Vinyl Thoughts: Feeding an Obsession
Dec 8th, 2010 by robert

The record arrived in the mail, carefully packed by an Ebay merchant in Portugal. I sighed with relief and delight: A twenty year quest had ended, and a terrible thirst was quenched – for the moment!

I know precisely when my African music obsession began. I was living in a country at war, writing a long report in a language not my own. To avoid the chaos around me, I had headphones on, listening to cassettes on my Walkman. There was one tape I played over and over because it was indescribably beautiful music, with wonderful singing and complex rhythms. I was hooked. The tape held a compilation of songs by Pierre Akendengue, the great musician from Gabon, and it was sent to me from England by my dear friend Akwe. I virtually wore out the tape, but when I returned from Central America, I began collecting every Akendengue album I could find. Over the years there have been many, and I wrote about every new release for my column in The Beat magazine. I even had the opportunity to interview Akendengue by phone, when he was in Paris one time, and published that in The Beat, too (which you can read here).

However one Akendengue album eluded me, Eseringila. Yet here it is finally in front of me, found via the internet and delivered 8,200 kilometers!

I am so pleased! Now, if only I could set up my turntable, I could listen to it! More than that: I could record it and share it with you. . . well look here.

Easy sharing is one of the obvious and great features of the internet, and probably all of us share pictures and crucial words of wisdom with our families and friends, or perhaps the entire world, via Facebook or YouTube or some other sharing site. Yet not all sharing is so benign. As I described in an earlier article, the illegal sharing of music crippled the music publishing industry, making CDs an endangered species and catalyzing the creation of legal, low-sound-quality, digital download stores like iTunes and Amazon.

Searching for Eseringila I discovered a whole world of music being shared on the internet, and I have to confess that I have tapped into that world to feed my obsession. To gorge, actually, like an addict. I’ve found treasure troves of out-of-print African vinyl records that other obsessive collectors have digitized and posted on their blogs, including records that I own.

I thought long and hard before downloading any of the plethora of digitized vinyl I found. I explored the world and discovered that much of the digitized old recordings is encoded at very low quality, so emasculated at 128 bps that I cannot listen to it (again, refer to my earlier article). However there are a few bloggers who post high quality recordings, so fine that you can hear every scratch and pop as well as cymbals. I recommend the Global Groove site as an entry to this world; but there are others I will describe in a future post.

How does this sharing differ from, for example, your kid’s downloading the latest Eminem release through special file-sharing software? Is it okay, legal? Most of these posted recordings are long out-of-print, often from vanished music companies and deceased musicians. Even the entire style of music may be extinct. In other words, these recordings are out of the commercial stream, stranded in piles and boxes with no profit aspirations. Many music bloggers state clearly on their home page that they will remove a recording from their site if anyone holding copyrights objects.

My opinion about downloading music has changed, perhaps warped by my addiction. I adamantly discourage and disapprove of the vast music file sharing (better called stealing or piracy) that is ubiquitous among the younger generation. But I think downloading vintage recordings, where copyright is likely expired, is different, and that it benefits the music industry in two ways.

First, and most importantly, if a person likes the music downloaded, he or she will likely seek other music from the artist that is still commercially available. This has become an expensive obsession for me because I have ordered many CDs I found available, after listening to something I downloaded, even paying for shipping from Europe. The second benefit for the music industry is that when someone writes enthusiastically about an out-of-print recording, and lots of people download it, it is very much like the donkey in Shrek, jumping up and down yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Such a recording is worth considering for restoration by a wise and confident record label.

There is another, more esoteric benefit from the sharing done by music explorers: It helps preserve the music. With so much of the world’s diversity of music smothered by the hyper-commercial crap music promoted and distributed by transnational corporations that seek every almighty dollar, any effort to recover and share vital, true culture is commendable.

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