Michael Gerber
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[Update August 2013: I just found this elegant little video from a group trying to discourage music piracy. It’s Beatles-authorized, and makes the point that “[l]oving The Beatles is a shared experience.” And I’d add a sweet, life-affirming one, too. How many of those do we have anymore? That’s why we do Dullblog.]

As an admitted collector of Beatle bootlegs, you might think that I have a free-and-easy attitude when it comes to downloading music. But I don’t, and why I don’t was expressed very nicely by Niall O’Conghaile over at Dangerous Minds:

“I may be wrong, but I believe that we’ll never see another David Bowie or another Prince or another Beatles again. Not because talents such as there’s aren’t out there, but because the financial system that allowed those talents to flourish, and that in turn made the consumers used to obtaining a high level of art on a regular basis, are gone…The public WANTS another Beatles/Bowie/Prince, an iconic, genuinely brilliant artist or band, for and of our age, yet to me the public doesn’t seem willing to pay for that.”

This comment was expressed in the context of an even better original post by David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven, taking an NPR commentator to task over having bought only 15 CDs in her lifetime (while having 11,000 tracks ripped to her iPod). You should read Lowery’s post; it’s really eloquent—and it’s equally applicable to people in other media. What happened first in music is now happening in print; personally, I’d guess that my books have been pirated hundreds of thousands of times, if not more.

This hurts me in two ways: first, the obvious one of not getting paid, and second, it keeps my sales figures artificially low, so that publishers do not believe that I have a fanbase big enough to bet on. Published in 1969, the wonderful Tolkien parody Bored of the Rings sold consistently throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Yet my parodies all follow the same profile: massive initial sales comparable to Bored‘s 70s heyday, followed by a decade of trickle. Could my books suck? Sure. Could people view them as disposable, and that initial burst make its way to used bookstores, where others read ’em? Sure. But then why did I just get 14,700 hits on the Google search “Barry Trotter free pdf download”? Ten years after I wrote the book?

The Beatles and Piracy

What would’ve happened to our Fabs if every LP they released sold great for a week, then moved to the shadow economy? For one thing, they would’ve recorded every album as quickly as the first one. Brian would’ve been at the mercy of the record company, and you better believe EMI/Capitol would’ve meddled; “How Do You Do It?” would’ve been only the beginning. And the guys would’ve toured constantly—ten years of Beatles for Sale-type filler. They simply wouldn’t have had the time, money, power, or artistic confidence to become the group we all love. EMI would’ve survived; J/P/G/R would not have. There’s a name for John Lennon without fame and fortune, and it’s Charles Whitman.

Like rock and roll in 1963, I am particularly prone to being pirated: I write funny books read by 12 to 24-year-olds, in a form (parody) which most people don’t think is “real” writing. But the larger point remains; just like many musicians, I spent 20 years learning my craft, only to become massively popular, and broke. Without the money to walk away from deals, people like myself become MORE mistreated by the big, bad corporations that consumers think they’re hurting by getting something for free.

It was only fans paying for Beatles songs that made the Beatles what they were, and what they are today.

So how could I ever collect Beatles bootlegs? Like most fans, I prefer legitimate releases. From 2003-11, I listened to the mono Pepper digipak I bought down in Greenwich Village; since 2011, I’ve listened to the Apple release. My Great Dane BBC set only gets played if it’s material not on Live at the BBC. And so forth. I think I’m pretty standard in this regard.

So the ethical thing would be to wait for legitimate releases, as long as it took, right? The situation is complicated by the following: it was the commercial pressure exerted by things like Artifacts and the Unsurpassed Masters series that caused Apple to get off the stick and give us Anthology. Similarly it was Great Dane that caused Live at the BBC. And it was demonstrated fan interest—the unquestionable presence of a paying market—that caused Jeff Jones to win the day and get the mono/remasters done.

But as Niall wrote, there aren’t going to be future mega-acts with that kind of paying fanbase able to put pressure on corporations to release material. And it may even be happening with The Beatles: last night, for the umpteenth time, I was playing Beatles Rockband and wishing they’d offer more songs. But they aren’t planning to; sales of the game just weren’t that strong. For a moment I thought, “Let’s Kickstart it!” but then I realized that was probably wishful thinking. Breaking the songs into tracks, remixing them, doing the modeling and animation…

Execution aside, The Beatles had the right idea with Apple in 1968. One of the projects I’m working on is meant to remake the model for print humor, but it will only really work if there’s sufficient “group consciousness.” This is the point of Dullblog for me: creating community. Because sooner or later, preserving the Beatles’ legacy is going to fall to the fans ourselves, and the amount of respect we show now is the best training for that job then.

Do I want to hear every note of every track of every session of every LP? Yes. And I don’t mind paying for it, either.