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My Life as a Pirate

Argh! I’m neither particularly proud nor particularly ashamed to admit that I participated quite actively in black market and gray market music downloads. The statutes of limitations have long since expired and I’ve been enjoying my music by purely legal means for years. In fact, other than vinyl, I don’t remember the last time I actually acquired any music of my own. I find the various streaming services (a topic for another time) to be more than sufficient. Nevertheless, I did enjoy building my collection of 35,000 or so MP3s.

It all started in the summer of 1999. Those were the early days of digital music. had just gone public, raising $370M. CD ripping software was readily available. Then Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker launched Napster and suddenly, your music collection was my music collection. It seemed like the perfect way to make good use of my cable Internet connection. My meager, little heap of MP3s began to grow and grow and grow.

Of course, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), not to mention Metallica, threw a fit. After all, this did basically amount to software piracy. In this case, the music was the software. I rationalized a) that I could never afford to buy all that music, so I wasn’t really taking money out of anyone’s pocket, and b) there were a lot of songs that just weren’t available elsewhere. For example, it took me months to hunt down How Do You Do, by Mouth & MacNeal. Dutch one-hit wonders apparently represent a very small niche.

Napster eventually got its ass handed to it in court, but other P2P software quickly filled that void. Like many people, I eventually started using LimeWire and kept downloading like a mofo. By the time LimeWire got Napstered in court, Russian download sites had started to appear, the most famous of which was This was maybe early to mid-2000s. These were very well-designed, highly functional, legit-looking sites that offered downloads for a price. The only difference from, say, iTunes, is that the price was only a few cents per track.

This was a huge conscience easer. I was actually paying for my music now. The fact that I was paying some Russian crooks for my music was immaterial. That was their problem. I found a nice download site on the ever-trusty Internet and paid for every single track. I had plausible deniability.

I eventually abandoned downloading music entirely in favor of streaming. Why buy music when it’s so cheap and easy to rent? What became of my 35,000 MP3s? I uploaded them to Google Play (since ported to YouTube Music), which means I can stream them, too. And they’re also sitting on an unplugged external hard drive somewhere.


Sidebar: An Ode to eMusic

Somewhere in the middle of all my black market and gray market downloading, I signed up for eMusic. This is a 100% legit site that, at the time, offered unlimited downloads for something like $10 a month. I don’t remember the exact price. The rub was that eMusic didn’t offer the types of music that most people wanted, i.e, the latest hits.

What they did offer, among other genres, was a massive collection of old blues and jazz. At the time, I had just started to study old blues and jazz, so this was a match made in heaven. Every time I schooled myself on some new artist or era, I’d download a bunch more tracks to add to my blues and jazz library.

Then one day I got the email. Effective in a couple of months, eMusic was going to offer different subscription levels that allowed a set number of monthly downloads. The all-you-can eat model was going away.

Fortunately, I was working from home at the time. That meant I could keep eMusic downloads literally running around the clock. So prolific was my eMusic downloading that I got a stern email reminding me that using automated bots to download music was strictly prohibited by the eMusic terms of service. I replied back that, no, it was just me being a nerd. They left me alone after that.

And that’s how a compiled a great collection of classic jazz and blues.


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