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No one can dispute that downloading songs has changed our culture’s relationship to music, and few can argue it’s not for the better. Small-town kids and city dwellers alike have immediate access to both rock’s central canon and the most obscure releases imaginable. But for all its wonders, this long-tail model of music distribution can lead to some less than discriminating purchases. To wit, my discovery of Depeche Mode’s latest release, Sounds of the Universe, in my iTunes’ Recently Added play-
list one morning this past spring, which was kind of like that first cold-light-of-day eye contact with a one-night stand. It was the first Depeche Mode purchase of my entire life, one undoubtedly abetted by a few too many Shirley Temples.
One could do a lot worse with unplanned music purchases, a point my rummed-up midnight alter ego has been determined to prove ever since. Did you know that the British grunge band Bush released four different albums, or that its frontman, Gavin Rossdale, released a solo effort last year? I will turn on my iTunes sharing for you if you’re curious! How about Newcleus’ “Jam On It,” a lovely bit of novelty funk—how would you like to hear 11 different versions, including an a capella one? Or maybe you love Deep Purple. I do, too! So much so that, apparently, I decided one summer evening that I couldn’t live without their much-derided mid-’80s offering Perfect Strangers. Maybe the album’s 10-minute fantasy epic, “Son of Alerik,” was irresistible after a few goblets of mead. I don’t remember.
Back when I ran an old-fashioned fanzine, my co-editor and I would pore over Forced Exposure catalogs, record dealers’ typed lists, and issues of Goldmine with the diligence of a Sabermetrics disciple going over the baseball box scores. We’d get a money order, send it off in the mail, wait three weeks, call UPS to check the package’s status, and, occasionally, drive around looking for the delivery truck to get our records a few minutes earlier. Zeal and free time were in large supply. We’d delve into the oeuvres of Billy TK, the “Maori Jimi Hendrix,” and the seminal upstate New York noise jazz trio Borbetomagus. Now, it’s three gin rickeys and an accidental slip of the index finger and, oops, I’m headed to Steve Miller’s “Macho City.”
The nostalgic beast within me grows more powerful with each tipple. Recently, his tentacles have extended into online auctions. Over the past six weeks, the beast has attempted to re-create the strata of cassettes that used to line the floor of my 1978 Nissan 280z through wee-hour eBay purchases. When I opened a padded envelope containing a cassette version of Promising Traveler by New Potato Caboose, D.C.s finest hippie jam band from the ’80s, I knew how David Letterman must have felt when he was approached by his alleged extorter. The Caboose cassette was followed, in short order, by other CrO2 artifacts: David Byrne’s early Tropicalía release, Rei Momo; the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk; Soul Asylum’s Clam Dip and Other Delights. It was then that I knew that I needed help.
I confessed to my wife and, frankly, I think she was just relieved I hadn’t renewed my Suicide Girls subscription. I talked to a few friends about drinking and downloading music. I eventually found out that a colleague had experienced something similar. After watching The Hangover, she and her boyfriend were inspired to bust out a bottle of tequila. In an agave-fueled fugue state, she ended up downloading, in addition to the entire Pixies discography, what her boyfriend described as “a song by song re-creation of The White Album by the world’s worst Beatles cover band.” The Beatles are famously absent from download stores due to copyright entanglements, but she, in that one foggy moment, had taken the bait. She wisely avoided songs by such ersatz Beatles as the Bornagen Beatles, the Revolver Road Band, and Fab Again, but she fell to Will Taylor and Strings Attached’s Beatles White Album Live on Amazon. Her experience highlights another potential problem of the misleading tribute band. Even in the most sober of moments, it would be difficult to determine the authenticity of Backed in Black by AC/dB.
iTunes and Amazon are not, by any means, attempting to bamboozle the consumer. They both label the artists and songs as clearly as possible and, perhaps most helpfully, allow customer comments. If only my besotted past self had seen fit to read lisa’slovelylips’ comment on Sounds of the Universe—“I listened to DM back in the day when they were fresh… this is a sad attempt to reconnect,” I would have been educated, entertained, and, hopefully, deterred. The user agreement for iTunes clearly states that all sales are final, and as a law student, I know that inebriation is no defense to a contract. A helpful Apple spokesperson confirmed the terms and that there was no buyer’s remorse policy. He also said there was no way to track which of my purchases were made after midnight. Rahul, a customer service representative for Amazon, also confirmed that all sales were final. However, after a few minutes, he conceded that Amazon would give me a refund as a one-time exception. He seemed a little confused when I told him that I was just investigating the company’s policy and didn’t really want a refund for my recent MP3 purchase of the Twilight Saga: New Moon Soundtrack. That one was legit, I told him. I bought that one in the sober daylight. For my wife. I swear.