Tom Waits being interviewed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007. Photo by Theplatypus.
As the wise old man George Carlin once said in one of his final bits on American hypocrisies, “rights aren’t rights if they can be taken away – they’re privileges.”
His statement can be interpreted one of two ways. At its heart it’s a classic chuckle-then-sigh comment about the humorous misinterpretation of the constitutional language that allegedly defines our country. Further, it exposes the idea that the capitally conditional sense of “rights” in today’s world echoes throughout the Internet consumer/producer world where freedom and money are always at odds. This is especially true for the music industry, as musicians who attempt to release their material in ways that lead both to success and popularity play with the valuations of art in a sort of chaotic landscape of free-flowing web content. Promotions take on newer forms, and old industry schemes such as the private listening party transition out of the exclusive and into the inclusive forum of the Internet. These parties were historically proven to be effective in hyping up a particular release, drawing in tastemakers, musicians and critics, and inviting mystique and revelry to the album’s public conception; the “private” part added a bit of exclusivity to enter into the politics of the music industry, which gave the professional middlemen a chance to justify their occupations. Today with album leaks, turntable.fm and the like, and easy access file sharing sites, the party’s gone public, and it’s leaving some musicians in a bit of a moral quandary.
The Pirate Baby (thepiratebay.org) is a massive magnet links-based (a decentralized, non-tracker network of files), torrent file distribution website centered in Sweden. As snarky piracy websites go, it has been easily the most vocal about its displeasures with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and all other copyright law in America since its introduction to American web users. Because of their location outside the jurisdiction of the United States (and unlike the silence of Roman Polanski who is adored for his pedophilia in France) the Pirate Bay has responded with delightful smart-assery to any cease-and-desist letters or verbose legal threats thrown their way. And even though they’ve been raided in the past, fined, and sentenced to jail once in 2009, they continue to expand. Here’s their response to Warner Bros.’ attempt to have them dislodge Billy Corgan’s material from their site, dated June 9, 2005:
“We are well aware of the fact that The Pirate Bay falls outside the scope of the DMCA – after all, the DMCA is a US-specific legislation, and TPB is hosted in the land of vikings, reindeers, Aurora Borealis and cute blonde girls.”
All antisocial grey-hat hacker jokes aside, the issue is far more complicated than a simple two way street of no strings attached give and take between file sharers, and it’s one that Tom Waits has felt strongly about for a very long time: privacy and ownership. As I’ve mentioned previously, Frito Lay unlawfully used Waits’ song “Step Right Up” in a commercial by hiring a Waits impersonator after being denied proper approval from the man himself. Unlike a parody, however, the usage was unfair, and the courts found it to be an open and shut case of copyright infringement and voice appropriation. Two and half million dollars in settlement money later, Tom Waits figures he can take a seven-year hiatus from any proper recorded releases.
However Waits’ new album Bad As Me was introduced, as are all albums nowadays, in a pre-release accidental leakage format. In a video Waits put up on YouTube a few weeks ago, the artist gives his take on the matter while perched like a pretzel bird and squirming around his revolving chair:
“Apparently there’s no such thing as ‘private’ anymore. It’s an Internet thing…I’m gonna have to change everything. Here’s the way I see it – if you were having a birthday, and I came early and started eating your cake, started playing with your toys – would that be OK?”
Cut to a beat up old buggy, straight out of a trademark Waits circus freak meets laughing Lucifer-type imagery, with “Bad As Me: Oct. 25 ‘11” chalked onto the back windshield by the mischievous Waits. A bouncer pats down a man entering the dusty old car to listen to the title track only to be ushered out after a few seconds. All in all it’s a silly video with a half-hearted tirade that’s appropriately relieved by some goofy satire.
Flash to the Kanye West and Jay-Z’s listening party extravaganza for Watch the Throne, which was recorded and leaked by an unknown source during the ridiculous party. Though before the leaker got ravaged by a stream of psychotic loyalists, the album ended up selling 290,000 units in its first week, proving to the world how little people who still buy CDs know about the Internet and its ability to topple those brave enough to sincerely title an album “Watch the Throne.” Add to that the buyers of individual tracks on the multitude of distribution networks and we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the throne is doing just fine. Despite the leakage, the promotional party, or release party, is not to celebrate the act of listening but rather the act of selling, and the hope that this party’s excellence will be translated into dolla bils.
Most albums – probably 99.9% of them – do not think about listening parties while they are being constructed. And why should they? That would be idiotic, self-reflexive, and probably the result of a yearlong acid trip hosted by Wayne Coyne. Come to think of it, The Flaming Lips’ 4-CD album Zaireeka was produced with this exact idea – that a party of people could assemble with the album in hand, four boomboxes, and the will to listen to an extremely complicated circus of sound (not to mention a nice community spirit to sync up each disc with each other). Listening to Zaireeka on headphones isn’t awful, but it would be like serving your family mashed potatoes and declaring it a Thanksgiving feast.
Not only was the album impenetrable for a single listener, but it was one of the foremost recipients of a stereotypically brash Pitchfork review of a 0.0/10.0, where the author grew flustered at the totally inaccessible nature of the album and disregarded the music he was unable to listen to by trashing the bizarre (but brave) concept. Out of the bad press and commercially unreliable concept came a cult-like Internet adulation for the project’s incompatibility with modern equipment, and if it were released today it would resemble more a reaction to anti-social listening habits we have all developed rather than an overwrought acid trip that was granted a recording contract.
A YouTube contributor recently gave the album new light by digitally transcribing all four albums, but the chaos Coyne’s drug-induced mind intended will probably never be realized unless he created a listening party and enforced a strict rule of LSD or GTFO. Until then, the true sound of Zaireeka and the listening party it begged for is only a dreamy speculation that eludes even the craftiest of Internet music pirates.
In that sense, it has managed to escape the clutches of both DMCA infringement hawks and torrent pirates alike in its inability to manifest into a form of music that can be uniformly heard in a singular manner. But within this inaccessible, chaotically spun album that offers its listeners so much power there is an innate privacy in how it is heard, and the extremely polarizing critique has only furthered the intimacy to the point where hearing the album in its entirety and in all of its variations is like a weird act of providence; you might sync the discs up into a composition that Mr. Coyne himself never heard – and if you share that with someone, then that’s a truly private listening party.
Written by: Jakob Schnaidt