I recently read a combative statement in a BBC article that was amplified by one of my favorite guitar-smashing rock legends, Pete Townshend. He deemed iTunes a “digital vampire” that bleeds artists dry without attempting to nurture their creativity. Mr. Townshend then fired a legitimate homing missile at the general fate of the music industry as it lies within the hands of megapowers like Apple who rely on Internet connections as their primary dollar sign vaccuums. He went on to say that the Internet was “destroying copyright as we know it.”
While this argument has loomed over the digitally connected world since the days of Napster, its presence is just as stalwart today. The Internet is still annihilating copyright. In the olden days, we would rely on a friend who was the known music connoisseur to lend us CDs to burn to our hard drives. While this was not particularly helpful to the artists, most of us were still buying CDs and supporting them. However, when that said friend moved away and the Internet gained more ground, we relied on Napster or Limewire with their molasses-grade speeds to download song after song of our favorite music. The surge of P2P media sharing sites killed Complete Albums. Artists were distraught, and everyone suddenly knew who Lars Ulrich was.
Then along came Apple. iTunes. The iPod. The iPhone. This was prodigious. I could download a single song for 99 cents without having to download the entire album, and I didn’t even have to leave the house to socialize with anything that harbored a pulse to do so! And thus, the Complete Album continued to suffer monumental damage, to the extent of near extinction, while music stores boarded up their windows and decorated dumpsters with Greenday posters. But music was merely the beginning. Thanks to Netflix and Blockbuster online, video rental stores are perishing into mounds of musty-scented memories. The Nook and Kindle make certain that the neighborhood bookstore is converted into a Starbucks on top of a Walmart with a KFC inside. At the present moment, consumers proceed to languish away on their lethargic asses all day long ordering music, movies and books from the comfort of their own homes, devoid of social interaction with fellow humans and fueling the demise of brick and mortar media havens.
And amidst this flourish of digital media trade and commerce, I can still fire up YouTube and watch any show clip or movie scene I want for free. I can extract any MP3 file from a music video on YouTube and download the file directly into iTunes for free. I can pirate books, games and software till the cows some home using torrent sites or P2P programs, without paying a dime. Fifteen years ago, I never would have surmised it would be this easy to pilfer on such a grand level. It’s absolutely devastating, not only for the majority of artists and developers who bust their hides and pour their souls into their work, but for the aloof generations to come. By allowing this criminal activity to slide, we are gradually instilling within our youth the acceptance and embracement of blatant copyright violation.
Yet beyond the fact that we, as consumers steal media every day on a global scale, our entire experience with media has been cheapened by drastic measures. To watch something on YouTube means we must be exposed to the subhuman comments that lie beneath it. We must cope with frozen pixilated frames at pinnacle plot moments while the bandwidth catches up. We must subject our ears to molested MP3 files that sound as though they were produced in a tin can going around in a rock tumbler on top of a washing machine during an earthquake. We must virtually swipe an imaginary page on a sterile screen that lacks the familiar aroma of freshly printed ink. We must download songs without knowing the artists and create an iTunes library that rivals the most consternating binary and hieroglyphic sequences known to man. And as a result of this instant gratification, we want quicker, more succinct media to satiate our dwindling attention spans. All of the intrinsic qualities inherent in physical media are thrown to the wolves while interacting with digital media.
It used to be a thrill-laden expedition heading to the stuffy local video store to snag an exceedingly lame B movie I’d never heard of—I must have kept Troma films in business. Wading through an ocean of CD and record album art was a cherished pastime, as well as thumbing through pages galore at obscure bookstores that attracted a salad buffet of intriguing characters. Many dates were spent wandering the aisles of tangible media outlets, sharing and laughing. I used to look forward to holidays. Books and CDs were actually able to be gift wrapped and stacked under the tree or placed by the menorah—we did both in my house. But all of that whimsy and splendor will inevitably be replaced by iTunes, Blockbuster and Amazon gift cards—the gift that says, “I just don’t feel like getting off my ass or using my brain this holiday season.”
If you’ve read this far, and I know some of you fail to do so, it’s imperative to state here that I love technology. Digital cameras revolutionized the way we handle photography on multiple positive fronts—digital imaging is an example of a positive technology that outweighs the ailments of its predecessor. No more long hours spent in a dark room exposed to chemicals, no need fiddle with film, etc. While I disagree with certain directions many manufacturers are taking them and how a majority of people use them in public, cell phones provide us with the ability to stay connected outside of the house, boosting safety. Thin, light laptops like my MacBook Pro swooped in and obliterated the need to lug a temperamental HP tower from apartment to apartment during my early days in tech journalism and allowed me to produce videos from the road with ease. Even the Internet equipped us with email, skype and Wikipedia—utilities that enhance the way we interact with each other and learn.
But these days I find myself more and more repulsed by digital media. I’ve had a Nintendo emulator for years with every game ever made for the NES, but I have spent approximately $300 on vintage NES cartridges this past year for our FC Twin console with the sole intention of playing every game on the TV. My record collection continues its ascent to the ceiling while the cassette tape stash is demanding more shelf space. A few years back I bought a dual-cassette player, electronic record player, receiver and two giant speakers for a few hundred dollars. And guess what? The oldschool media center is my favorite part of the room. You can pick up any record and immerse yourself in the album art—the peculiarly concocted lyrics of Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” or the electrifying fashion shots of M.C. Hammer and his gigantic pants on the “You Can’t Touch This” single tape. And the sound quality—oh the glorious sound quality of a record! Album by album, I revel in the wholeness of what each artist intended me to hear, and I feel good about paying for their creations.
So the next time you pirate media or expose yourself to a cheap online version of it, think about this remark from Pete Townshend: “The word ‘sharing’ surely means giving away something you have earned, or made, or paid for?”
Get off your behinds and go buy a record.