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Henry Rollins: The Column! Copping MP3s For 
Free Is Not Cool

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

See also "People Who Pirate Music Are Assholes"

Yesterday, I met up with a longtime pal, a very creative man named Alex Winter. Many know him from the Bill & Ted's films; he's the guy who's not Keanu Reeves. Alex stays extremely busy shooting everything from advertisements to documentaries. Several days ago, he asked if I would take part in a documentary he's shooting about music downloading and how it has changed the music industry and how we get our jams.

It is a topic that I find very interesting: the good and bad aspects of it, the winners, the losers and whether or not downloading an album for free should be considered stealing.

With the cameras rolling, we went over all of this for quite sometime. The point that I really wanted to stress was that the music file and file-sharing have changed the currency of music. A song is just a piece of information; there are no humans in those strings of numbers, just their digital representation. Many find them no more than mere crumbs to be vacuumed up into their hard drives and listened to in all their cold, tinny wretchedness. For many, an album is no longer a considerable feat of an artist but just sounds to be half listened to while one is halfheartedly engaged in something else.

If you are a musician who has released albums, it would perhaps be morbidly interesting to know how much you would be owed if everyone who now has your music had actually bought your record. In my life, I have released a lot of records and have no idea as to what I am "missing." I don't lose sleep over it, as it's nothing I can do much about.

Recently, my assistant told me that she was able to find all my albums for free download online. I get letters from young people telling me that they're broke and download my albums for free. They ask me what I think about that. I now have a standard line. I tell them I would rather be heard than paid.

Perhaps it's just conditioning on my part. I have never once in my life released a record and thought of the money to be made. Profit and bulk tonnage of units moved were never problems I had to endure. In fact, I am used to not getting paid or accounted to.

There is one thing that many who download music for free will never understand, and that is how damn hard it is to write songs, record them and get an album released. It really doesn't matter who the band is, big or small, great or terrible -- it is hard, hard work. This is the part that rubs me raw at times, when I think of someone downloading a record for free. It's not the money lost, it's the crass disrespect to the time and life force expended.

Respect must be paid to these heroic sacrifices. Cramming all that pain and beauty onto an MP3 file is destructive enough, but dragging it off the Internet for free is adding insult to injury.

When one listens to the music of Duke Ellington, as I did about an hour ago, from The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra box set on Mosaic, one can marvel at the grace and, at times, astounding genius of Ellington, who had a working band for more than 50 years. What might make any of his performances hit a little harder is knowing that, in many of the towns he played in, he and his band could not find a place to sleep because of their race. After a sold-out night in Chicago, Mr. Ellington put himself and his men in train cars he had rented at the station. That they were able to temper their humiliation and rage and somehow keep their cool in the face of this prejudice makes me a triple XL fan of Duke Ellington. The idea of copping his music for free is a depth I could never lower myself to.

Have you ever heard of the great '50s American singer Johnny Ace? He was only 25 when he was backstage at a show he was playing with Big Mama Thornton in Houston on Christmas, 1954. He had a string of hits behind him, a brand-new car and a bright future ahead. He was waving his pistol around, and someone urged him to be careful. Johnny said there was nothing to worry about, it wasn't loaded. He then smiled, pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger. It was the biggest and last mistake he ever made. Want to hear him now? He will be remembered for his remarkable voice and his youthful, tragically idiotic behavior. Poor Mama Thornton had to live with that visual for the rest of her life. She's worth listening to as well.

Music holds some of the greatest myths, mysteries and heart-wrenching stories ever told. From the players who left the building years ago to the ones driving overnight to the next crap gig somewhere in the world right now, they deserve respect, support and payment in full, alive or dead.

Music files and downloading have indeed changed the currency of music to a great degree. It is up to the integrity of the listener to do the right thing. I leave with you two words as I crank up the volume on this exquisite, recently released rare-tracks collection of Googoosh, Iran's daughter, as she is affectionately known, on the Finders Keepers label. These two words will provide you with all the instruction you need to help maintain the health and integrity of music in the digital age: Be cool.


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