Music Piracy and the Emergence of Social Media

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 9:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom VII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Alex S. Cummings, Georgia State University
Over a decade ago, the introduction of the Napster file-sharing service unleashed online distribution of music and inspired predictions of the record industry’s demise.  However, music fans shared unauthorized copies of recordings long before Napster provided an easier way to swap files online.  This paper suggests that scholars can find the early stirrings of today’s social media among the listeners who formed networks for collecting, copying, and distributing “bootleg” recordings throughout the twentieth century.  Beginning in the 1930s, bootlegging prompted the development of new communities of listeners, who organized around their common interest in preserving the vanishing traces of early recorded music, particularly in genres such as jazz and blues.  Reviewing the history of piracy offers insight into the impulses that animate social media such as YouTube and Facebook today.

Through piracy, listeners used the technologies of mass media to serve a variety of personal and political agendas.  Sharing music often served to reinforce a sense of identity or group membership; jazz aficionados, for instance, demonstrated their belonging to a community of men with discerning taste and collecting acumen by exchanging copies of rare and out-of-print recordings.  Possessing a bootleg DJ tape conferred prestige upon the teenagers and taxi drivers who sought the newest, most coveted music in New York during the late 1970s.  Bootlegging also served as a springboard for radical politics in the 1960s, as pirate “collectives” challenged both the capitalist record industry and the idea of property rights itself by circulating unauthorized recordings of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and others.  In each case, music was not merely an individual experience of consuming a mass-produced good.  Rather, it was integral to a social experience that required copying and sharing - an experience that fulfilled the same desires that businesses now exploit through contemporary social media.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation