The USS Quad Damage

Piracy and my musical education

I talk about how I found music I loved, and how that wouldn't be possible without piracy.

The fact is, it doesn't matter how much I was willing to spend.

I’m used to the platitudes. Over the years, the myopic cries of the record companies and popular culture have only gotten louder and more shrill, seemingly to drown out the evidence growing around them. Andrew Orlowski is one, and I’m not too certain why Tom Slee would endorse him. Maybe he was being sarcastic:

.andreworlowski is on the ball about recent music report from LSE. Still valiantly fighting the battles of 1995.

—Tom Slee (@whimsley) October 7, 2013

Another example is ABC Morning show host Virginia Trioli who at least wondered aloud why you would “pirate” music when you clearly love the artists so much. Other than that, though, there wasn’t much in the way of actually trying to find an answer. The judgement was all too forthcoming, however: “Just buy it”. As if it were that easy.

For me, the fact is, if there were no piracy, I would not listen to music. Before you get all uppity with your “so you're a massive cheapskate” crap, hear me out. There’s two stories here, but both of them start at the same place: music you can buy, and end at the same place: where Virginia Trioli’s “love” factors into the “Piracy” equation.

When I was very young, about 12, I didn’t buy any music. All I heard was what was on the radio or on TV. This was in the '90s, and in Australia, there were only a few radio stations and two TV programmes which had music. Ten’s “Video Hits” (now cancelled), and ABC’s “Rage” (still going). It all sucked. Radio sucked. Video sucked. I thought that was all that music was. I thought it sucked. I would’ve spent my life happily just listening to the radio and not really treating music as something I actually gave a shit about, and I certainly wouldn’t have been buying albums.

At the time, the best song I’d ever heard was Are you gonna go my way by Lenny Kravitz (funny that Virgin Records now has a Youtube account with the song on it). I had never heard of Jimmy Hendrix.

Story 1

I don’t know when, I don’t know how, maybe by trawling any BBSes I could using my modem, trying my best to save up those 25 cent calls and sucking up everything I could, I found the demoscene. It had programming, it had art, it had music, it was all free on the proto-internet, and it had a profound impact on me.

I remember sending an email to Jeffrey Lim about how I thought he was great and how could I become a programmer like him (did I have to learn assembly language)? He replied, and he was really nice and told me I needed to think about “algorithms” instead of the language I programmed in. He was an Australian. He kind of disappeared off the internet, but I think he’s working for Pixar now.

This was a subculture that pretty much no one knew about. The people were incredibly passionate. You could download “zines” for the demoscene. These were DOS executable files which had music, graphics, and a bunch of articles on the demoscene — this wasn’t even the demoscene itself, this was the effort that went into reporting on the demoscene. Many 'sceners are now making a living doing CG for movies, or in video games. Even though the demoscene is a shadow of its former self today, it still enjoys a huge amount of corporate sponsorship, because the people in the demoscene are the smartest people in the world at what they do, and corporations know it.

This was also a world where “buying” music didn’t exactly make sense. People did stuff and put it on the internet. They did it for notoriety, for one-up-manship. This was a balls-to-the-wall contest of who was the best. You could call it the audio-visual-gaming version of graffiti. When you downloaded music you didn’t download MP3s, but S3M, XM, or IT files. These files were essentially the source code of how a song was made, completely multichannel, with all the samples. You would “play” them by listening to them in a tracker, the same app that was used to make the music.

When I hear crap about how you can’t encourage good music or art without paying for it, I always think about the demoscene. In my opinion, they pissed all over “real” music, and all the minimalist glitch/chip pop you hear today was stuff I was listening to 20 years ago. And no one asked for a cent. The best music is made in the dark corners where no one is paying for it anyway.

Story 2

I was a westie, so I was bound to hear something heavy eventually. That came in the form of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power. I don’t know if we got this on CD or what, but I remember we never bought it. Maybe a friend loaned it to us, I’m not sure, but I’d never heard anything like it at the time. Unfortunately, there was also no way I would hear anything like that on the radio. I bought Metallica’s self titled album, though I’d only heard the title track “Enter Sandman” on Triple M somehow. At $30, It was the most expensive purchase I’d made in my life until that point. I loved that album, but I wanted more.

Eventually, I found that Triple J had a show called “Three hours of power”, which was on Wednesday nights between 10pm and 1am, and it played heavy music. I literally used to lay in bed with headphones listening to it, with a pen and paper in my hand to write down any songs or bands I thought were really good. After having a few too many sleep deprived Thursdays I decided to tape the show.

Remember when the Recording industry was saying that tapes would destroy the recording industry? I wonder what Virginia Trioli would’ve thought back then. I wonder what Andrew Orlowski thought about that.

Needless to say, taping a 3 hour long show onto 90 minutes worth of tape wasn’t a very sustainable solution. By this time I had the internet (it was the late 90s by now), and I spent a lot of time on IRC talking about metal with other enthusiasts. They had set up their computers so that when they played a song, it would be listed in the channel, and there was also a way of downloading said song directly from them. I’d never used Napster, I’d never found the need. People just shared their music library like this over IRC and that’s how I found out about most of my music.

I also started buying CDs. A lot of CDs. Because I knew I lot more about the bands, the scene, the albums, and the general vibe, I would “know” what I wanted. I knew why an album was important, and I knew when a new album came out that I would need to dissect it and see how the band was shaping up. However, buying the actual CDs was hard because no shops actually had the CDs, and JB Hifi (which have a lot of heavy music) weren’t around back then. I had to go to an obscure shop in the city named Utopia. The CDs were overpriced (some $40, which is a huge amount for a kid with poor parents during a recession), but it really was Utopia, because it was the only way to get to listen to the music I loved

At around the same time, record companies were working on making it so CDs couldn’t play properly on CD-Rom drives on computers. Sony also famously put a rootkit on your computer if you wanted to listen to one of their CDs on a PC. I listened to all of my music on my computer. I stopped buying CDs.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter how much I was willing to spend. Most of the bands I love would never get airplay on a major radio station. Even today when there are specific sections of Youtube with free music, when there are internet radio stations and adjuncts of real radio stations streaming all manner of music with varying degrees of nitpicking over which device you own and how much DRM you have applied and how legal it is to actually listen to it under certain conditions2, you still only find pop drivel through the usual channels.

But I’m through being angry at the copyright industry. Even while Dark Tranquility — who noticed it was hard for fans to get access to their older albums — put them on Bandcamp, other artists are willingly regurgitating what the recording executives tell them to. Record execs are the established villains in all this. They’re the bad guys in every stoner movie about a band, who eat away at the band’s uniqueness, stymie their development, and profiteer off the artists even as the artists crumble from financial pressures.

Artists have been fighting the record companies forever. From the far flung past where the record company wouldn’t let a band or artist make the album they wanted, to arguments over money or rights, record companies have a well earned reputation for fucking artists over. Even more recently, when record companies were stipulating that they didn’t need to pay artists anything for any profits made over the internet. After all of that, artists have consistently sided with the industry over their fans. There wouldn’t be a need for this whole “piracy” discussion if great musicians would simply walk away from a toxic industry.


Right now, I basically buy no music. I listen to whatever there is for free on Youtube, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp. I’ll only really consider buying stuff if it’s on Bandcamp. If a band doesn’t upload their stuff onto a service like bandcamp, I sour on the band fairly quickly. I’m bitter at these bands siding with the record labels against their fans. These are record labels the bands absolutely hate. Whether it’s Prince having to change his name to “the love symbol” as an act of copyright defiance, or Metallica’s infamous “Beer Good, Napster Bad”, or any number of bands who would basically trust a corporate shill over people who love their music.

And I guess that’s where I stand now, a lover misunderstood and scorned. A Desdemona to my Othello1. And you know what? It’s a shitty existence! There is great music and there are great artists and they trust you and you can support them, so I do that whenever I can, but I’ve had to give up most of my past because I’m apparently “not supporting artists”. Maybe the old hegemony isn’t just for the old recording industry, but the old artists and the old listeners too. I just hope we can leave all of this behind and make and listen to good music again. A Pirate’s life for me.

1 That’s potentially the gayest thing I’ve ever written, but the metaphor is apt.

2 This is the legal wrangling over internet radio stations, the specific legal battles over Pandora, the cries of Spotify ripping off artists, or if you really decide to bend over for the record executives, listening to your music on a very specific set of devices in specific countries under very specific conditions and then not being able to listen to it when the monopolistic companies decide they just don’t want to pursue your market, or they decide to sell you a song and then later decide to “unsell” it to you, literally removing it from your device.