In the third decade of the 20th century, Alan Lomax left the highways and traveled the back roads of America‘s rural South, finding and recording street minstrels, blues shouters, gospel singers and tall-tale tellers. The music, words and sounds captured by Lomax on his Edison cylinder machine in the field — later released in commercial form by the Smithsonian as part of its Folkways series — exposed audiences to a national musical heritage that might otherwise be lost or undervalued.
In 1952, animator–mystic–record collector Harry Smith compiled a three-volume set of folk-music songs from rare records he’d collected. The Anthology of American Folk Music, released by Folkways in 1952 (with an additional unfinished fourth volume released for the first time just last year by Revenant), proved to have a huge impact belying the source records‘ modest origins and the set’s minuscule commercial success. Smith won a belated Grammy in 1991 for his efforts, and his work is now regularly name-checked and feted by musicians who discovered — and were inspired by — the Smith records at a formative point in their artistic careers.
In the early part of the 21st century, another sort of sound archiving — just as culturally important — is going on. Folks are cabling their computers up to their turntables, are launching RealJukebox and WAV editors, and are 128Kbps-44.1 kHz-16-bit stereo-MP3izing the crackle ‘n’ hiss of their now-out-of-print-and-unavailable-on-CD albums into digital form. Then these sonic treasure holders — these archaeologists of Now, these postmodern Harry Smiths — are sharing them with anyone who wants them via Napster.
Thus, Napster — regardless of whether it was set up for this purpose, and regardless of what Dr. Dre, Metallica, anti-copyright infonauts and the RIAA may think of it — has become an ad hoc Sonic Treasury, a centrally archived and collectively curated repository of musical treasures that might otherwise be lost or left languishing in private vaults, out of the public‘s reach altogether. Acting as a libraryDiggers-like “free store,” Napster has performed a huge public service during its short time of operation by removing the various market- and industry-constructed barriers between musician and audience.
What exactly does Napster get you that most of us could get almost nowhere else (besides Prince’s wonderful new JB‘s-2001 workout “The Work [Part One]” and curiosities like Radiohead’s 60-second gooftake of Oasis‘ “Wonderwall”)? Well, stuff like long-gone Tim Buckley’s stupendously out-there Starsailor, or his fantastically raunchy Greetings From L.A. Or the late Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel‘s ’77 solo album Game Dames and Guitar Thangs, which includes a six-and-a-half-minute slow stone-souled funk cover of the Mamas and the Papas‘ “California Dreamin’.” Or Mott the Hoople‘s 1970 Mad Shadows, regarded by no less an authority than cosmic rock cheerleader Julian Cope as “their one great album; Mott’s greatest statement of all.”
All of these albums are currently unavailable in their entirety in any format from a North American record label — but are (or at least were, until recently) available on Napster in full, thanks to folks with screen names like ilovecats3, Ughh69 and foulwilson. Would I buy these albums if they were commercially available? Sure. But who knows when they will ever be re-released? In the meantime, a legitimate good is served by making these parts of our cultural heritage available to the public in at least some form. Just as Dylan was influenced and inspired by Harry Smith‘s anthologies — when you think about it, they were essentially semiauthorized compilations of out-of-print commercial recordings — a young musician today might have his world-view flipped, warped and bettered by hearing an MP3 of some out-of-print record from 25 years ago.
With Napster, nothing need go out of print; never again must a whole generation miss out on hearing something important — like, say, the early recordings by Television Personalities (called the second greatest punk band ever by Joe Strummer in the latest Spin) or the incredible Swiss girl-punk band KleenexLiliput (whose music was recently released in the U.S. by Kill Rock Stars, after the previous Swiss-only 1993 double-CD compilation started fetching sky-high bids on eBay). Napster allows music that’s fallen between the cracks in the record-industry system to be distributed to people beyond the for-profit bootleggers and record-collector fetishists who usually can get their hands on it.
Napster makes rare stuff unrare. Stuff like the entirety of the Butthole Surfers‘ After the Astronaut, an album so near completion that it was distributed by Capitol Records in big numbers to members of the press in 1998 before the label mysteriously decided to abort its issue. The album has never been released and, according to my best Buttsources, likely never will be. Then there’s stuff like the dozen songs recorded by a version of the Verve before their estranged co-founding guitarist rejoined the band to make the Urban Hymns album — magnificent beauties like “Oh! Sister” or “Misty Morning June” that were left behind in favor of the comparatively plodding tracks on Hymns‘ second half. For various reasons, these songs seem unlikely ever to be released in a “legitimate” form.
There’s stuff like J-Live‘s The Best Part, a legendary underground hip-hop record that was “disappeared” during the Universal chowdown a couple of years ago; Diamond D’s second LP, Hatred, Passion, Infidelity, which was canned by Mercury; and Large Professor‘s The LP (recorded after his group Main Source fell apart), whose never-released status makes his line “buy the album when I drop it” in his cameo on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Keep It Rollin‘” (’93) especially poignant. KMD‘s (now MF Doom) Black Bastards LP, originally recorded in the ’90s for Elektra but never released, has been Napsterable for some time. Black Bastards will be officially released May 15 through Subverse Music. (One would think that the amount of file sharing going on played some part in assuring the label that this record had some sort of commercial viability.)
This is only the tip of the lost-recordings iceberg made easily accessible via Napster — we can assume more rarities are already out there and even more are on the way. How about Neil Young‘s essential 1974 On the Beach LP, which the anti-digital Young has not allowed to be released on compact disc? (Hey, Neil: Why can’t this album at least be reissued on heavy vinyl?) Or that legendary Jungle Brothers acid-tape acetate? Or the Jaki Liebezeit (Can)–Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine)–Primal Scream session? Or the MC5 in the studio with Sun Ra . . .?
Of course, Napster ultimately is a business, and the reality is that there probably isn‘t enough money to be made in file-sharing artistically and culturally significant music to sustain the service.
But this wouldn’t be the first time the market has failed music. It‘s precisely because of the failure of the market in this regard that the work by not-for-profit folk like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith was necessary. Through its support of the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center (founded in 1976), the federal government has long recognized that music is too important — too necessary, too powerful — for its collection and distribution to be left solely up to the vagaries of the commercial record industry. And it‘s because the record industry continues to come up short that these institutions have launched a new initiative — Save Our Sounds (SOS) — which is charged with restoring and preserving original recordings important to our national cultural heritage, making digital and archival copies, and putting recordings on the Web and releasing them in CD form.
Now, generally what SOS is dealing with are recordings currently found on “old wax cylinders, decaying wire, decomposing acetate and deteriorating audiotape.” But what about the now-out-of-print records that have been released in this country in just the last 40 years? What about all the records that have never been released at all? Certainly the SOS’s advisory board — which includes Ry Cooder, Mickey Hart, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Pete Seeger, Yo-Yo Ma and, interestingly, the RIAA‘s Hilary Rosen — can understand that these recordings also form an important part of our cultural heritage. And what better way to preserve our nation’s (better yet — our world‘s) cultural heritage than to allow everyone the ability to build — and access — the archive? This is what Napster-style file sharing already allows us to do. It’s a lesson that SOS would be wise to download.
With Napster-as-we-know-it slowly dying and the RIAA‘s big-money law sharks already circling other, not-yet-quite-comparable-to-Napster file-sharing schemes (Napigator, Open Nap, etc.), it’s time for SOS or some other relevant public institution (or private benefactor — Paul Allen, are you listening?) to step forward and assume the archivingdistribution job that started with Napster. It‘s simple, really. Just maintain some networked server space and provide the necessary tech support, and ilovecats3, Ughh69 and foulwilson will do the rest.
A step-by-step guide on how to turn records into MP3s:
For info on Save Our Sounds: