dubs

When I was sixteen years old and a sophomore in high school, I desperately wanted a copy of the new They Might Be Giants album, Apollo 18. My difficulty was that I did not have any money for buying new CDs or tapes, and the album wouldn’t be showing up in the used bins at the Record Collector for a few more years. (It was around this time that the music industry was making its first attempts to control the brave new digital world. They had launched a campaign wherein various recording artists attempted to tell you not to buy used CDs because it took money away from musicians. Sound familiar? The Record Collector had a big cardboard cutout of Garth Brooks telling us kids not to buy used CDs standing in its doorway. They were into irony in marketing.)

This was back in the dark ages, when we did file sharing via cassette tape. I knew of one person who owned the album. He was in a couple of classes with me, and I had a huge crush on him, so I was always looking for excuses to talk to him. Asking a guy you had a crush on to dub an album for you was a little risky. Asking people other than your best friends to dub albums for you was generally kind of pushy. The ideal thing to have happen was to say, “Oh, man, I’ve been wanting to hear that” and have someone offer to dub it for you. I had tried this tactic without success, probably because this was not a reciprocal crush. But I really wanted the album (and I really wanted an excuse to talk to the guy), so I asked. And he did, grudgingly, make me a dub on the tape I gave him. My recollection was that it came back to me without a track listing, though (see again the grudging part), and so I had to go to the record store and write down all the tracks in my notebook while trying to avoid the gaze of the clerk, who generally didn’t non-customers taking up space in the narrow aisles.

I still have almost all of my cassette tapes. Some were gifts or were purchased new; many were purchased used, and many are dubs or mixes. Some of the mixes are dubs of mixes, in fact, or mixes made up of what we would apologetically say to one another were dubs of dubs. “Sorry about the volume on that one song. It’s a dub of a dub.” Or sometimes even a dub of a dub of a dub. You lost sound quality, but you got music, and it was music that I cared about.

I also recorded things off the radio and, very rarely, from the library, although in the latter case I only ever recorded individual songs, not whole albums. I had some weird ethics in my head whereby recording a single song from an LP (the library still had LPs) was okay, but recording a whole album was theft. I am aware that the music industry and the legal system do not view things in quite that light.

I still listen to those tapes, and to the LPs I got from various family members when they decided to upgrade to CD at various times in the 1990s. I have some tapes I got from my friend’s roommate who had met some guy and was moving to Boston and shedding various possessions before the trip. (She’d also had a huge party and had lots of leftover alcohol which she encouraged us to drink — free music and free beer!) I also have a lot of music, in various formats, that I’ve purchased in the years since. This is how I get most of my music nowadays, actually: I buy it.

But I also still share stuff with my friends. Nowadays we do that by downloading and uploading files — sometimes just songs, sometimes mixes, once in a great while whole albums. I’ve never gotten into filesharing with strangers, or using Napster or any of its successors, or torrenting, largely for the same ethical reasons I once had for not copying whole albums from the library. It has less to do with legality and more to do with what seems right to me, and that interests me.

I grew up in a time when it was kind of hard to get copies of music. You had to have friends, or talk to guys you had crushes on. You had to have some kind of relationship built up with a person before you could request a dub. Usually you then provided a tape for them. A good friend might lend you the album and have you make the dub yourself. Making dubs was a somewhat time-consuming process. You wanted to make sure the album would fit nicely on the tape. Once I knew something about sound levels, I wanted to make sure those were good (oh, the tapes I made before then! I cringe!).

And I think it’s those memories — of sitting on the floor of my bedroom waiting to hit the record/play buttons on my boombox, of unwrapping the cellophane from a new package of cassettes, of debating what kind to buy and hoarding the precious Maxell points (I saved enough to get the poster), of talking to friends, of talking to boys — that inform the way I share things now.

Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift (with the wonderful original subtitle “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”) talks about how art and creativity are part of a gift economy, not a market one, and I agree with him. The consumption of art and creativity works similarly, I believe, at least among friends, on what I might call a sharing economy.

Ever since I read that the real purpose of DRM, in the minds of publishers, is to prevent not piracy (you can afford to let geeks game your system) but casual sharing, I’ve been sort of worried and horrified. Other people have code proposals and policy proposals and manifestos and plans. I don’t have any of those things. I have, I suppose, a cultural proposal. Libraries can’t, of course, encourage people to go out and copy our stuff, nor should we. We walk a delicate line between the gift economy we want to exist in and the market economy we have to negotiate. But I want to believe that the gift economy is where our true heart lies.

I won’t be able to leave my dubs of dubs of dubs to the library when I die. But I want to leave their spirit.

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