I have lived long enough to see music take many formats in my life. When I was a child, I watched my parents buy vinyl albums and play them on Sundays while they worked around the house. I remember hearing about 8-tracks, though I wouldn’t actually see one until I was almost twenty years old. I remember as my parents switched over from vinyl to cassettes, and I would start buying music at that point. I remember as CDs started to become more and more popular, and I was the first person in my household to have not only CDs but something to play them on. I remember Sony’s failed experiment with mini-discs. I also remember when music started to go digital. I myself had programs to record a CD audio file as a WAV file, open that up in a separate program to edit the beginning and end, and then use a third program to convert, compress and encode it to an mp3.
Things are a lot easier than that nowadays. Between being able to buy entire mp3 albums on Amazon and iTunes, and the prevalence of music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, getting digital music is pretty simple. And with modern standards of internet bandwidth, it is usually delivered fast and without a lot of hassle. But it wasn’t always thus. I’ve loved mp3s since they first became popular in the late nineties, and the idea of having my music collection available to me on my computer has always been important to me. Again, this is uncomplicated today, but back then, getting music was hard. I have to admit, due to budget or convenience, I have done my fair share of illegal downloading over time. I’ve changed as my financial situation and access has changed, but I’ve been a criminal since the late nineties.
It started very simply with trying to find sites that had mp3s for download. This was a moderately successful venture, but usually more frustrating than anything else. Most sites were covered in ads and misleading links, and they all had about the same stable of music to download. Downloading was also an adventure, since it was during the days of dial-up networking. You had to hope that no one in your house needed the phone for the next four or five hours as you tried to download one song. And should your transmission be interrupted, you were right back to square one, as there was no way to resume once the connection was broken. It took me a week of trying to get Girls by the Beastie Boys.
Things changed when I found Scour, though. Scour had a much bigger library, and was the first p2p sharing service I had found. It also had something known as the”Scour Agent,” which was an application that would sit on your computer and manage your downloads. You would still search the web page for music, then download a small file that would tell the client who had the file and what file to get. It relied heavily on the other user being both online and having their Scour Agent running, but it allowed you to resume an interrupted download, though it still wasn’t a fast process. It also suffered from having a lot of mislabeled music and songs that weren’t properly categorized. But it got me through. I downloaded a bunch of random music this way, though a lot of it had badly formatted file names and wasn’t of the best quality. But it was the only way I was going to get That Song by Big Wreck, since I had no desire to buy the whole album.
It was around the time that I moved to Bowling Green that Napster came on the scene. It had a much better application, though it still suffered from the same problems of inaccurate music that Scour had. It was a lot better, though, and I ended up downloading quite a bit of music from it. My biggest complaint was that Napster was mostly focused on popular music, and I seldom found what I wanted on there unless what I wanted was a known band who got a good amount of radio play. When Metallica started its war with Napster, I intentionally downloaded as much Metallica as I could in protest. I didn’t even listen to it, as I had moved on from Metallica after the Black album. I just wanted to make a statement. Eventually, the powers that be came for Napster and shut it down. It tried to resurrect itself years later as a legitimate service, but myself and many others had moved on. In my case, if I could pay for music, I would have. I was doing this because I couldn’t buy music, so a service that allowed me to buy digital only music had no appeal.
What I had moved on to was Audio Galaxy, another peer-to-peer service with an application like Napster. I found their catalogue to be quite robust in comparison to Napster, though with a p2p service it isn’t really their catalogue so much as the catalogues of everyone connected to it. By now, I had moved beyond dial-up networking and now had a cable modem. It was fast by the standards of the day, but certainly not by today’s standards. It also enabled me to be online all the time, so I could queue up a bunch of downloads and walk away without worrying about tying up a phone line. Audio Galaxy became a favorite of both me and Heather. She would end up downloading a whole bunch of John Mayer before anyone really knew who John Mayer was. I ended up getting the soundtracks to Suikoden II, one of my favorite JRPGs. We’ll talk about my weird love of video game music at a later date. Eventually, we noticed that there were less and less users on Audio Galaxy, only to find almost no users on it soon after that, and then the application wouldn’t connect. The powers that be had found and shut down this one, too.
For a long time, I couldn’t find another service that I liked. Limewire and Bear Share seemed okay, but were filled with malware disguised as music. I settled on Kazaa, which still had a lot of malware disguised as music, but less so. If I was careful about the types of files I downloaded (no exe or ini files) I was usually pretty safe, but I still ended up reformatting my computer two or three times due to downloading the wrong thing. I did get quite a bit of cool music from it, though. Mostly obscure remixes, like the KMFDM and Faith No More remixes of Rammstein’s Du Riechst So Gut.
After the third re-format, though, I decided to bail on Kazaa, and it was at that time I found Soulseek. Again, this was an independent program that ran p2p sharing. What I loved about it, though, was that it filled with audiophiles like myself. No longer would I have to be happy with 92 and 128kbps low quality tracks that got all grainy when you tried to turn up the volume. Now I could download everything at 320kbps, or at least something in the high 200’s. I could even find flac files if I wanted. I would down-covert them to mp3s for sake of hard drive space and consistency, but it was nice to have the option. This was also around the time that torrents became big, so I would alternate between individual songs and albums on Soulseek or using uTorrent or something similar to grab an entire discography or box set.
I’ve downloaded music for years, and very frequently went past the legal 30 days of ownership, or could consider it a backup to physical media that I simply didn’t have. I doubt I was ever enough of a nuisance to end up on a watch list anywhere, but who knows. I would say that I was probably one of the smaller fish in a very big pond of music piracy. Over the years, I have replaced almost all of my ill-gotten music with the actual CDs or at least legitimate downloads from reputable sources. There are still a few outliers in my collection. My collection of video game music is mostly legit, but some of it isn’t. A lot of live performances and bootlegs aren’t even available anywhere else. And some of my music I keep just because. I never intend to buy the album it is from, but I also want it to come up in my random stream from time to time. But if the RIAA wants to come after me for my fifteen year old mp3 of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s version of Love Rollercoaster, then we really are scraping the bottom of the barrel.