Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
“I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” — Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction
I read somewhere recently that the Black Menace of music piracy might finally be on the way out. It started when they shut down LimeWire in October, and now according to a recent survey conducted by the NPD Group, peer-to-peer music file sharing is on the decline. There are only about 16 million Internet bandits out there — or at least 16 million who’ll admit to it publicly — down from 28 million three years earlier. Ironically, I only read about any of this because I was trying to distract myself from listening to the new Mountain Goats’ album, All Eternals Deck, which I illegally downloaded a month ago.
As of this writing, I still haven’t listened to it. Not a single track. It’s tucked away in some semi-secret file, the one with all the porn and photos of ex-girlfriends. Occasionally, after a few adult beverages, I’ve been tempted to click over and stare it down. I’ve hovered my cursor over the mp3s, daring myself to unlock their secrets. But I never follow through, and I have no idea why.
It’s not fear holding me back. I’m not one of those people who went running scared after LimeWire disappeared. I learned no lessons from their shuttering. In fact, I’ve long been aware that music piracy isn’t nearly as dangerous as it’s made out to be. Some people try to make it sound like the computer equivalent of having unprotected sex with a heavily tattooed meth addict. But it’s actually more like bumming a cigarette from the shop class kids loitering in the high school parking lot. They may look menacing from a distance, but trust me, they’re harmless.
I haven’t abstained from listening to All Eternals Deck because I think stealing is wrong. Because honestly, I’m not sure if I do. I don’t believe in stealing on a grand scale. I’ve never had Ocean’s Eleven-style fantasies of robbing a casino. But Vampire Weekend‘s Contra? Yeah, I own it. And no, I didn’t pay for it. Claiming that music piracy hurts artists is hardly a valid argument, because everything about the music industry is designed to hurt artists. I saw that Bruce Springsteen documentary on HBO. The Boss was getting fucked out of profits by his managers long before I downloaded Born to Run on BitTorrent. And let’s be fair, some artists deserve to have their music pilfered, just because they’re such poor sports about it. It could be argued that the Internet was invented at least partly as a way to play mp3 keep-away with Lars Ulrich.
But the Mountain Goats and their indie rock ilk are different. I get no satisfaction stealing from a band that, by all accounts, is still struggling for recognition. Yes, they’ve played on Letterman and the Colbert Report. But in a world where the majority of music fans are still morally indignant that Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy, the Goats are about as far from mainstream as you can get. I have a pretty simple policy when it comes to music thievery: If you go to a rock show and the band’s drummer is working the merch table, then you shouldn’t steal their music. And yet I stole from the Mountain Goats anyway. It’s not because I’m a cultural parasite who doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he gets what he wants when he wants it. And it’s not because I don’t understand the concept of delayed gratification, even though I live in a country where instant access to everything is a constitutional right. It’s because waiting for a Mountain Goats’ album to be officially released goes against the entire reason I fell in love with their music in the first place.
Ten, fifteen years ago, the Mountain Goats were considerably more obscure than they are today. It was just one nasally guy with an acoustic guitar, writing hundreds of beautiful and sometimes hilarious songs about gardening, talking animals, abusive relationships in Florida, Aztec mythology and ancient Danish burial traditions, and then recording them on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, which gave them the crisp audio quality of an answering machine circa 1987. While many of his albums were available in the usual places (I bought most of them at a once-popular chain called Tower Records) a good chunk of the Goats’ catalog, and some might argue their best work, had to be found. During the ‘90s, John Darnielle, the lead singer and for many years sole member, released dozens of songs on indie compilations and label samplers, which tended to have the distribution numbers of a family holiday newsletter. So to be a Mountain Goats’ fan meant taking part in a never-ending scavenger hunt. You had to scour used record stores and garage sales, looking for even a single Goats’ track to add to your collection. And then your nights were spent guessing how the songs fit together thematically, like pieces in a very fucked-up puzzle.
Finding All Eternals Deck, the Goats’ newest album, is the opposite of a challenge. It’s been legally available on iTunes for a week now, and I could have easily given Apple Inc. my credit card number back in January and they would’ve automatically downloaded it onto my iPod on the release date, like a spouse surprising you with breakfast in bed on your birthday. Except it’s not a surprise at all, because it’s your birthday, and you kinda knew it was coming, and later that night you’ll be having sex that’s mildly dirty, not because it’s spontaneous and creative but because that’s the mutual understanding that comes with an enduring relationship, whether it’s between two mostly loveless life companions or a customer and his or her iTunes account. The seduction is gone, but you’ll get what you want if you just wait long enough.
I could make excuses all day to appease my guilty conscious, but what I really wanted was permission. I started with “Ernesto Van Der Sar,” the pseudonymous founder and editor-in-chief of TorrentFreak. If anybody was going to make me feel less guilty about my file-sharing highway robbery, less like Genghis Khan and more like Robin Hood, it was him. “It is a known fact that the most fanatic downloaders are all passionate music fans,” he explained in an email. “They download mostly to hunt and gather, discover new music and expand their musical horizon.” Exactly! I’m not a cat burglar with a domino mask and black-and-white striped shirt. I’m a hunter-gatherer! I’m following in the footsteps of my ancestors, like a Paleolithic caveman, except instead of meat and berries, I’m feeding my tribe with out-of-print copies of the Cap’n Jazz discography.
But I needed more reassuring that I wasn’t being … what’s the word? … a dick. And who better to tell me if stealing music is morally justified than an actual musician? I emailed John Roderick, the lead singer and songwriter of the Long Winters, and asked for his reassurance. He didn’t disappoint. “What sets someone like you apart, as a true music fan, is that you have a relationship with the whole process of discovering and owning music,” Roderick told me. “You’re a collector, an archivist. The chase, the discovery, the gatefold sleeve, these things contribute immeasurably to your experience.” I wanted to give him an open-mouth kiss. When somebody with his indie-rock credibility, who feasibly has so much to lose in the lawless Old West music-grabbing taverns of the Internet, tells you essentially, “The reason you steal is because you just care so goddamn much,” you feel understood in ways you haven’t in years.
But there was a caveat, because there’s always a caveat. “Adulthood and spiritual progression are defined by the discovery that learning to deny the immediate urge for gratification increases the savor,” Roderick said. “Capitalism and materialism encourage us to demand everything now, to equate it with luxury, to think we deserve it. But instant gratification is the enemy of true enjoyment. Everything blends together, every taste becomes bland, every experience fades too quickly. We’re all monkeys compulsively masturbating out of neurotic need.”
Wow, that was fast. One minute I’m a musical archaeologist who feels things too deeply, and the next I’m just another simian furiously masturbating in his glass cage. But for all his proselytizing, Roderick did have some helpful advice. What I was missing, he said, was ceremony. “I’m not suggesting that you light some scented candles and put on a kimono before you listen to the new Mountain Goats LP,” he assured me. “But just because all the ceremony has gone out of acquiring music doesn’t mean we all have to become soulless gobblers. Find your own way back to a meaningful ritual around listening to the music you love.”
It made sense. But just because it made sense in my head didn’t mean it was easy. Stealing is easy. Coming up with a new ceremony for acquiring music is like trying to come up with your own Lord’s Prayer. But I tried, I really did. I tried burning All Eternals Deck on a disc and then having my wife bury it somewhere in the back yard, which I’d have to locate and then dig up. But we didn’t have any discs, so I used a flash drive, which believe it or not practically disappears in dirt. I tried asking an old friend to buy it, and then I’d borrow it from him, like I did in the old days, and just never return it. But again, this would require access to a blank compact disc, which neither of us had, and borrowing a flash drive from somebody lacks the same romance. I tried compiling my own version of the album using only bootlegged live performances, but all I could find was “Birth of Serpents” from the Late Show in February, which made for a very, very short album, introduced by David Letterman.
I still haven’t figured it out. I finally broke down and bought a legal copy of All Eternals Deck. But I haven’t listened to it. It’s sitting on my computer, right next to the illicit All Eternals Deck, like a pair of identical twins where it’s not clear yet which one is evil. I hope to hear one of them someday, but it has to be the right set of circumstances, where I can sleep at night and also don’t feel like some worker drone in an Orwell novel who just hits a button and downloads entertainment into his brain. Maybe I can find somebody to dub the album onto an old Maxell cassette, and then sell it to me at a garage sale, and then I somehow track down a barely-functioning cassette player, something with a handle and covered in at least a few tour stickers of bands that haven’t existed since the early ‘80s, where hopefully it doesn’t mangle the tape in its rusty wheels before I manage to listen to the whole thing. Yeah, that seems like the best way to go. It’s equal parts unnecessarily complicated and really, really stupid. And that’s how I like my music.