About two years ago, when the Ion USB turntable came out, I bought one, set it up and began ripping old vinyl records to my laptop. I was deeply disappointed. The software that came with the turntable was unusable, and I ended up experimenting with filters and normalization within Audacity to try to get usable audio from the records I digitized. (You can see my dissatisfaction with that first iteration of the Ion in my review on Amazon…)
A couple days ago, I came across something that made me want to try again. An album by one of my favorite obscure pop bands, Game Theory, was available through Amazon, from a used record dealer. This double album, “Lolita Nation“, routinely fetches $100 as a CD on eBay and in the used record community. It was available on LP for $40, and I snapped it up.
Which left me with an interesting problem. While I like LPs – a lot – it’s really useful to have audio as digital files, so I can listen to it on airplanes, etc. So I now need to digitize this pair of LPs. Which means it’s time to try to get the Ion to work better.
In the past two years since I struggled with it, Ion has radically improved their software. When I bought the turntable, you basically had to fool your Mac into thinking it was a MIDI device. Now it mounts as a USB Audio Codec, just another input in your Sound control panel. And they’ve done a lot of work so that the audio the Codec puts out is clean, equalized, and sounds really, really good. Digitizing now is mostly a matter of getting the record as clean as possible, getting the turntable isolated from vibrations and dumping it into Audacity.
While working the past couple of days, I’ve been digitizing some of my favorite old discs. Most of them sound great – some, unfortunately, are so ripped up from my years of playing them that they just aren’t going to digitize well, and I’m going to need to find cleaner vinyl. But those that sound good sound really good.
Which leaves me with an ethical question – what are the ethics of putting these files up on my website, or on peer to peer networks? Let me be very, very clear – I’m speaking only of albums that are long, long out of print and cannot be found through other means. Let’s take, for example, Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso’s beautiful “Village Life”. It’s a gorgeous collaboration between one of jazz’s great pioneers, and the most creative kora player of the 20th century. CBS released it in 1985, but for many years, the only way to get it has been through used record dealers… and it will probably set you back $75 or more. (There’s a CD version currently for $20 on half.com. If you’re intrigued by this album, that’s as good a price as you’re ever likely to see for this music.)
When I buy “Village Life” from a used record dealer, none of that money goes to Herbie, Foday or to CBS – it goes to whoever was lucky or smart enough to hold onto a copy of the disc, clean it up and put it up for sale. My guess is that putting the digital files online doesn’t actually damage the online market for the disc that much – if you’re willing to pay $75 for this disc, you actually want the vinyl in hand. But putting the files online would radically increase the number of people who get to listen to this gorgeous piece of music.
I did, in fact, put two tracks from Village Life online about a year and a half ago. They get downloaded now and again, but haven’t put a real strain on my server. No one has asked me to cease and desist – I would have pulled the files immediately if asked.
My temptation is now to start buying lots of rare old records I’ve always wanted to hear and to digitize them. This is an even more tempting prospect when I think about the possibility of making these files available to a wider audience… which is very clearly illegal, and would probably be disastrous to me in terms of bandwidth usage.
My goal isn’t to become a pirate vinyl digitizer and distributor – what I’d really like is for these old albums to be available on iTunes, where I’d happily pay $10 for clean copies, with the hope that some percentage of the money made it to the people who’d actually recorded this beautiful music. Then I could blog about these records and encourage you to go purchase them.
In the absence of that, is flooding P2P networks with digitized out-of-print vinyl an ethical way to promote the reissue of brilliant music? Or is it a form of disrespecting the wishes of the copyrightholders, who’ve decided not to reissue this music?