Thinking about Music “Piracy” (Again)

Let’s suppose I’m currently listening to Masahiko Togashi’s Guild for Human Music (1976) via an MP3 I ripped from YouTube. It’s not an optimal listening experience but it is the only way I have found to listen to this music offline. I would, of course, survive without it but knowing it’s out there and knowing some of Togashi’s other work, I feel compelled to snatch it up and listen. That is, the very availability of this recording which I’ve never seen in person and which is prohibitively priced for all but the most ambitious collectors, and which purchases offer no financial gain to the artist or even the label, makes me question how much harm is being done by grabbing this album as I have. Do the same standards apply to this sort of situation as do for, say, ripping music from a living, contemporary artist? I’m inclined to think not.

It reminds me of the network of blogs from 10 or 15 years ago that provided rips of out-of-print or obscure records by long gone artists and labels. These recordings sacrificed their profitability for availability, and their sources provided a centralized space to find them. The popularity of these blogs led, no doubt, to some significant re-releases of these records, many on vinyl with new packaging and notes. I can’t imagine Abdul Wadud’s By Myself, for example, ever seeing a proper re-release without having been available via these sites. All of which might simply be a way to euphemize the ripping but I do think it can, at its best, serve to inform listeners about music we would otherwise never hear.

It’s might be worth noting that the Wadud re-release costs ~$30 today. Adjusted for inflation, that would have been ~$6 in 1978 when it was originally released, a typical price for a record back then. From the look of things, or at least Billboard’s point of view, the relative price of the record hasn’t changed much at all. Which is to say, if the record in question, e.g. Guild for Human Music, was available, I would gladly buy it, but for the moment, the rip will have to do.