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Home taping was good for music…

… and it still is.

(I’ve been drafting this piece for a while, and I’ve done as much as I’m going to . It’s been a bugbear for a long time, and it’s time to put it out there.)

Anyone who bought records during the eighties and probably early nineties, at least in the UK, will be familiar with the propaganda I’m referring to there. At some point during those years, the record companies, in their wisdom, decided that the common practice of people making tape copies of their friends’ records (or records borrowed from libraries) was seriously eating into their profits, and had to be stamped out.

Hoist the Joyless Roger

Part of their programme to achieve this aim was the printing, on all album inner sleeves that didn’t have pictures or lyrics, of the slogan “Home taping is killing music” above a large skull-and-crossbones with the skull formed from the silhouette of a cassette. Below this device was the text, “and it’s illegal”. You can see a reproduction of it here

Obviously, when first the young, would-be home taper saw this, they immediately gave up their nefarious acivities, destroyed any tapes they had already made, and went out and bought all the albums they had taped.

Oh no. Sorry: that was just in the dreamworld of the record company executives.

Is any of this — even if you’re too young to remember those days — starting to sound vaguely similar to events in our present (and more recent past)?

The parallels with MP3 sharing are undeniable; but are the conclusions the same?

Divided but undimmed

Before I consider that, let me just say why I think home taping was/is good for music.

The fundamental point that the record companies never got, I think, was that records taped were not lost sales. Taping was always a poor second-best to having the record. I speak here from the point of view of a teenager at school, of a student, of a young adult on the dole: mostly we taped records that we wanted to hear or have, that we couldn’t afford to buy.

Imagine, for a moment, that taping had never existed: that records had been released, but that there was no technology available to individuals that would allow a copy to be made. Would we — would I — have bought all the albums that, in reality, I taped?

I think it’s easy to see that the answer is “no”.

I might have wanted to, of course; but there’s no way I’d ever have been able to afford to.

So I, and thousands — maybe millions — like me, made tapes. And in doing so, I got to know the music of the bands I liked. And what do you do if you like, say, a band’s first two albums, which you have on tape, when their third album comes out?

You buy it on record, of course.

Especially if, by that time you are working and generally financially better off. This is exactly what happened to me with, for example, The Pogues. I heard them on John Peel, taped the first two albums (from , as it happens) and gradually fell in love with them.

Then when their third album came out, I bought it. Same with their fourth and fifth.

Make the switch

But it gets better than that, as far as the long-term income for the band (and record company) is concerned (or at least it did during the years of vinyl’s fading and aluminium’s growth). Because tapes degrade; after a few years of heavy use, they sound shite, quite frankly. But of qcourse, the music they hold doesn’t; our love for the songs doesn’t.

Sooner or later you need replacements.

This is why I have the first two Pogues albums on CD and the remainder on vinyl. Same with others. Or take The Fall: I have a mixture of vinyl and CD, and a still incomplete collection. Keep them out there, the record companies, and eventually I’ll buy the missing ones. On CD, almost certainly.

I am, of course, a trivial statistical sample; but I strongly suspect that I’m a long way from unrepresentative.

So my conclusion is that my taping activities didn’t deprive the artists or record companies of any sales; and did prepare me to buy the material later. A net gain for artists and record companies. And for me, for that matter: a no-lose situation.

It’s got to be perfect

But things have changed — or they might have at least. Nowadays you can borrow a CD and make a CD copy of it: a bit-perfect, nondegrading copy (on the assumption that CDR doesn’t degrade, which is another story entirely). Or you can rip it to your hard drive. The MP3 encoding is of a lower quality than CD, of course, but most of us, most of the time, probably can’t tell the difference; and if it doesn’t bother you — or once you get used to it — again, there’s no deterioration.

This all, I must admit, bothers me.

Clearly there’s no problem with ripping your own CDs, for convenient playback. Ripping, or copying, borrowed ones, though: there’s the rub.

Because it completely blows my repacement theory out of the water, doesn’t it? You’ll never replace your copied CD, because it’ll never become muffled and stretched like a tape.

Rip it up and start again

Well… I can think of a couple of occasions where you might go back and buy a copied or ripped CD. One is to get the packaging. A not completely unreasonable possibility; many albums are attractively packaged, with lyrics, sleevenotes, and so on. But in equally many, even ones that contain glorious, deathless music, the packaging is at best an irrelevance (and I’ve long felt that twelve-inch vinyl records are better to own as artifacts than CDs anyway; not least because of the bettter printing quality on the bigger covers).

The second is when you’ve ripped it and you lose the ripped files through a disk crash or similar (in conjunction with poor backup discipline, of course). Indeed, there is a growing belief or acceptance that “the CD is your master copy” while your working copy resides on your hard drive, or in your iPod or whatever.

So, it’s not impossible that we may go on to buy a once-borrowed CD. But I think it’s a lot less likely than it was with tapes.

So where do I stand on copying CDs? is home duplication killing music? Well, no: it’s clearly not as bad as that. I’m not totally comfortable with duplication, so I rarely do it. The fact that people out there will, however, doesn’t mean that the whole edifice of the music industry is going to come crashing down any time soon.

Stay tuned for more rock ‘n’ roll

Indeed, the other side of the digital music revolution probably balances out the problem of making copies: downloading. The record companies don’t get this yet,of course, but on the whole I think even they will have to admit that downloading is good for music.

This argument has been discussed to death on the net, so I can hardly bear to write it, but in a nutshell: you dowload — legally or not — a few tracks by an artist; if you don’t like them you never listem to them again and/or you delete them to save space. If you like them, you go out and buy the album. It’s as simple as that.

OK, there are alway exceptions. There are no doubt people who’ll be prepared to take the time to download entire albums; but they’re surely in the minority. For most people the download model will, or does, work broadly as I’ve outlined it above.

Also, I’m fairly sure that most people will be willing to pay a small fee to download tracks, once a suitable payment mechanism is found. So all in all music-downloading culture is good for music — especially, of course, for the smaller artist without big record-company backing.

All of this has been said before, and will be said again (for example, this guy presents a good discussion of it); we’ll have to keep saying it, I suppose, until the record companies listen — or until they just go away and leave bands to get on with doing it themselves.