Monday Debate: Stealing Music Is Illegal, But Is It Immoral?

Wait. That headline doesn’t seem to make much sense. If stealing is illegal, isn’t it also immoral? Stay with me on this as you read this article from The Guardian.

How Music Got Free - Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free is in essence the gripping tale of three men: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German scientist whose lab cobbled together the MP3; Doug Morris, the old-school record company executive who presided over the rap boom and began the fight-back against piracy; and Bennie Lydell “Dell” Glover, the North Carolina CD pressing plant worker, whose light fingers and computer skills singlehandedly led to a haemorrhage of A-list rock and hip-hop releases – Eminem, Kanye West, Queens of the Stone Age, Björk – being freely available on the internet two weeks before release.

The three men never met, but Witt reveals how their lives overlapped and irrevocably changed those of anyone who listens to music. Brandenburg’s genius lay in shrinking sound files down so that they could easily be sent over the internet, back when most files were huge and modems still dialled up. Owing to the bitter internecine rivalries within acoustic engineering, no one recognised the scope of Brandenburg’s technology; the inferior MP2 kept winning industry accolades and commercial applications. Universal executive Morris presided over an industry rich from the obscene profits generated by CD sales, until the secretive community of organised filesharers began to gouge huge chunks out of their balance sheets.

By day, Dell worked in Universal’s CD pressing plant. By night, he was active in Rabid Neurosis (RNS), the premier illegal filesharing community where members were known to each other only by their online handles – ADEG, St James, Kali. If you were a hip-hop fan in the early 2000s with access to the internet, your pre-release pirated download of Jay-Z’sThe Blueprint or Eminem’s The Eminem Show originally came from RNS. And RNS got it from Dell, whose network of smugglers used the lavish, outsize circular belt buckles popular among southern guys to hide the CDs, evading the plant’s stringent security measures. It’s estimated that over a period of 11 years, RNS leaked more than 2,000 albums, of which many came from the North Carolina plant.

Keep reading. And then read this excerpt.

I am a member of the pirate generation. When I arrived at college in 1997, I had never heard of an MP3. By the end of my first term, I had filled my 2GB hard drive with hundreds of bootlegged songs. By graduation, I had six 20GB drives, all full. By 2005, when I moved to New York, I had collected 1,500GB of music, nearly 15,000 albums worth. It took an hour just to cue up my library, and if you ordered the songs alphabetically by artist, you’d have to listen for a year and a half to get from Abba to ZZ Top.

I pirated on an industrial scale, but told no one. It was an easy secret to keep. You never saw me at the record store and I didn’t DJ parties. The files were procured on chat channels and through Napster and BitTorrent; I haven’t purchased an album with my own money since the turn of the millennium. The vinyl collectors of old had filled whole basements with dusty album jackets, but my digital collection could fit in a shoebox.

Most of this music I never listened to. I actually hated Abba, and although I owned four ZZ Top albums, I couldn’t tell you the name of one. What was really driving me? Now, years later, I can see that what I really wanted was to belong to an elite and rarefied group. This was not a conscious impulse and, had you suggested it to me, I would have denied it. But that was the perverse lure of the piracy underground. It wasn’t just a way to get the music – it was its own subculture.

I was at the very forefront of the digital download trend. Had I been just a couple of years older, I doubt I would have become so involved. My older friends regarded piracy with scepticism and sometimes outright hostility. This was true even for those who loved music – in fact, it was especially true for them. Record collecting had been a subculture, too, and, for that vanishing breed, finding albums proved to be an exhilarating challenge, one that involved scouring garage sales, sifting through bargain bins. But for me, and those younger, collecting was effortless, the music was simply there. The only hard part was figuring out what to listen to.

As I was browsing through my enormous list of albums one day a few years ago, a fundamental question struck me: where had all this music come from, anyway? I didn’t know the answer, and as I researched it, I realised that no one else did either. There had been heavy coverage of the MP3 phenomenon and of Apple,Napster and the Pirate Bay, but there had been little talk of the inventors and almost none at all of those who actually pirated the files.

More here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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