Dave Allen was, and will be again, the bassist for one of the most beloved, revered and imitated band of the 1970s, Gang of Four, and he would like you to do something for him. He would like you to steal his music. Take it without asking, without paying for it, without leaving so much as a tip. It's all yours. God knows it certainly ain't his. Let me explain, because Allen's attitude may well be the position of every musician who found his or her art held hostage.
Gang of Four's 1979 album Entertainment! commingled the herky-jerk of funk with the aggression of punk with the politics of good university-bred Marxists. Echoes of Entertainment!, which sold around 90,000 copies upon its release 25 years ago, can be heard in such bands as The Rapture, Liars, Spoon, Burning Airlines and Phantom Planet; R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe has said of the album, "Entertainment! shredded everything that came before it," and recently the editors of Rolling Stone magazine ranked it among the 500 greatest albums of all time. In short, it's as essential to a rock fan's record collection as a B-sharp.
But do not look for Entertainment! in your local CD retailer, because you will not find it. Yes, you can find a version imported from England, which contains three bonus tracks and sells for about $23, but the disc is not in print in the United States. If that means nothing to you, imagine going to Tower and asking for a copy of Meet the Beatles or Nevermind or Purple Rain and being told, "Sorry, it doesn't exist." It did for a little while in the mid-'90s on a label run by Rick Rubin and Henry Rollins, but Warner Bros. Records hasn't seen fit to keep it on shelves. So it joins thousands of essential and important and just interesting records that wander in the out-of-print wasteland--unheard, unloved and unavailable.
That is why Dave Allen does not mind if you download Entertainment! or songs from it off the Internet. If Warner Bros. will not sell it to you, what other choice do you have, right? Share those files on KaZaA or Grokster. Upload and download all you want. It's better you hear the disc than miss out. Sure, Allen would love for you to pay for it, but that's not really an option.
"If the only way you can get Entertainment! is on using illegal peer-to-peer software, be my guest," says Allen, who runs www.oebase.com, a site that sells independent music and runs a brilliant "radio station" supporting unsigned artists. "I am frustrated as hell that you can't actually go out and buy what's been voted one of the best albums of all time. It should be available for $9.99, being a back-catalog piece. Why doesn't Warner Bros. just give it back to us, and we'll do it. I could sell bucket loads of those. But the more of these albums that are unavailable, the more the record industry hurts itself. It's akin to telling people, 'There's no milk for sale, you have to go get a cow.' The first rule of business is to give the customers what they want. That's it. If you don't look after your customer you don't have a business, and the record companies are busy digging their own graves."
Did you hear that? A musician is telling you to do something the record labels and their lobbying organization, the Recording Industry Association of America, are suing little kids and single parents over. He's not doing it to be nice, though he is that. He's doing it because the monolithic music companies are denying you something he made and wants you to own.
Here, finally, is a great reason for the trading of music over the Internet: I steal because I cannot buy.
Think of all the music that will never be liberated from the vaults, the albums from the '60s and '70s that sold in the hundreds or thousands that are considered worthless. They'll never wind up being transferred to CD, never make their way into a Tower or Virgin Megastore, never wind up on Amazon. And think of all the CDs that have been taken off the market, released and abandoned by their labels. Just last week, Blue Note Records announced that as of May 1, it would no longer be selling releases by such venerable artists as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Don Byron, Ron Carter, Stan Getz and Jackie McLean, among others. And think of all the great or weird or misunderstood albums by revered cult artists that are still not available in the U.S.: T-Bone Burnett's Truth Decay, Kirsty MacColl's Kite, Maria McKee's Life is Sweet, Nick Drake's Time of No Reply, Garland Jeffrey's self-titled debut, Neil Young's Trans.
"I don't see why everything in our catalog isn't available," says Bill Bentley, a senior publicist at Warners subsidiary Reprise Records, once the greatest label in the world. Bentley had proposed a reissue label called Buried Treasures, which would press up limited quantities of forgotten albums gathering dust in the vaults; you may not know Ron Nagle and his one album, 1986's Bad Rice, but if Bentley had his way, you might have had the chance. Needless to say, the idea disappeared, along with the artists Bentley wanted to champion.
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"It would take two people probably a year to put everything online, but forever's forever," Bentley says. "Downloading is the future, let's face it, and there are only X amount of songs recorded on the label. Yeah, there are tons of 'em, but it is doable, so I would hope that's in our future. I would love to be able to get that record in its entirety, something I remember but can't find. It'd be a beautiful thing."
A spokesman for Blue Note says the label's taking certain CDs off the market because there's just no demand for them; Don Byron's Romance with the Unseen isn't Norah Jones' Come Away with Me, after all. But how can someone demand something that no longer exists? And what happens when someone hears the Byron CD somewhere and wants to buy it, but finds it has been excised from the catalog? Hasn't the label just given you permission to get it by any means necessary--buy, beg, borrow or, God forbid, steal? (Sure, you might find a used copy, but that's just the same as file-sharing, since the label and artist make no money off secondhand copies.)
Gang of Four does hope to get Entertainment! back in its possession: The band is reuniting for a tour and starting up its own Web site and would very much like to sell the disc at shows and on the Internet. They figure 26 years after signing a shitty contract it's time for the band, not Warners, to make the decisions.
"If you're gonna put something out of print, it should revert to the owners or owner's estate," Allen says. "I want Entertainment! to be out, and without a lawyer we can't afford to fight the label and get someone to recognize the clauses in the contract saying rights revert back to the band. You try to walk the path of diplomacy and compromise, but it's like pushing a rock up a hill. And the labels are asking for it. It's hard to be sympathetic to them. Not only are they suing their customers, but the customers don't even have the chance to buy the thing they want. It's like being caught shoplifting, except the shop's half-empty."