When Napster’s technology first appeared in 1999, I was like everyone else. I didn’t understand all of its implications. All I saw was a potential venue to find new music.
The cool thing about writing a book and running a Web site is that your questions rarely go unanswered. Just post, and answers tend to find you as people connected to works you admire find you.
Just this thing happened to me, when I mentioned finding a gem on Napster: a complete copy of Bark Along with the Young Snakes, the first commercial recording by one of my heroes, Aimee Mann. I didn’t know where else I would be able to get a copy, so Napster, I concluded, was a good thing, as long as you were willing to let your conscience be your guide. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
People seem to assume that superstars make millions of dollars. Who really gets hurt when we pirate, say, a Matthew Sweet single that’s been running through our minds for the past seven years? He was a pretty big star, so he’s set for life, right? No one really cares… No one gets hurt.
That’s a pretty clear-cut case. It’s illegal, period. Now you can probably justify it in your own mind if it’s just part of a course of action–you hear a song on the radio, or a snippet of it, so you search online to try to find out the title and artist, you find some possible suspects, then you listen to the snippets online at CDNow or another record store. If that doesn’t click, then you hop onto Napster, download the possible suspects, listen, figure it out, and then buy it. If you do that, you’ve technically still broken the law, but not really the spirit of it. You got your music and the artist got the money.
But some things aren’t as clear-cut. Out-of-print stuff, for example, isn’t. If I covet Pale Divine’s Straight to Goodbye from 1990, I face a tough challenge. The album’s been out of print for seven or eight years and never was all that common. It’s fairly easy to find in the band’s hometown of St. Louis, assuming I’m willing to pay $40 for it. But when I pay some record dealer $40 for a used copy, it’s not like the band ever sees a dime of it. As far as the band is concerned, there’s no difference between me buying it and pirating it. As far as the record label is concerned, there’s no difference either, but given the way Atlantic Records treated Pale Divine, no St. Louisan who followed the band in the late 1980s and early 1990s would feel sorry for them.
It was when I cited another obscure record, Bark Along with the Young Snakes, from 1982, as another example, that the story got complicated. Andy Breslau, the producer and owner of the copyright, found me and asked some compelling questions.
While Bark Along with the Young Snakes is hard to find, it’s not really out of print. It’s somewhat sought after, being the first commercial record that Grammy, Oscar and Emmy nominee Aimee Mann sang on. But the story is pretty different from Atlantic Records and Pale Divine. Aimee Mann recorded with Ambiguous Records, which was an effort by Andy Breslau, a bluesman then based in Boston, to capture and preserve and disseminate some of the eclectic music coming out of Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We’re all familiar with classic rock mainstays Boston, and the classic rock/new wave crossovers The Cars, but much of the other music coming out of that city at the time never really made it outside of Boston. Someone needed to take this untapped resource and use it, so why not Breslau?
Breslau was playing in a band called The Blues Astronauts, and he had close ties with a number of bands playing around Boston at the time. Plus he had a desire to learn about production and recording, so all the pieces were there.
So Breslau formed Ambiguous Records, and he recorded and produced three albums: Bark Along with the Young Snakes, by Aimee Mann’s band The Young Snakes, Singing the Children Over by Kath Bloom and Loren Mazzacane, and Darkworld by Dark.
The venture lasted 18 months. Independent record distributors, Breslau found, sometimes had difficulty paying him in a timely matter. The Young Snakes were getting popular, so the logical thing to do was to press more copies. Breslau did just that, but then The Young Snakes broke up, and Aimee Mann and her then-boyfriend Michael Hausmann formed `Til Tuesday. While `Til Tuesday made it big for a while, their success did nothing about the large number of unsold Young Snakes records in Breslau’s basement. And Breslau’s own band broke up. And then?
“I discovered the joys of making records in a different way,” Breslau said. He was working on a fourth record, titled Doing the Sugar, Too by Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson.
“Luther had played with Muddy Waters for a number of years before and had moved to Boston and was playing around town. It was then astonishing to me that he had no recording prospects at the time,” Breslau said. He took Johnson into the studio, struck a deal with his agent and the owner of a small blues label, and had a revelation.
“The whole process ended up being much more about the music for me,” Breslau said. “At that point continuing the label seemed too financially risky and really not as satisfying as the experience I had doing Luther’s record. For me it turned on this: If I could still produce the records I wanted to and not assume all the risk, end up hassling with distributors, doing all the PR work, sending out the copies to radio and critics etc. etc. etc., I could give up the label. Working with a small label as opposed to being a small label seemed the right direction for me to go.”
“Frankly, independent pop music is a very hard business,” Breslau said. “The world you compete in has at its upper limits multi-million dollar deals, multi-national corporations and huge ambition–some of it valid, a lot of it insufferably pretentious.”
All of this meant Ambiguous Records was history and mostly forgotten.
Then the MP3 phenomenon hit. While popular songs made up the bulk of the music available online, some die-hard fans connected turntables to their PCs, sampled their old records, and turned them into MP3s. In time, these rarities–Bark Along With The Young Snakes among them–showed up online.
“At a gut level, the experience of finding work you had a hand in `Napstered’ does feel as though someone is taking something without asking whether or not you want to give it away,” Breslau said.