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Music Has a Right To the Blank Tapes of Children

Por Michael Byrne

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I made a mixtape this weekend, 90 minutes of music consisting of nothing that I “owned,” recorded onto a cassette tape, earphone jack to mic jack. It’s a gift, and I think it sounds pretty good. It goes from Burning Star Core to Tony Conrad to the Raincoats and onward; it doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s about violins used for awesome, non-classical things.

Cassette tapes have been back in fashion long enough that I didn’t really think of it as an anachronism at all – or weird or all that different. Of course, as a mixtape, a cassette tape feels a bit more romantic and heartfelt than sending a link or ripping a CD, but tapes are pretty commonplace again now. If anything it felt a little less special in the year 2011 than if I had done a cassette mixtape in, say, 2004 when I probably would have had to give a tape player along with the tape.

Importantly, the cassette tape re-revolution of the past four or five years comes at a perfect time: the streaming music revolution. I made my tape from Spotify. And I wasn’t quite honest—some of the tracks I paid for, but Spotify kinda makes that not-so-important.

I made a Spotify playlist for each side, let it rip, and pressed record. Then I walked the dog.

The first volume of music I ever owned was a lot like this tape. It was all recorded from 102.7 Z Rock in Detroit. The first song was “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (not on Spotify) and I don’t remember much else. This was a long time ago. There might have been a Prong track; that’d make sense.

The important thing is that I was stealing and I was going to kill the music industry. The thing about the music industry is that something is always going to kill it: mass production of instruments, the printing press (for sheet music), player pianos, records, and Steve Jobs, of course. In the mid’-80s it was cassette tapes and, specifically, home taping. Which is what I was doing locked in my bedroom late at night waiting and waiting and waiting for that one song to come back on.

A lot of countries taxed blank tapes for this reason, as a sort of pre-emptive way to collect compensation for artists. (Though, of course, it’s ridiculous to think that anyone was getting anything, or at least anything fair.) It wasn’t until the ’90s that the U.S. decided to tax blank CDs for this reason.

From The New York Times in 1984:

Inexpensive recorders and blank tapes now allow anyone to preserve a rare old Mozart recording without buying a new one, or to copy a Eurythmics album borrowed from a friend, or to collect Mary Tyler Moore shows snatched from the air. But the technology that gives consumers such pleasure is eroding the income of the producers of these entertainments – the studios, writers, violinists and drummers who depend on royalties from each performance or recording sale. And they are pressing Congress for compensation.

Unlicensed home recording of their copyrighted work may not now be a mortal threat to the entertainment business.

Good thing the U.S. passed a law taxing blank cassette tapes. Except it didn’t, and yet the music industry survived to beg for mercy once again.

At the mercy of the cloud, a whole new blank storage mechanism? No. The record labels, through whatever contracts forged with the cloud storage services, have already gotten their’s. Who knows what or how it’s figured. The record companies, the big ones, just see that cloud-storage as affecting the value of its product in some negative and certainly undefinable way. We don’t know why or how much, but you owe us something for this. For this new way to share and transport music that users have already purchased (thinking rosily), but now more because they can put it somewhere new.

My tape, the new one, sounded like shit. I had the volume up too loud on the computer I think. I’ll have to rerecord it for another 90 minutes. I’ll probably have spent four or so hours on it, all told, by the time I Photoshop up a funny cover and write a couple of notes in the tracklisting.

I get pretty attached to songs is the thing. When I’m thinking about these liner notes – some of which I’ll just think about and not write – about songs I selected for the tape for this person to hear, I think about them differently. I can get sentimental about simple aesthetic things, like how that bass line on Grinderman’s “When My Baby Comes” sounds like it’s trying to barf something up, like peristalsis gone awry. Or like sex, which I think is the intention.

Anyhow, I’ll finish up the liner notes and I will have spent a good bit of time considering and creating my tape. Spotify makes it a lot easier, but I think it’s a pretty similar thing to what I was doing in the ‘80s. Less waiting. The tech is different (some of it), the songs are different (though not all new by any means), and my taste has gotten better (still love Metallica), but I feel the same when I’m doing it. I don’t think playing music from handwritten sheet music vs. printed sheet music felt different either and, if you’re talking about getting music to a lot of people quickly with no money, that was a phase change as big as the internet.

Anyhow, in closing, I’m totally killing the music industry.

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