It Was Free Cuz I Stole It

It's a bad time now to be a music corporation—and a tense time to be a little label without the benefit of the Beatles back catalogue—but the selfish listener couldn't ask for anything more. Bootlegging has always been about catering directly to the fans and the Internet breeds the best bootleggers yet: bigger and stronger and faster than ever before to best handle the demands of ten million filesharers trading a billion-and-a-half songs daily. Depending on whether your paycheck comes from or goes to musicians making albums, those could be pretty sickening numbers. The CDR bent the CD over and the MP3 player finished it off, and although the industry is still in shock, smaller and more agile labels are already accepting the obvious and locking in a vinyl/digital-only production schedule, then using merch like T-shirts—low production cost, high sale price, lots of options to ratchet up collectability—to stop the revenue gaps. Since filesharing is so established now that you can even buy $19-per-year lawsuit insurance, it's probably time to acknowledge the bright side. Out-of-print doesn't mean anything anymore. If you can learn about it, you can listen to it, and if the record company doesn't want to reissue it, you can probably find it without even having to stand up. The romance is gone but the music is cheap, accessible and instant—that's the music industry of the future, brought to you now by Russian MP3 pirates, obsessive genre blogs and criminals selling albums off a blanket on the street. Highlights of a year of unfair shares: In June the US government threatened to obstruct Russia's entry into the WTO if this Russian site selling copyrighted MP3s at pennies on the dollar wasn't turned off. But AllOfMp3—which charges by volume, not by song, like a record store with a butcher's scale at the register—crawls along yet. As a bootleg site, AllOfMP3's success is baffling—it probably takes less effort to get these songs for just plain free, since AllOfMP3 is very picky about credit card payments and forces users to install specialized software. And as of press time, the sharks were en route—shutdown could come any day now. But it's a nice nostalgic nod to the over-the-border pressing plants of the '60s and '70s—music beyond the reach of international law.

PodTube and iTube: Once YouTube really got going, the video collectors blew open their vaults and put up every never-suspected clip they had. This is footage no one ever saw from sources no one ever heard of—psychedelic small-town variety shows, supersaturated Scopitone camp-operas, unfinished punk rock documentaries and student films—and although that's all great, it didn't do you the grabby home viewer any good until the development of programs that copy those videos to your hard drive. PodTube and iTube gets you screening things unseen since the day the station filmed them.

Street Meat: Don't even need a computer to play this one: if you live in one of the RIAA's twelve priority piracy cities, you get bootlegs hot off the sidewalk. “A disturbing trend,” said RIAA executive VP Brad Buckles: “As the pirate music trade continues to evolve, criminals are enhancing their products.” In other words: something better beginning! On the menu now are knockoffs of chart hits bulked up with bonus tracks, chopped 'n' screwed remixes ready right after the legit release hits stores, and the RIAA's dreaded “dream compilations,” which are albums mixing tracks between competing label stables into a release too good to be released.

Zune: Microsoft's BetaPod is a nice gift to the thrift stores of the future—too bad because wireless file transfer without Microsoft's copyright hobbles is a seductive idea. Imagine the record conventions of 2016: a bunch of silent types pointing blinking black boxes at each other and going home with a billion-and-a-half new songs, and—well, that's a little sad. Put more nicely: instant player-to-player wireless transfer would be the most efficient version yet of going over to your best friend's house with a bag full of blank tapes. Maybe by Zune 2, when Microsoft gets desperate to dig out from under the iPhone.

Sharity Blogs: Much better than the sanctioned sites that give you one brand-new track smothered in a bunch of recycled reviews. Instead, sharity blogs resurrect full albums long lost or forgotten and post them in their entirety on overseas hosting sites. It'd be almost obscenely exploitative except for the obvious love and research put into the selections. This is a scholarly crowd on an admirable mission: rescuing suppressed Japanese terror-folk, Brazilian psych nuggets and buried golden-age hip-hop from graves where reissue labels fear to dig.

MyspaceGopher: Every human with electricity and an instrument has a Myspace Music site but songs are still downloadable at the artist's discretion—so of course a hack came out at the beginning of the year to pull prohibited songs down to the user's computer. Disrespectful, sure, but effective for ransacking exclusive pre-release streaming content. Myspace tries hard to repair code holes that allow these kind of exploits, and the public responds by finding a new hole to poke. At press time, newly disabled MyspaceGopher was working on an imminent fix.

Snob Torrents: Concentrated swapper sites are gonna strangle themselves with stinginess, the same way networks like Hotline and KDX sank into obscurolescence. People who get into leeching music don't like to follow rules about ratios—there's no homework among thieves—so sites like these will probably fragment as users move to free sharity blogs, friendlier message boards and unstumpable fileshare networks.

Premix Leaks: Lupe Fiasco hates these—an unmixed version of Food N Liquor came months too early—but premix leaks are headed from notable to routine. TV On The Radio's Cookie Mountain also came out months too early, the Shins' Wincing The Night Away(due in January) has apparently leaked twice in different versions, and Bloc Party's A Weekend In The City (due in February) just hit the networks. The solution now belongs more to the PR people—lucky Lupe got an early review calling him the future of hip-hop, and a correctly leveraged premix can make a spike of welcome publicity when nothing was supposed to be happening at all.

Virtual Release: If Joe Bussard could plug an iBook into his Victrola, he'd be making these. This is the most ghostly stuff: sourced from unreleased sessions or radio broadcasts or repoed master tapes—all honorable bootleg chow, sure, but virtual releases go straight from the source to the fileshares, skipping any intermediate physical medium. For instance: WFMU recently popularized a Faust album that never made it past a few Virgin Records promo tapes until someone copied it up to MP3. Companion to this are homemade virtual compilations, issued direct from the collector's originals—a stack of uncomped funk 45s, say—to the fileshares with some kind of searchbait name… like MY HOT FUNK 45s. These are albums aimed at audiences so microscopic there's almost no profit in paying for physical form—as such, they're usually pretty great.

Give Up: Can't steal it if it didn't cost anything anyway. A California band called Wooden Shjips put out their EP for free this year; all you had to do was ask and there was a real record in your actual hands. And it was really good, too—blown-out Les Rallizes homage with vocals echoplexed to infinity. In fact, so good that I bought my own copy with my own actual money, just for old times' sake.

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