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Confessions of an illegal downloader

I’ve illegally downloaded hundreds of pounds worth of classical music and I feel no remorse

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

I’ve never been into shoplifting, though I once had a friend who was. And, no, before you ask, I’m not using that old ‘friend’ device to hide my own identity. She was a girl I met at university. Bookshops were her hunting ground. I’m assuming she was driven by some sort of compulsion because she couldn’t enjoy the books she nicked and — she assured me — God would always punish her by making a contact lens drop out of her eye within hours of the crime.

I wouldn’t enjoy a stolen book, either. But if I listened to classical recordings illicitly downloaded from the internet, would my conscience drain the music of colour? That’s easy to answer. As I type this article, a criminally underrated pianist is shooting C sharp minor rockets up the keyboard in the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata — and I’m loving it. His arpeggios wouldn’t sound any crisper if I’d paid to hear them.

Which I didn’t. I know he’s criminally underrated because I committed the ‘crime’ of downloading his complete Beethoven sonatas from a dodgy website. If I wanted to purchase them legitimately I’d have to fork out over £100 because his recording company has let them drop out of the catalogue.

Nobody in their right mind pays that sort of money for CDs. Being scarce doesn’t make them intrinsically valuable: they’re just polycarbonate plastic discs on which the zeroes and ones of digital data are encoded. Their diameter is based on the diagonal length of a mini cassette (remember them? What a lousy invention) and they play for about 80 minutes because Sony’s president Norio Ohga, like most Japanese classical music enthusiasts, was besotted with Beethoven’s Ninth and wanted it to fit on one disc.

Any laptop can produce a perfect copy of a CD, which makes them very different from vinyl records, whose pressing is a supremely delicate business and every one of which is unique. The rediscovery of vinyl is ironically a celebration of the things that drove us mad before compact discs came along — their fragility and the rituals of cleaning and storage. Incidentally, second-hand LP shops are plagued by shoplifters.

The CD’s fate was sealed from the moment PCs developed the capacity to burn them; the death rattle began when broadband arrived, allowing you to download an album in five minutes. We’ve reached a stage where the entertainment industry has to go to extraordinary lengths to persuade young people to pay for any digital content, which they don’t think of as something you ‘own’. Hence Netflix and Spotify.

But for older listeners who’ve invested thousands of pounds in CD collections, Spotify is basically a radio station; I went off it when it ceased to offer downloads. Although its classical library is immense, it doesn’t satisfy the obsessive-compulsive collector in me. But downloaded files on my external hard drive do satisfy it — even if, increasingly, I can’t be arsed to burn them on to discs. I did try prettifying home-ripped CDs with self-designed covers, but that felt too much like something Valerie Singleton might have encouraged me to do c.1971. (By the way, I’ve had a lifelong ambition to meet Miss Singleton, who was a fabulously sharp financial journalist as well as a Blue Peter presenter. Just saying.)

It was a colleague on the Catholic Herald who introduced me to The Pirate Bay, where I found gigantic box sets — e.g. 240 CDs of the complete Herbert von Karajan playing his Mantovani trick with the Berlin Phil on Deutsche Grammophon, minus the gruesome luxury packaging. In a last throw of the dice, the big companies are gathering together all their recordings in ‘editions’ that work out at about a quid per CD. Too late: they can’t stop these circulating on the net. And we oldies aren’t grateful because we remember the days when their cartel kept the price of a disc at £16.99, an arrangement that not only ripped me off but put retailers out of business too.

If that sounds like a lame justification for my downloading, I can assure you it isn’t. I can’t summon up any remorse and don’t feel the need to justify myself. Nor, incidentally, does the head of an American independent label whom I know is a vigorous illicit downloader. On the other hand, if the record companies manage to block The Pirate Bay, as they did recently, fair enough: it’s a cat-and-mouse game. Also, I’ve discovered something better: a wondrous site from which you can download thousands of free classical recordings without the risk involved in file-sharing (Pirate Bay is a BitTorrent site that asks you to ‘seed’ as well as ‘leech’). But, if you don’t mind, I won’t give you its name. I don’t want anyone blocking it until I’ve filled my boots — and that will take some time.

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