-reissue business had already become somewhat of a racket anyway. Mainstream artists generally had nice reissues available, but their labels often greedily put out different versions (such as the double-disc "deluxe editions" of records that already had been properly transferred from analog to digital, 24-bit in some cases). As for reissues of artists more obscure and deserving of greater attention, nonetheless the labels or imprints that specialized in such releases (for example, Atavistic's Unheard Music Series) tended to put forth specious claims based upon some mysterious consensus among the informed as to the relevance of the album being reissued. As with the "sharity" blogs, the point was to get as much out as possible.

Being somewhat of a bibliophile with regard to more than just books, I'd argue that bloggers who are ensuring that rare records get transferred to some sort of stable format, especially if the master tapes are missing or permanently damaged, perform a necessary public service. That said, the need for adequate preservation of the recordings does not necessarily justify making them available for free. A similar discussion has been taking place over the digital copying of books, now led in nearly-monopolistic fashion by Google (click here).

Reynolds quotes the anonymous Jim who launched Mutant Sounds, one of the most-popular "sharity" blogs, distinguishing between the record collector and the music enthusiast, as if there is any meaningful distinction between the two, letting us know too, of course, that bloggers like himself reside in the latter category. Reynolds seems to agree, at least in part, speaking of a "drastic transformation that [has] taken place in record-collector culture. The impetus used to be: I have something that no one else has. But with the advent of sharity blogging that's shifted to: I've just got hold of something that no one else [has] got, so I'm immediately going to make it available to EVERYBODY." The disdain Mutant Jim apparently feels toward record dealers is odd. After all, isn't dear Jim himself a record collector, at least in the past? Who kept all these obscure albums safe and clean all these years but the very individuals who, for the most part, still want to sell them to you? Did these acts of cultural preservation not require the utmost in music enthusiasm? Not to mention strong backs for carrying all those full record crates. Telling too that, while the record collector gets dissed, the professional D J - who similarly holds on to his prized possessions, whose reputation at times is based upon his collection - does not.

The Web has taken money out of the equation for many listeners. Even many artists. But there's still what economists call "opportunity cost." The record dealer doesn't get back the time and effort spent on amassing his collection when he sells a record for a couple of hundred dollars. And he's not dumb enough to think that he does. Mutant Jim, when he suggests "vanity" plays a role in the collector's decision both to procure the record, and then to sell it - or to hold onto it for the mere pleasure of being able to say he has it - instead of giving it away for free, misses the point in so many ways. After all, since when is vanity is a bad thing? If it was, would there be any music artists for bloggers to listen to? As for listeners, excessive incentive to do nothing but consume, be passive recipients of the music, discourages the D I Y creativity that produced much of the music being shared by these blogs. They need a little more vanity as well... to decide that some music isn't worth your time, because you're important too. All the great sayings haven't been said, all the great music hasn't been made. In short, the movement away from distinct "hi-fi" systems given a central place in one's home, and the anti-intellectualism rampant in discussions surrounding contemporary music (even experimental scenes) both of which "sharity" blogs encourage or at least reflect, do not bode well for the future of music.

As much as I've enjoyed the "sharity" blogs - and as much as I've downloaded from them - when I've "stolen" a record that is currently in print, I do feel awkward about the entire situation. Sure, I'm glad I didn't spend money on that Kanye West album; but sometimes, having made a purchase, and having the "hard copy" there to remind him of its very existence, the buyer is more willing to give the album a second chance, or third, or fourth. Kanye doesn't need any more chances. But Alain Savouret, Marion Brown, Howard Riley, Cerberus Shoal, or Thuja, to name just a few, certainly do. Relegating even minor artists to the ether-world of the W W doesn't seem fair. The Experimental Etc. blog in particular seems to lack any desire to distinguish between albums that are currently available and those which are not. When exploring this site's vast library, one envisions a future music world wherein no-one buys anyone's music ever. As with the matter of serious critical discussion of the music put on display, this potential problem is apparently not the uploader's prerogative.