I don’t often buy things from online shops, but a couple of days ago I had the urge to track down a CD copy of an album I've been enjoying for several years on MP3. I never expected there to be any guilt associated with this, but sometimes these things hit you sidelong.
Jets To Brazil were a band I completely missed when they were alive and kicking butt – never even heard of them. But, during my WinMX days, cruising endlessly for new thrills, I happened to download a couple of random tunes of theirs alongside dozens of other bands I'd never heard of. So "Starry Configurations" and "I Typed For Miles" ended up on the CD-R equivalent of a mix tape (you can easily get a hundred songs onto a CD; an MP3-capable CD Walkman makes a pretty good low-budget jukebox). After a few days or possibly even months of random play, I started to notice how those two tracks stood out. "I Typed For Miles", particularly, is a doozy: In a Naked Lunch/Shining-type scenario the poor bastard protagonist has holed himself up in a hotel room, labouring under the belief that "I must keep writing if I'm to be better than everyone else", his ankles wired to the table legs so that literally all he can do is type. It seethes with barely suppressed rage ("They're playing love songs on your radio tonight/ I don’t get those songs on mine"), and rocks like a horse.
So of course I downloaded the rest of the album – Orange Rhyming Dictionary – and found I'd unearthed not a lost or forgotten treasure, but a treasure I hadn’t even suspected existed: a subtle, supple, but almost completely straightforward Rock album bent out of shape by devlishly clever lyrics. The songs mainly touched on subjects close to my heart, other than prose-related self-validation of course: repression, revolution and failed relationships ("Take my name off of the lease/ You can even keep the name/ It never suited me" – 'Sea Anemone'). The closest comparisons I can offer are the first Bear album, Disneytime, and Radiohead's The Bends (another record I failed to check out til later – I spent most of 1995 wondering whether I really liked Caspar Brötzmann or not). If it sounds like I'm selling it to you, you're right. It has to do with the guilt.
It struck me this morning on my way to work. Ordering that CD was totally selfish of me. While I get the benefit of slightly improved sound quality (especially the opening track, which I never could find at a decent bitrate), and being able to look at the artwork, quote lyrics without having to Google them, and most importantly of all file it under 'J' in my collection, the band will get practically, or more likely absolutely, nothing. (I don’t mean to single out Jade Tree, the Jets' label, particularly; it's just the way the system works. The people who didn’t pay me for records I made were nice guys, too.)
There is no guilt in enjoying music you haven’t paid for, or none that I've experienced. I like Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" although I've never even downloaded it, let alone bought it; it's a famous song, it gets sprung at you often enough in shops or on the radio, what would be the point in paying for it? Just enjoy it and move on.
But now I know that there is indeed guilt, tons of it, in buying music by bands you really love. What if Blake Schwarzenbach, who wrote all those songs I adore, is down on his luck somewhere, struggling to make ends meet, or just trying to finance his next project? What if he's right now having to choose which of his children gets to go to college? Or which he'll have to give up for adoption? The tenner I gave to some Amazon wannabes could have gone straight to him. It might have made all the difference. Instead, I blew it on my own vanity, on wanting to have a plastic disk in my hand for a couple of minutes before I put it on a shelf. There'll be no smug satisfaction in doing that, now. I feel a fool.
I'm sorry, Blake. I will track you down and next time I have some spare money it's going straight into your Paypal account. For now, the best I can offer is to make a really superb rip of that CD when it arrives, and put it somewhere for all to hear.