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Henry Rollins: The Column! Henry's Thoughts on When It's Alright to Download Music (Yes, Even His Own)

[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.

This installment includes Henry's surprising thoughts on downloading music. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com

For the rest of Henry's columns, go to our Henry Rollins archives. To subscribe to his RSS, click here.]

To Download or Not to Download

The memories I have of walking through the snow to the record store, just to hold that way-too-expensive import record in my hands and stare at it, only to put it back in the bin and walk home again, stay with me to this day.

Nowadays, for many, a song is just a file that can (often with little effort) be downloaded for free and stored on a cellphone. It's just a little thing that you found, not music as much as a cyber-sneeze that you are borrowing in perpetuity.

Ah, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, as some guy with different-colored eyes once said.

If you have been paying even the slightest amount of attention, you will no doubt agree that many aspects of music have changed radically in a very short amount of time.

One could entertain many good, spirited and energetic discussions as to when these changes started to transpire. The advent of music videos and the channels that carried them certainly changed the way we consider music. Popular music quickly transformed from a medium that we listened to into one that we watched. Suddenly, many bands had to learn to dance or at least look good in front of a camera. These new requirements have left us with some of the most hilarious viewing available. Don't laugh too cruelly -- I am in some of those. [Ed.'s note: You might wanna Google "The Whole Truth" by Wartime. (Don't hurt us, Henry. It's pretty awesome, actually!)]

It is true that there are a lot more good-looking people than those who are musically gifted. The music industry jumped onto this fact and started signing people whom the camera loved, and let already overworked studio engineers handle the unglamorous chores of pitch-correcting, sampling and bringing in pro hitters to prop up these gorgeous cash calves.

Oh, the stories I could tell you about records you may very well own.

There are the famous frauds like Milli Vanilli, but there are so many bands that don't always play on their own records, who have their drum tracks recut for radio beat fascism and their vocals so overhauled into manipulated sweetness that the bleeding edge of technology has nearly exsanguinated more than a few times.

The compact disc certainly made music more portable and brought down the cost of consuming music as well. The advent of the CD also brought the frequency requirement for excellence down several notches; this, in my opinion, is the beginning of the slide down the steep and slippery slope into the trench in which many of us currently wallow.

In the last few years, a combination of amazing technology and incredible access has not only changed the way music is delivered but also the way many of us regard and value music.

I get letters from people who tell me that they have downloaded all of my records for free and asking me what I think about that. I always tell them that I would rather be heard than paid, which is true, but I wouldn't mind both.

While it holds absolutely no interest for me to go after anyone who freely downloads my material, I am quite aware that all is not right.

On the other hand, musicians have been kept from their earnings by everyone from venue owners to managers, agents, other band members and record labels, to the point where it's an almost built-in expectation.

Here's a for-instance: You've perhaps heard of the band Black Flag. The label the band's music is on is called SST. The label is owned and operated by Greg Ginn. He doesn't pay royalties. No royalties, no statements, nothing. At least not to me and several of my old bandmates.

I would love to see an accounting and even an estimate of what I'm owed over a period of almost three decades. I'm not good at holding my breath and I am a very busy person, so I'm not exactly waiting for the man to come to my door with one of those oversized checks anytime soon. 

I expect this kind of rapacious behavior from all of the aforementioned. It's part of being a bluesman. But when the fans do it, well, I guess there are a lot of people who want to join in on the fun. It reminds me of that situation where the man comes home from work to find his best friend in bed with his wife: "Lenny, I have to -- but you?"

Will all this downloading be the death of music? Certainly not, but it definitely has changed our concept of music's currency.

Thankfully, there are countless music lovers all over the world buying records, going to shows and keeping artists fed. Sales in vinyl are way up, and once that bug bites you, you stay bit. There will always be music and there will always be bands and shows, but there is no way we are ever going to consider music the way we used to.

The way many of us access and enjoy music says a lot about society and culture at large. We work long hours, finances are often stretched thin and expenditures on things like music aren't often at the forefront of our practical thinking. For many of us, day-to-day life is a blur of stress, texts and obligation mixed in with unhealthy levels of uncertainty and not always the brightest estimation of what lies ahead. It is an abbreviated life, often without the time to even tweet a "how r u?" to someone we actually kind of know.

I think to a certain degree, the consideration of music has gone down that same path.

How could it not? Hopefully the same technology that made music so thin-sounding and lacking in perceived value will do something to turn that tide. I won't wait too long for that. I reckon it will be musicians and music lovers who will save music from the role of mere background noise.

That's why events like Record Store Day are so cool and so necessary, lest we forget or, even worse, never get a chance to know one of the greatest things about being awake: Listening to music.

Perhaps I am preaching to the perverted here, but it is important to keep music alive by going to the record store, going to the show, telling your friend about a cool band, listening to radio shows hosted by music FANATICS (on KCRW every Saturday night, for example) and anything else you can do to keep it bouncing off the walls.

But easy access to music is a blade that cuts at least two ways, and we have discussed only one. Before we adjourn for this week, let's briefly address another aspect and we'll see if I can keep from becoming a total hypocrite.

There are many records that are out of print. Many of these will never be re-pressed and will often be impossible to find for sale anywhere, and even if you did, you would probably have to pay a very hefty price. This is where the download is the key to the magic door.

There are so many records that I have had a chance to hear only because someone posted them. Records of all genres are available online, and sometimes members of the bands will write in and thank the site for putting the tracks up so people can enjoy this music that otherwise would have been deep in obscurity. The optimum outcome of this is a cool reissue. This has happened many times over the years.

These are the records I download. If I could have found the genuine article, I would have done my best to acquire it. If I can't, then I will utilize the vast resource of the Internet. As soon as I find a copy of that record, I will go after it with remarkable and often breathtakingly dogged obsession.

I don't know if this makes me part of the problem. I will counter any incoming guff with this: Music was made to be heard. If it is out of print for too long, it must be wrenched from the ether and made available to be appropriately adored and absorbed.

And how you get yo jams and what you think is the right thing to do are, of course, up to you.

Until next week.