Why I Stopped Pirating Music



After nearly a decade, my iTunes library weighs in at almost ninety-four gigabytes. A lot of serious music nerds would sneeze derisively at that, but it still represents over 13,000 songs that would take me, from start to finish, a full 48 days to listen to back to back.

I’d be lying if I said most of these had been acquired legally. Most of these albums were acquired on Bittorrent in my twenties. Many more were ripped from CDs lent to me by friends and family, or slurped up from Usenet to satisfy my obscure yet surface-thin musical fixations. Some were purchased through iTunes or other sources online, but truthfully, if you stripped everything out of my iTunes library that I’d acquired legally, I’d probably have a digital music library that could fit on a first generation iPod.

Over the course of the last two years, though, something interesting has happened. I’ve grown a conscience. These days, all of the music I listen to is listened to legally. But iTunes not only has no part in it. In fact, for the past two years, my iTunes library has just been collecting dust: a graveyard to the music piracy of my youth.

I’m ashamed of it. I want to try to explain things. Both why I started pirating music, why I stopped, and how, in fits and starts, being a music pirate helped transform me into someone who cared enough about music to buy it.

How I got hooked on music and piracy…

I come from a family that is very passionate about music. When I was growing up, my house was always filled with sound: my father’s CD collection numbered in the thousands, and his LP and cassette tape collections are almost as impressive. His taste was simultaneously eclectic and exhaustive, popular and obscure. Running through the blood of my father and his brothers is a passion for sound, a yen not just for catchy singles but to experience and understand the emotional thought stiching together the sounds that human beings make.

It was not a passion I shared. Growing up in a household constantly filled with music, I tended to value silence when I could get it. Despite my family’s best efforts, my interest in music was, at best, extraordinarily casual. I had some favorite CDs as a teen, but they were the usual angry pop anthems to anarchy that most kids bobbed their heads to in the mid-90s. I’d play a few songs off of each of these CDs over and over again until the very rhythm of them made me sick, then never listen to them again. Despite my family’s best interests, any deeper interest in music eluded me.

My first “iPod.” Really.

It wasn’t until I got my first iPod in 2004 that I really started listening to music again. I say iPod, but it wasn’t really: it was a Dell DJ, Dell’s bizarre, hideous analog to the iPod. It looked like a relic that had crowned through wormhole from an alternate dimension where Apple (яблоко) was founded behind the Iron Curtain, but it was $100 cheaper than an iPod, and at the time, money was tight.

It’s strange to say, but in many ways, my interest in music was birthed from piracy. It is the nature of a void that it must be filled, and with 20 gigabytes of hard drive space on my Dell DJ, I quickly set about filling it as best as I could, helter skelter, grabbing albums almost at random as fast as I could download them from all the usual pirating sources: WASTE networks, Bittorrent, IRC, newsgroups. I quickly filled up that Dell DJ and upgraded to a 60GB iPod Classic the next year. I never have been without an iPod since.

I began to listen to a lot more music during this period, but like many pirates, I downloaded far more albums out of convenience than I actually listened to. The albums I did listen to, I half-listened to, allowing the music to fill the background of my consciousness while I focussed on other things: reading a book, writing, playing a video game. I came to the majority of the music I downloaded as the worst kind of listener, a non-participant. I was amassing a collection, but collecting is not the same as appreciating.

Still, some of it began to permeate, to sink in. My tastes expanded from the grungy to be more diverse. A lot of this was achievement based at first: “Wouldn’t it set me apart if I were deeply into jazz?” I would pretentiously think. But pretentious posturing often evolves into legitimate passion through sheer repetition, and the more music I listened to something new simply to win the achievement, the more I found myself really thinking about what I’d heard.

This continued for many years, and I bought only what I couldn’t find any other way: the truly obscure. During this time, my trivial knowledge of music expanded as rapidly as my iTunes library — names of bands, when albums were released, that kind of stuff — but my actual appreciation for what I was hearing grew far more slowly. For everydozen albums in my iTunes library, I might have actual, articulable thoughts about only one of them. Looking back, this seems incredibly depressing to me, but it’s the hallmark of someone who is approaching art as a commodity that comes from a faucet. I wasn’t investing in music with either my time, my money or my attention: I was just turning it on.

How I stopped pirating, and started streaming…

So what changed? There was obviously a tipping point where I had finally collected enough ideas about certain albums or artists that I, in turn, started to have ideas about music as a whole. But what really started changing the way I thought about music was when I changed the way I acquired music. And this had nothing to do with iTunes, but rather, it came when I subscribed to Spotify.

I was living in Europe at the time, so I had access to Spotify a couple of years before it came to the United States. When I signed up for it, I did so on a whim, but that whim scratched the niggling itch of conscience that was starting to develop in regards to pirating. If you’re not really thinking about music, the act of piracy doesn’t make much of an impact on your conscience, but the sheer volume of music I was pirating and playing had started a very slow chain reaction for me. Particles of music colliding with particles of thoughts as if by random, undergoing a fusion into a denser, more fully formed element: an idea of what that song or album represented to me. There weren’t many of these ideas, but once you have an idea in your head, it becomes much harder to ignore the person or artist who gave it to you.

So when I signed up for Spotify, I viewed it in many ways as almost a more ethical form of piracy. For a reasonable monthly subscription fee, I could enjoy as much music as I wanted from a vast library, with even more convenience than hunting down albums and pirating them first. Sure, I knew that artists being paid for the tracks I was listening to on Spotify were only getting a small fraction of what they would have earned if I purchased their album in a store or through iTunes, but still, this was a legal alternative: a way of listening to vast quantities of new music that didn’t break the bank, but also didn’t need to be hidden or equivocated around. It required no justification.

My appreciation of albums shifted from one that was primarily about whether I had that album to what that album had made me feel.

What’s odd, though, is the way in which Spotify — then Rdio, when I moved back  to the States, and which I think is a better service — changed the way I listened to music. Instead of collecting digital music files, Spotify made me sit down and listen. Before, merely downloading an album had, in some small sense, fulfilled me, whether I listened to it or not. But now I approached each album singly, not as a commodity to be pilfered in bulk and hoarded, but as something I was setting out to experience, right then and there.

The distinction is what I brought to the table, which wasn’t so much money — these subscriptions are cheap and easy to justify, even if you don’t listen to much music — as it was a deep variation in the way I approached music. Albums were listened to with a greater immediacy, because having access to an almost infinite library of music in the cloud, my appreciation of albums shifted from one that was primarily about whether I had that album to what that album had made me feel.

When I look back at my 90 gigabytes of pirated music, the thing that strikes me is how little of it I’ve listened to, even to this day. How many of the albums stored in my iTunes library that I did listen to conjure up absolutely no feeling in me when I look at them.

It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my piracy was mostly mere collecting, and like the most fetishistic of collectors, it was conducted with mindless voracity. A good collection is supposed to be made up of relics, items that conjure up memories, feelings and ideas for the owner so strongly that he gets pleasure in simply being in close contact with them. A tended garden. My collection was nothing like this: it was just a red weed, swallowing up and corroding anything I did care about within its indiscriminating mass.

Why I’ll never pirate again…

Things are very different for me now. Music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio are part of that transformation, in that I started approaching music more urgently. They broke me of my collecting habit, and over time, I developed a more fully-formed connection with music, in which my collection was no longer a trove of bytes on my hard drive, but a compendium of memories and feelings about the way certain albums had impacted me. As this internal garden of musical experience grew, I found myself wanting to collect albums again, but not as a red weed of formless bits… as something physical, a collection of relics that I could approach with the same mixture of fondness and urgency as I approach my favorite books.

My stereo, installed in a mid-century booze cart.

Recently, I bit the bullet and put myself together a proper stereo, very similar to the one my father had when I was younger. It’s a hodge podge of vintage components, including a beautiful Yamaha receiver from the late 70s with full, rich sound, some massively powerful Technics speakers some poor fool was giving away on Craigslist, a Dual 1256 turntable and a slightly out-of-place Apple TV lurking in the shadows of the entertainment center, allowing me to stream music from Rdio over AirPlay to all of this vintage analog gear.

I’m not an audiophile, but for someone who spent the vast majority of his musical awakening over the past decade listening to digital audio in a hodge-podge of bitrates over crappy PC speakers and cheap earbuds, the luxuriousness of this set-up is hard to overstate: it’s the difference between listening to music in the background and feeling it as a presence in the room with you, sometimes soft and pale, and sometimes as an electrifying pressure in the air around you, like an exploding storm.

What’s interesting to me about my stereo is how it’s facilitated the final step in my evolution in the way I experience music. Apple has always known that good tech changes the way you interact with a medium, and that’s just what my stereo has done, far more profoundly changing the way I listen to music than any iPod ever did. Part of it’s because my stereo sounds so great that listening to music on my Mac or my iPhone is a far shallower experience, but another big part of it is that my stereo isn’t something I can simply carry around with me: it’s 150 pounds of gear located in my living room, and to experience it, I must go to it and sit in front of it as an active participant. It’s an altar, of sorts, in front of which I feel and experience music.

Apple has always known that good tech changes the way you interact with a medium, and that’s just what my stereo has done, far more profoundly changing the way I listen to music than any iPod ever did.

These days, I don’t pirate any music. My iTunes library collects dust. Instead, I expand my horizons musically by exploring in Rdio. If an album I listen to particularly affects me, I set out to collect it… not merely to have it, but to be in close physical contact with a work that has, in some small way, changed the way I feel and which I always want to be able to feel again. When I do collect these albums, I go out of my way to buy them on vinyl, usually paying two to three times the price of what that same album would cost me on iTunes or on CD.

Again, this is about the ritual of the thing. A lot of people will tell you that albums sound differently on vinyl, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. What is true for me, again, is that a vinyl record is something that can not be engaged with passively. You have to touch it. It’s big. You have to flip it halfway through. It can’t be listened to while you jog or while you ride the subway. You can’t just slap it into a player and forget about it: you need to lift the needle down to trace the grooves of a concentric spiral in which other human beings inscribed an emotional tissue of music that reproduces something deep and subliminal within their hearts. For me, the strength of vinyl is that it can not be easily taken for granted: to play a record, you must set out to listen to it, not just hear it.

What’s the takeaway here? That’s a very good question. As a thirty-three year old man, I’m ashamed of the piracy of my twenties, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it gradually helped transform me from a person who didn’t care about music into a music lover, an individual with a true passion for sound, and a fervent believer in buying music.

I hope, in the grand scheme of things, that is a comfort to the musicians and music executives who despair about the rampant piracy endemic to digital music: I can not be alone in this. I stole music just long enough for me to grow to love buying it.

As for my iTunes library? Maybe it’s time I raze that red weed once and for all. There’s nothing in it I wouldn’t rather buy all over again.

Good riddance.


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