Time was—and this belies my age and proclivities—that a person could walk down to the local music shop and gawp at the offensive CD case designs in the heavy metal section. Racks on racks of jewel-cased, occult, campy, spiritual imagery in neat alphanumerical order, all tucked away in the corner where the Top-40-purchasing public didn’t have to be exposed to it.
Time was that that same person could purchase their underground metal music at 3-for-£10, take it home, rip it on to their creaking laptop and upload it to their similarly decrepit smartphone via USB 2.0 cable; safe in the knowledge that the sounds now being piped into their ears were both legal and pristine in quality.
But imagine if the music on the disc wasn’t high quality. Imagine if it were a mere 96kbps. Why, there’d be outrage! Pasty rock fans in their ingroup-signalling clothing would storm the premises and demand their money back. The shop’s median hair length would treble as the poor harassed customer-service agents rang through returns of compact disc after compact disc after compact disc.
This never happens of course. Why would it? If somebody is going to hand over their hard-earned money for a record, they have every right to expect it to be listenable. The record shop provides this quality because it does not want you to come back demanding a refund. Otherwise, what would be the point in paying someone to sell you the record? Why would they light the store and import gaudy pop-culture posters? They’d be losing money hand over fist.
But on the online? Well, that’s different.
In cyberspace, there’s no such thing as paying for things. Not if you don’t want there to be. The marginal cost on replicating files is a big fat zero. Once you can find a way of distributing files between individuals, you have the equivalent of a storefront with no cost involved. Once you have people on the system downloading music for free you have a product with no price tag.
Surely, then, all hell breaks loose? With no price mechanism, can’t anyone just share everything, call it anything, and make everybody put up with whatever? Well yes, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happens. Most attempts at illegally downloading free music online result in flashing adverts, unimpressive audio quality and the nagging sense that you need to go and take a shower afterward.
How can we possibly hope to generate trust in a digital world in which any bad actor can put disappointing music where joy should be?† Isn’t crime supposed to be the easier option? Is there no way to deny artists their revenue and have it be good quality at the same time?
Well, it turns out the mean streets of cyberspace have their ways. All we have to do is rely on a little thing called: obsessive, overwhelming nerdiness.
I’ve spoken before about my rag-tag band of cyber miscreants and sci-fi enthusiasts, with whom I hang out in an undisclosed, online location. A few weeks ago I’m chilling—casual—when an old friend reappears in the channel. He was and is one of my favourites in this eclectic crowd we have haphazardly assembled. A mathematics enthusiast a few years my junior, he is returning after finishing up some academic work in computer science, which is, of course, the highest and most noble pursuit of the basement-dwelling techno-geek priesthood. I’d missed his inputs to the channel while he was gone. Our attendant chatbots frequently told me that they, too, hadn’t seen him since they were last booted.
That said, once the triumphant fanfare of his return dies down, he confesses that he is feeling nervous. I ask what’s bothering him.
It turns out that my friend is twenty minutes into waiting for a robed member of techno-clergy to join a chat channel he’s sitting in. He’s nervous. He was here yesterday, too, but the interviewer didn’t show up. Contact is only for the fortunate. For those who lack fast-track privileges, being in the right place at the right time is a rare opportunity. It affords the interviewee the pleasure of sitting a one-hour examination. An examination which tests one’s knowledge of illegal online filesharing, of what should and shouldn’t be shared illegally online.
Yes, my friend is waiting to take the piracy bar.
The experience is the digital equivalent of an A&E waiting room. Perfect strangers sit quietly in the same chatroom. Maybe there’s a little smalltalk; maybe there’s none at all. Everyone is keenly waiting for the examiner to appear and whisk one lucky individual away for testing.
It’s hard to believe, but the solution to the free-for-all of the internet really is by invitation only. If you don’t have someone to endorse you, a written examination on bittorrent etiquette and the finer details of audio file sound quality is what awaits.
Genuinely, you are made to sit down and type your answers into a chat channel while an invigilator judges your responses. This invigilator either deems you worthy to pass through the gates to audio heaven, or decides that you deserve to be relegated to walk the earth paying for Spotify and actually supporting artists financially…like a sucker.
The questions on the test aren’t exactly easy either. Try for yourself:
What do CBR and VBR mean? What is the difference between the two?
What is the purpose of a CUE file? Does your CD rip have to have one?
What might be a reason for someone to transcode from a WAV (PCM) or AIFF (PCM) to FLAC?
Was it really worth studying for all of this just so you can listen to Dido in a lossless audio format? It was? Fair play.
The closed file-sharing organisations that use these tests to screen members are called “private trackers”. They can be remarkably strict about how users should and shouldn’t behave. Granting access to your account in any way is prohibited. You’re only allowed to use certain torrenting software clients. No public disagreements with moderators. No ripping audio from anything but the original source. Private trackers are run with precision and discipline.
After passing the exam and being given their username and password, users are expected to contribute to the system at least as much as they take, with rewards being given for uploads that aren’t yet in the vast dark libraries of pirated content. Let your ratio drop too much and you’re considered undesirable, no longer a part of the cool kids’ gang.
This methodology raises some serious questions about the future of our economies. As more things hurtle towards becoming as cheap or free as stolen music files are to a pirate audience, will we be forced into taking written examinations just to be deemed responsible enough to use them?
What comes next in this sequence? Lather, rinse, ______
We’re sorry, percolate was the wrong answer. Guess that hair’s going greasy for another week, Mark. Better luck next time. Tell your Thursday lunch date we’re sorry on your behalf.
It seems absurd, but apparently it’s deemed necessary. As more things are digitized, as marginal costs reduce to near zero in dozens of industries, the tension between buyer and seller, which keeps the world turning, is lost.
We will need to develop different institutes and practices to manage a post-scarcity world. What those institutes end up looking like is anyone’s guess, but, in the world of illegal filesharing, the walled garden is king. I just hope you brought your lucky pencil to the exam.
†If you’re about to suggest blockchain, you need to turn off your device and go for a walk around the block. The rest of us will be here when you get back.
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Photo ANATOMIE 2, ©Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection