Digging4Gold: Record Collecting or Pilfered Music?

by Thomas Brett

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer traveling to West Africa in search of new soundworlds to capture and bring with you back home.  You’ve come equipped with a recording device and a mind open to cultural difference; in fact, you’re open to being changed by your encounters abroad “in the field”, as an anthropologist would call that space where they carry out ethnographic research.  In some ways, your trip does have the contours of field research, albeit in condensed form. For instance, your search for new soundworlds leads on you on local adventures and your life suddenly becomes entwined with people who actually live here. Even the spirit world is aroused by your presence (especially since you ran over an old woman by accident and she just may have put some kind curse on your research efforts), necessitating the pouring of libations and even the sacrifice of a small animal before good fortune bestows upon you permission to go ahead and pursue your sound collecting with a clear conscience.  This is sounding like one of those anthropological narratives where the author renders a social milieu in rich detail, in part to bring the reader into a lived world, and perhaps also to demonstrate the high stakes of the research and how difficult this cultural exploring can be.  Sounds fun though, right?

The scene I just described was in fact a synopsis of a short article I came upon called “Gold Mining In Ghana” at the tumblr site digging4gold.tumblr.com.  The “explorer” is a guy called Juan who has travelled to Ghana (Kumasi in particular) in search of old vinyl recordings of African popular music–Afro-funk, disco, High Life, etc.–from decades past.  He carries with him one of those portable turntables that plugs into the USB port on your computer, allowing the transfer of analog record grooves into digital files.  Juan is assisted by his local friend Lion, whose father is the one who suggested the libation pouring and animal sacrifice to clear the way to the pair’s successful hunt for rare vinyl.  And yes, Juan and Lion do indeed find some really cool, really obscure records that contain sounds that people back home have probably never heard of.  So far so good.

But at the end of the tumblr post, Juan says:

“Here’s a choice selection of some of the records we’ve acquired over the past few weeks.”

And then there’s a link to mediafire.com, and yes, dear reader, you can freely download (as I did) a dozen MP3 tracks collected by Juan in the field.  Vintage and obscure West African popular music for free.  Juan also includes a disclaimer:

“*Please note: All songs will be recorded by a portable turntable, converted into a lower bit rate (due to the slow connection while I’m on the road) and designed strictly for previewing purposes only.  In other words, All Sertato aficionados might be out of luck.”

I think this disclaimer is a little weak considering that the average music is listener is not an audiophile and probably can’t tell the difference between a lower bit rate recording and a higher one.  Also, the notion that listeners will download tracks just for “previewing” and later buy the real thing is unlikely.  (Further, in BMG vGonzalez, the defendant was charged with illegally downloading music from a peer-to-peer website.  The defendant tried to claim fair use claiming that they were merely sampling or previewing tracks in order to determine whether to legitimately purchase the tracks at a later date.  The court struck down this fair use defense claiming that one could not illegally download music even for previewing purposes even if it led to the bona fide purchase of the song.  In the age of iTunes, there are plenty of avenues to legitimately sample parts of songs without taking them wholesale.)  To put it plainly, most people just want free music for their iPods.  It doesn’t have to be top quality, just new stuff they can listen to.  Finally, downloaded music these days is often viewed as a virtually disposable commodity anyways, and for better or worse, Juan’s free offering of African rarities fills a niche in our listening habits.

I’m torn about this “release.” On the one hand, this is a great example of using the Internet to effortlessly spread the sounds of musics we might not otherwise have heard about.  On the other hand, many of the artists “discovered” by Juan have had their music released on record labels and you can still easily find their tracks and albums from recognized sources.  Spend a few minutes on iTunes, for instance, and you’ll find that the Senegalese Orchestre Baobab has releases on Stern’s Music, World Circuit and Nonesuch (and is currently touring and has a MySpace site!); Bunzu Sounds has releases on Luaka Bop; Dr. K Gyasi has music on Soundway Records (specifically, on the compilation Ghana Special – Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81); Franklin Boukaka’s song (with Le Bucheron Africa) “Ata Ozali” is on a self-titled record (compiled in 2010 by Tamasha Corp. Ltd.); Ghanaian-Canadian musician Pat Thomas has an album called Mo Mme Menye (2008 Owusek Productions); Bunny Mack has an album called Let Me Love You (2008 Defected Records); Rwandan musician Matata’s song “Gimme Some Lovin'” is available on his album Feelin’ Funky (1994 President Records Ltd. London); and Ebo Taylor recently released a record called Love and Death (2010 Strut Records).

So what is the big deal here?  Why should we care about Juan’s vinyl finds when a lot of this music is already available to us from legit sources that may actually pay some of the artists? (Yes, most of the artists are still around!)  So: Go out there and buy some of this music (if you like it) and try to support the artists who make it and the labels that bring it to you.

But the story doesn’t quite end here.  I originally heard about Juan the vinyl collector via an enthusiastic Twitter post from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  (No, I don’t follow him on Twitter; the post was just brought to my attention!)  Here’s his pitch:

“My good friend from way back, Juan, has been adventuring around West Africa these days, looking for records.  Stupendous badass.  This guy’s been turning me on to good music since we were in high school.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a link to download fourteen beautiful, rocking, soulful songs he’s digitized from the vinyl he’s been collecting over there recently.”

Gordon-Levitt runs hitRECord.org, an online collaborative production company that allows filmmakers, actors, artists and musicians to work together on projects.  A lot of  hitRECord projects consist of artists remixing and juxtaposing one another’s work, and now I’m wondering why Gordon-Levitt would endorse his friend’s vinyl pilfering while he is so careful to remind hitRECord members that any content they upload for sharing/remixing must be their own?  Do you think Juan could get away with uploading to hitRECord.org some obscure vintage tracks of West African popular music?  (They might make a good soundtrack to someone’s short film.)
You can read the Gold Mining In Ghana post here.

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