Burning and a looting

Ever illegally downloaded a song from the Internet or burned a CD for a friend? Garry Steckles explains how music piracy hurts Caribbean musicians

  • Yellowman, live at the Taxi Road Show. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv

A few thoughts on a topic that has had the music biz in a state of turmoil for the better part of a decade: theft.

I’m sure many readers were as appalled as I was by the story in the May/June 2004 issue of Caribbean Beat outlining how rampant piracy has had a devastating effect on the musicians of this region — many of whom were barely scraping a living even before the burning of CDs became a regional and international epidemic.

Internationally, burning and illegal downloading from the Internet has been a huge headache for musicians, record companies, and just about everyone connected with the business. Regionally, it’s more than a headache, it’s a nightmare.

Nowhere in the world produces as much music as the Caribbean, certainly not on a per capita basis. And few regions have copyright laws that are as flimsy and as loosely enforced. Keeping some sort of lid on music piracy is enormously difficult in any circumstances, but it’s virtually impossible when you’re dealing with a far-flung assortment of islands, many of them tiny and with overworked and underpaid police forces to whom the enforcement of music copyright laws — if they exist — is way down on the priority list.

The situation has deteriorated to the point where David Rudder, in my book the most talented and innovated calypsonian in the world today, broke with tradition and decided not to put out a CD for this year’s Carnival in Trinidad. His reasoning: why put all that effort into a CD so unscrupulous music retailers can buy one copy and burn hundreds, or when the best tracks will mysteriously appear on “Greatest Carnival Hits” compilations without so much as a by-your-leave — much less hard cash for the artist? Disappointed as I was, I can’t blame Rudder. Wouldn’t you down tools too, if your work was being randomly ripped off, duplicated, and sold without a cent coming your way?

Personally, I’m proud to confess that I’ve never burned a CD in my life, that I don’t have the capability to burn CDs and have no intention of acquiring it, that I’ve never downloaded a tune from the Internet, legally or illegally, that I’m still not quite sure what an mp3 is, and frankly don’t care, and that I find the whole business both offensive and, in a strange way, soulless.

It may make me something of a Neanderthal, but I still enjoy going into a music store, spending a few happy hours burrowing around the CDs, listening to a bunch of them and then buying — yes, buying — as many of them as I can afford.

And I love the chase. The harder a CD is to find, the happier I am when I finally track down a copy. I know it would be a whole lot easier to sit at my computer, type in a few keywords, then download what I’m looking for with a minimum of effort, and parting with very little cash, if any. But I’ve had a lot more fun hunting for music in record stores than I ever would have downloading it at will. I’ve stacked up a lot more musical memories, too. Every time I listen to a reggae 45 called Walk With Love I’m back in Jack Ruby’s record store-cum-restaurant in Music Alley in Ocho Rios, with the late czar of the Jamaican north coast music scene guiding me through a batch of hot new singles, while Yellowman, then the undisputed king of reggae dancehall, chomped down happily on a plate of ital stew a few feet away. That doesn’t happen sitting at your computer downloading tunes at will, which strikes me as the cultural equivalent of catching fish out of a barrel.

So much for the soullessness of acquiring music the high-tech way.

Now for what I regard as the even more offensive part of burning and illegal downloading. I love music. It’s been one of the greatest sources of joy in my life, and the mere thought of stealing it from people who’ve devoted much of their lives to bringing me this joy is repugnant. Musicians are the last people I want to steal from, particularly in a region where the vast majority barely get by to begin with. As Hollis Liverpool, better known as Chalkdust, told the media earlier this year after winning Trinidad’s Calypso Monarch title, many of the artists whose music we’d been listening to and dancing to during Carnival didn’t have a roof over their heads when they’d finished performing. Ripping them off by burning copies of their CDs can only make their offstage lives even more of a grind.

I’m not proud to admit I’ve accepted burned CDs in the past. Or that I’ve occasionally loaned a CD to a friend so he or she could copy it. It’s never been something I’ve felt comfortable with, and, having just made what amounts to a public confession and apology, I hasten to add it’s something I decided to stop doing a few months ago, often to the consternation of friends who want to give me a burned copy of a hot new CD or to borrow one from me so they can copy it.

I should also ’fess up to the fact that while my CD larceny has been both infrequent and reluctant, I’ve made countless hundreds of old-fashioned cassette tapes over the years. This doesn’t trouble me nearly as much, largely because they’ve always been compilation tapes, rather than just start-to-finish copies of whole albums. In other words, I’ve put an average of about three hours into every 90-minute tape I’ve made, they’ve rarely had more than three or four tunes by a single artist, and, along the way, they’ve introduced friends and acquaintances to the work of everyone from Bob Marley to Michael Franti.

Speaking of Marley, it often strikes me that, despite leaving us years before CDs were invented, much less the technology to copy them at will, the late king of reggae must have had a premonition of what was to come when he wrote the words of one of his most famous anthems. No prizes for guessing the line I’m talking about: “Burning and a looting tonight.”

Thanks, Bob. I couldn’t have put it better myself.


Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.