There’s a great story in last week’s New Yorker by Stephen Witt (“The Man Who Broke the Music Business”) about the process by which CDs were originally smuggled out of factories, sold on the street, and, eventually, shared on (private) top sites as sound files. This owed largely to the scam that was CD manufacturing and price hiking by record companies, selling 20 dollar product that cost 2 dollars. When people asked me– still ask me– how I feel about free, vaguely illegal music (were cassette dubs illegal? were mixed tapes?), I always point to the moment plastic replaced vinyl, and recorded music suddenly cost twenty dollars for an album, and singles and EPs disappeared. If records had stayed at their price point– 7.99, 8. 99, 9.99– I always felt that people would have been less inclined to steal or pushed to developing theft software and other nefarious devices after the obvious greed and avarice of record companies, which became ever more multi-national and devoted to maximizing profits (as opposed to the development of artists, et al). Because new records cost five times what they had before CDs, they priced-out a large chunk of their audience (the last vinyl-only record I bought at vinyl-only prices was They Might be Giants’ “Flood”). The New Yorker piece proves that it wasn’t only a software valley chip-kid who started the technical backlash, but a struggling factory hand who’d become squeezed out by music providers.
In the story, the protagonist– a working class computer nerd line worker named Dell– talks about realizing, suddenly, that CDs were merely zeros and ones printed to disc, and that the music would be the same/sound the same if the plastic was eliminated. By using this technology to milk, and bilk, the consumer, record companies had created their nemesis; death, or near-death, by their own hand. As an artist, I was never a real victim of file-sharing– our royalties were absurdly low, and slanted in favour of the (larger) record companies– but, as a consumer, I remember feeling ripped off and deprived during the CD revolution. They were, and are, garbage to me, and while I’ll always sell whatever product I have in the trunk– those boxes need to be emptied somehow, and owning music is better than not owning music– but the motive behind CDs was always transparent. So transparent, it turns out, that they will soon disappear; a bad plastic dream for creator, maker and owner.