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Vinyl ethics

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?

6 thoughts on “Vinyl ethics”

  1. What’s to respect in a copyrightholder’s decision not to reissue this music? I’ve just listened to Moonlight twice and I am now a dedicated Herbie Hancock/Foday Musa Suso fan. (The background vinyl clicks just added to the warmth of the music.) If they were to re-issue this tomorrow, I would buy it. You are doing the copyrightholders a favour.

    It would make a great people power campaign – a website where fans posted a few sample tracks from great lost vinyl albums – the used the download statistics to try and persuade the record companies to reissue the original album. The key thing would be just to post one or two tracks per album so that there was still something left for the record companies to sell.

  2. @Andrew: There are actually many sites that post obscure music. For one focused on African music, check out Benn loxo du taccu in Ethan’s links (though that links to the rss feed–bennloxo.com works too) I like Crud Crud too.

    I’d never heard this collaboration. Thanks for posting Ethan and spreading some excellent music!

  3. For the last few weeks, a fellow has been selling some great records from a table he has stationed on the corner of Broadway and 111th Street in Manhattan. I walk past his table almost everyday, and it’s been tempting me to buy an Ion. Even though there’s precious little space in my apartment to put the thing, your endorsement of the product may finally have pushed convinced me.

    In terms of the ethical dilemma you raised, I suspect it reduces to the question of whether your making the music available really harms anyone.

    There are a probably a few records whose producers would rather not have people hear anymore and would really prefer to have disappear. For those people, your keeping the music alive is arguably harmful, but in most cases records have gone out of print because it was no longer profitable to keep them in print.

    In these cases, you making the music available to a new audience might benefit the copyright holder or the original artists. The question then becomes whether the same free re-distribution destroyed the market for paid distribution. That’s probably impossible to determine.

    Ethically, it seems that what you would be doing is wrong only if there’s some tangible harm done to the copyright holder in this case, and I am not sure that you could show that other than in cases where, for some reason, the copyright holder really just didn’t want people to hear the music any longer or really could show that you took money from his or her pocket.

    Were you to stream the music and the copyright holder makes no attempt to stop you, you could even argue that the copyright holder has abandoned the property, thus entering it into the public domain. I doubt it would hold up in court, but ethically, I can’t see how you’ve done anything wrong.

  4. That is some beautiful music! I didn’t know of this collaboration — thanks so much for putting it online.

    On the ethical issue, I’m with Noel Selegzi above. Now I’m off to listen and relisten the two Village Life tracks you posted!

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