The Creative History of Pre-Internet Music Piracy

This assignment was written for a Feature Writing class to model “The Explainer” type of magazine articles.

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In the current age of internet streaming, which has killed pure album sales and underpaid musicians due to accessibility and low-cost, music piracy almost feels obsolete. Yet, according to Rolling Stone, about thirty-eight percent of internet users still pirate their music. Despite the high-profile shutdown of websites such as Limewire and Napster in the early twenty-first century, the vastness of the internet allows for bootlegging to thrive since websites can easily switch their domains while servers reroute their locations. Although the internet allows for file-to-file sharing to be easy and anonymous, the realms of cyberspace didn’t mark the beginning to this crime. So how was music privacy able to thrive in a world before the Internet?

Three years ago, Alex Robert Ross of Vice News looked at music piracy from the very beginning, when people copied fancy music sheets of the time period’s most popular songs onto cheap prints. These duplicates flourished during the 1930s when the Great Depression lessened the common man’s take home pay. Economic prosperity of the later decades turned people away from bootlegging, except for the few people who were willing to gather the materials and undergo the tedious process of physical copying vinyls. According to Fast Company, Soviet hipsters known as “stilyagi” couldn’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll unless they lived close to the border to pick up radio stations in Western Europe. Vinyls were even harder to find so the stilyagi looked in hospital trash cans for used x-ray plates. “Bone music” was then created with a wax disk cutter along. A lathe would copy the albums smuggled from Soviet satellite states onto the X-ray plates. Stilyagi cut the inner circle with some scissors before burning a hole in the middle with cigarettes. These bootlegs could only play on a single side and the entire practice would eventually be outlawed by the Soviet government in 1958. 

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By the 1970s, young music fans were now able to buy their own tape recorders and create their own unauthorized copies after visiting local shows. Vice News notes that most of these teenagers were sharing amongst themselves until Scott Johnson and his label Rubber Dubber sold Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Los Angeles Forum. Johnson dodged the FBI until the summer of 1971 when agents raided his apartment to convict him of music piracy. In the next decade, bootlegging found a new life with the cassette tapes. Blank versions were readily available at any RadioShack and most cassette players were built with two decks, allowing for a cassette to play in the first deck while the second one recorded. 

Roberto Baldwin wrote at Engadget about his own unique method of music piracy. After looking at an advertisement for Columbia House, which promised “12 tapes for a penny,” Baldwin received his music without paying the dues. Columbia House ran this promotion by expecting their customers to pay for a few albums at the regular price at the same time. The company would send their selected album of the month along with a postcard that asked customers if they wanted to order another tape. The next order of tapes would arrive alongside with the bill. Baldwin exploited this system by continuing to receive the tapes while ignoring the bills until his parents found the evidence and forced him to pay off his dues.

CDs would eventually replace cassette tapes as the new method of buying blank copies and copying, except requiring with the help of a computer that would lead into the gateway of file-to-file sharing. Workers at manufacturing plants were also realizing that CDs were also easy to smuggle due to their relative small size and made a notable profit by reselling them to friends. According to The Next Web, CDs would fall out of favor because they could only hold 700MB worth of uncompressed songs. Sending a four-minute track across these early Internet speeds would take three and a half hours to download. The MP3 format would then arrive as a better solution in 1993 and change the music industry forever. 

While it’s easy to assume that music piracy is done for the sake of saving money, bootlegging has been notably used as a sign of resistance during oppressive regimes that relied on censorship. When Pink Floyd’s The Wall was outlawed in South Africa, as reported in the New York Times, because of the lyrics that persuaded the listener to question authority, there’s no doubt that fans of the band were getting their copies instead from other countries or maybe even taking some bootlegging inspiration from the stilyagi of Soviet Russia.

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