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I Went Download

2004: And all I got was this hardrive full of music

Jess Harvell

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/23/2009

I don't know if it's a story I'll tell my grandkids, but I remember the first time I downloaded an album. I recall sitting in front of the Mac in the dining room one evening, pulling up iTunes, and clicking on the buy album button to purchase British grime dude Wiley's Treddin' on Thin Ice. This is perhaps the first amusing part of the anecdote, because who remembers grime, much less Wiley?

Not me, at least until I thought about this topic, and as I recall, I didn't think much of the album and a few days later dumped it off my hard drive altogether. (One of the reasons I had held out on spending money on downloads vs. CDs or vinyl is the utter nonexistence of cash/trade-in value for downloads.) The second amusing part of the anecdote is that, at that time, we still had dial-up at home. As I was habituated to zippier load speeds at work, it hadn't occurred to me that fully joining the DL revolution was going to take all night, and when I went to check it in the morning, the process had timed out at some point in the wee hours and I had to start over.

I wasn't an early adopter. After all, by 2004 some people I knew had amassed drive after drive of downloads, a towering heap of 1s and 0s that easily equaled in sheer volume of data the collection of 45s, LPs, and CDs I had painstakingly built and tended since I was a teen. Somehow that sort of wide net didn't appeal to me. As an erstwhile full-time music writer, more free stuff than I really wanted still found its way into my mailbox, and a part of me resisted the web's everything-is-free ethic, at least when it came to music. Promos were one thing, but just downloading stuff seemed like breaking with one of my few sacraments--acquiring new sounds.

It wasn't something to be taken lightly, especially since part of the thrill was the chase and the catch--not just spending money or coming home with a stack of stuff, but pulling a scratched original LP of Sandy Bull's Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo from a random Record and Tape Traders bin, swapping a buddy for a copy of PiL's Metal Box, locating a trove of Oum Kalthoum CDs in the basement of a Philly store, digging a copy of Rod Lee's "Pork Chops and Onion Gravy" from the piles of 12-inches at Music Liberated. These things would go on to change my life in some small way (I got rid of them if they didn't), and in turn I would become their keeper. Just pointing and clicking didn't seem sporting, nor, frankly, did depriving the vast majority of folks who don't sell millions of albums the $1.25 or whatever they got from my legit purchase.

Of course, I soon saw the upsides, as well. Now I carry files of pretty much everything I want to listen to with any regularity from said painstakingly built and tended collection around in my pocket. And as much as I resisted free downloading in bulk, I soon compiled a lengthy bookmark file for music blogs such as 20 Jazz Funk Greats and Banana Nutrament, which I scanned daily, downloading anything that looked/sounded interesting. Most of these single tracks went the way of Wiley, but I don't doubt a bit that I spent far more money on recorded music in the last five years of the '00s than I did in the first five, in large part because these single-serving samples, licit or otherwise, turned me on to so much music I might not have heard/tried otherwise, from Lady Sovereign to Supersilent. I must confess that when I'm looking for something obscure and way out of print that I'm not willing to pay collector-scum prices for--say, the Black Sun Ensemble's "goldfish" album--a free download from some fellow nerd's blog is a godsend.

And even I must admit, as nice as it is to have gatefold art to stare at or pristine digital high fidelity to absorb every frequency, downloads cost less in the long run, and they certainly take up less room. I still have a perhaps irrational relationship with music as a physical product--sometimes I buy the CD of downloaded stuff I really like--and I get a bit sad when I look around a bricks-and-mortar music store and realize that the average age of the handful of dudes around me is, well, mine. But a certain clinginess defines my relationship with these various sorts of discs etched or burned with sounds anyway. Losing several gigs of MP3s to a laptop mishap earlier this year confirmed every paranoid ill-feeling I've had toward such files as the future of listening to music. After all, there are several albums--e.g. 1980s hardcore comp Let Them Eat Jellybeans!--that I own several copies of. You know, just in case.

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