I was nine when Napster hit its peak. The fallout and legislation started swarming when I was barely in middle school. By the end of 6th grade I had learned how to skip ads and download AC/DC songs off the internet, the year after my cousin introduced me to the p2p network. I think the first I downloaded was the silly, surface-level rebel video for “American Idiot.” In high school I learned how to torrent, ripping full discographies from the very fringes of the internet.
I was an expert on Suicide and The Velvet Underground overnight, made privy to knowledge previously restricted to the upper-echelon of record nerds. I remember discovering a file containing every album listed in the Pitchfork Top 100 lists. It almost seems unfair, but I was already deep within the game. I didn’t pass any tests, I wasn’t christened by Robert Christgau...you don’t need any of that in 2012. I didn’t work hard for my musical palette, you can download a musical palette – a few years later and I’m writing about music near full-time. My name is Luke Winkie, I am a child of the piracy era, I am the crumbling of the music industry, I am the unsolvable problem.
We tend to underestimate the sheer scale of music piracy. We like to limit it at the 1%, a harsh payback to a pop industry that’s had it too easy for too long. It’s so easy to be reductive when the world agrees with you, when you can log onto Reddit and be one of the discontent masses. It’s nice to feel like revolutionaries, it’s nice to use The Pirate Bay as a fashion statement – those things make an entire generation feel united. But there’s one massive, ugly oversight, something that’s easy to forget because it’s hard to think about. Piracy is not just about musicians. It’s about the music industry, and all the implications that come with that. Cash-hemorrhaging PR people can’t distribute their press copies, managers need to keep a day job, the concept of writing about music full-time died with the ‘90s. It all goes back to piracy. It all goes back to kids like me who decided they wanted the world without any permanent involvement. It has buckled and broken people even secondarily related to the music industry. Sure, Columbia is hurting, and there might be some macabre glee in that for the cynics, but it’s taking everyone else down too.
A few dozen years ago, we invested in music with 10-20 dollar chunks, all measured by a record collection. This is not the case anymore. We don’t have to invest in music with anything that hurts. The only thing we need to offer is our time. the sheer vastness of music available produced by theoretical bands existing in pirated copies of GarageBand compounded with the blog machine’s docile willingness to post everything that passes by leaves us with a culture centered around our personal time economies, not our budgets. More than ever before the music industry is catered directly towards the consumers. The album streams, the cloud services, the mixtapes, the mp3s – our favorite bands are rocking in a world where the noise is constantly threatening to choke them out. An idea like Spotify would’ve been laughed off the planet a decade ago. Once upon a time Guns N Roses could release two albums in a week and expect lines around the supermarket, these days the music is constantly beckoning towards us. Take a look at the hip-hop sector; once the chart-champion of the world, talented rappers are now releasing countless mixtapes into a practical ocean of content. It’s literally impossible to keep up. Music has become a service industry, an obsession with newness, not goodness. There was once a time where those 15 dollars forced us to settle down and live with an album for a few days, now by the time you’re done reading this there’s already 15 more blog-posts begging for a listen.
It’s shifted ideologies in kids like me. Log on to the right message boards and bear witness to the fire-and-brimstone bile chucked towards any anti-piracy legislation. Torrent sites are looked up to for bravery and potency, and anyone who thinks otherwise is corrupt and out-of-touch. The most shocking thing about piracy culture is those who participate can’t comprehend why anyone would think otherwise. There is no guilt, just righteous fury. Call us the generation that wanted everything for free, not because we desired it, but because we felt we were owed it. The internet didn’t just facilitate piracy, it nurtured it, it created a stratified community for people to feel like they aren’t the only ones. File-sharing became culture, culture becomes ideology, and ideologies solidify past the point of no return.
Still, there are some beautiful things about the piracy kids. For the first time in pop history knowledge isn’t reserved for esteemed, smug record store clerks or a music writer’s hoard of free albums. Any boy or girl across the world, regardless of hipness, culture or couture, can download the right files and become a wunderkind in German experimentalism in the early ‘70s. It’s the reason a song like “Losing My Edge” exists. Right now there’s a torrent of an exhaustive list of rave anthems throughout the ‘90s lurking in cyberspace’s dark zone; I know, because I downloaded it in high school. As much as it’s wrecking a long cultivated industry, piracy made me who I am; it made plenty of young music geeks who they are. Sure the ethics might be fucked, but there’s no denying how wonderfully it diversified the knowledge. It’s easy to get depressed when you think about piracy, but there is warmth. People are still listening to records, people are still going to shows, and people are still excited about music. Whatever shape the infrastructure takes, it’s nice to know that those things will stay the same.