In 2008, I created a hoax. Armed with an idea, a hastily written manifesto, a press release, and some software to disguise my computer's IP address, I was able to raise the question, "How do you know that what you're illegally downloading is the actual music it claims to be?" This is a story about how my pop-music infatuation led me to fabricating a web of lies I called the Overdub Tampering Committee.
By my mid twenties I had both formed a band and illegally downloaded a lot of music. I would chase my musical interests from article to interview, always finding another artist or album I needed to hear. Working for a nonprofit organization did not allow me to spend a lot of money on music. Still, I was one of those fans who loved having the official release — staring at the physical package in my hands as I took the music in. Whenever one of my downloads led to something I really latched onto, I made sure to purchase it when I could. I felt good about these instances — I felt that meant I finally, truly "owned" the music.
My first experiences with peer-to-peer music sharing hubs were alarming. Not so much because of the sheer availability of titles and artists but rather the blatant disregard for a uniform method of correctly labeling these music files. Anyone who's ever spent anytime scouring the Web for free copies of their favorite songs can tell you that the correct tagging of an MP3 is, at best, an afterthought. If you're looking for "Whiter Shade of Pale," you're probably better off by searching as if it was recorded by the Band. Who sings that "Hey, hey, like being stoned" song? On a file-sharing service, it's rare to see it correctly credited to the band Cracker, never mind finding it with the correct title (which is "Low," not "Like Being Stoned," and which is definitely not by Tom Petty). During research for this article, I found an entire Web site devoted to clearing up which songs were and were not actually recorded by the bubblegum-electro-band Aqua.
This rampant disregard for any kind of "library science" spirit signaled, to me a severe devaluation of the worth of peer-shared music — even more so than the fact that people weren't paying a dime for any of it. I wasn't the only one who noticed this devaluation. Around this time, I noticed the major labels were beginning to employ new ways to prevent pre-release album leaks, which they argued were hurting the sales of their main commodity. One strategy was to hire companies such as Web Sheriff or Media Defender to monitor Web sites for illegal content, and send take-down messages threatening a lawsuit would follow if they did not comply. A more interesting method that emerged was for the media companies to seed file-sharing networks with poison pills — fake or sabotaged versions of their own wares. Sometimes the companies would simply leak blank files with no music. But people who thought they were snagging the latest Madonna album were confronted with audio files that simply had Madonna's voice over a techno beat, asking the listener, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
I didn't encounter the Madonna fake-out directly, but I did eventually run into this digital hurdle with an album I was dying to hear as soon as possible. You in Reverse by Built To Spill leaked online before its intended release date, but amazingly, you couldn't find a copy without a sample all over every song — a man's voice asking, "Who is Mike Jones?"
Listening to the "Who is Mike Jones?" version of You in Reverse for the first time was a truly confounding experience. At first I wondered, "What is this out-of-place sample doing all over the first song?" Soon, as the question kept reappearing in song after song throughout the album, the intent eventually dawned on me. I was impressed and fairly amused with this sample-laden mess that got leaked. I waited for the official release and happily purchased it.
This kind of thing was rare, however. Usually, the only impediment between my ears and any piece of music in the history of the world was a few keyboard strokes. Over time, I began to realize that I was devaluing music as well. In fact, I had more new music on my computer than I could reasonably listen to while still remaining a participating member of society. Something about this made me sad. Sometimes I would look at the album list on my 40-gigabyte iPod and become literally frozen, no idea what to play, completely overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of selection.
I was surprised. I had what I had always wanted: all the music in the world.