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There's No Reason to Pirate Music Anymore

I still remember the first CD I ever bought myself: 311's self-titled album, purchased in the 4th grade with my own hard-earned birthday money at the recommendation of a friend who I'm pretty sure based his entire musical taste on the presence Parental Advisory sticker.

Before that moment, most of the music I listened to was by proxy; in my mom's car, at my dad's office, cleaning the house on Sundays... it wasn't "mine," but that of the adults in my life. While I had my own hand-me-down boombox, and free reign to borrow CDs from my dad's extensive collection, buying something I could call my own was a turning point for me.

Suddenly, music became a central feature of my life.

A few months, and a few more purchases later (Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise and Bush's Sixteen Stone, for the record), my dad rewarded me with my very own "shelf system," and from that point on there was hardly a second of true silence in my life.

I slept to music. I did homework with it in the background. Unless I'm in a meeting, I work with music on. Hell, I still can't even read a book without some sort of rhythm to pace my progress. By the 5th grade I was taking guitar lessons, and by the 7th I had started my own band (followed by three more bands over the next decade). But, as someone who came of age during the time of CD burners and Napster, those early purchases were pretty much my only ones.

By the time I got into high school, most of my music was of the stolen variety.

Burned CDs from friends (the very first offense being Jimmy Eat World's Clarity), or downloaded one-by-one from some shady, adware-installing peer-to-peer program (which, if memory serves, started with The Casket Lottery's One Trick Pony). It wasn't long before I graduated to pilfering music from Pandora and iTunes shares using specialized software, and at one point during the mid-aughts I even ran a small, but profitable, business building custom touch-screen jukeboxes for people and offered a free "digitization" service, wherein I would rip the customer's entire CD collection in exchange for getting to keep a copy for myself.

Over time, I built a massive library, but despite how voraciously I aggregated music, the fact that it was all still so hard-earned meant that I took the time to listen to and appreciate all of it; and what I didn't like, I simply deleted.

But there's no reason to pirate music anymore.

If I'm being completely honest, there's not much reason to buy music anymore. For less than the cost of that first CD, we now have access to an effectively unlimited library of music. Who needs to own anything anymore, right? But, thanks to subscription-based services like Spotify and Apple Music, we are flooded with access to so much more music than we could ever possibly consume that our (or at least my) ability to actually choose what to listen to is overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

When I open up <music streaming app of choice>, more often than not I either "go with what I know" and play something I've heard a million times, or pull up a random playlist with a thousand songs on it and a "general vibe."

It's not curation, it's consumption.

There's something about the ubiquity of digital music that's taken a little of the soul out of it, but it wasn't until I recently watched the movie Vengeance (2022) that I could put a finger on why that is. Somewhere around the halfway mark (or the beginning, I don't know, I didn't check the timestamp), an interaction between two of the characters, Ben Manalowitz (played by B. J. Novak) and Quentin Sellers (played by Ashton Kutcher), really hit the nail on the head about music consumption in the present day.

Quentin Sellers: You're a playlist guy.

Ben Manalowitz: What does that mean?

Quentin Sellers: When some computer recommends you a bunch of songs based on your favorites and a bunch more--based on your favorites of those. Right. So you're listening to a bunch of music that, I mean, you genuinely like...

Ben Manalowitz: Yeah.

Quentin Sellers: ...but you have no idea who sings it. Now, these playlists? It's like the dating app for music. You're not hearing other people's voices. You're just hearing your voice get played back to you. How are you supposed to fall in love? Art used to be in charge of us. You used to buy a whole album not even knowing what songs would be on it. Now we have everything on demand. At your fingertips. In pieces [...]

Something about that line hit me hard, so I went to a record store the other day and actually purchased some CDs. It's been a long time since I've browsed through rows of music like that, but the quickly-remembered, physical feeling of discovery was exciting. Unlike books, where you have the option to judge them by more than just their cover by reading a couple pages, CDs (even used ones) are often sealed (because theft, probably) and largely unknowable until you crack one open and pop it into the nearest CD player (which, in 2022, is probably a few miles away).

There's a leap of faith involved, followed by a commitment.

You don't always know what you're going to get, but there's something about that uncertainty that makes you receptive to something new and different. That deliberate choice to enter the unknown <insert Frozen 2 reference here> allows you to truly enjoy something that you may not have been as open to had it been presented to you on a shiny, algorithmically designed platter.

Some of my favorite music has found its way to me through happenstance and chance, not careful consideration. Sure, the occasional radio hit or movie score would pique my interest, but it's the stuff that found its way into my hands without any pretext that has stuck with me. A CD I purchased because the album art looked cool, or a friend giving me an unlabeled burned CD and saying "just listen," or a local band giving out free samples on the street.

When you collect music in this way, you are giving yourself over to the gods of serendipity and allowing music to discover you, just as much as you are discovering it.

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This is post 026 of #100DaysToOffload