Found  /  Argument

The Pirate Preservationists

When keeping cultural archives safe means stepping outside the law.

Long ago, when telephones were attached to walls and Sam Goody clerks roamed the earth, I stumbled onto a website whose proprietor possessed some of the sessions that Bob Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash back in 1969. One of the songs had gotten an official release, but the rest had been left in the vault, for most fans little more than an enticing legend.

It was 1996. In those days, acquiring illicit music on the internet was a low-tech, largely analog process. I sent the man an email, he agreed to share the recordings with me, I mailed him a blank cassette, and two months later the tape came back. It now contained one great performance—a cover of Carl Perkins' "Matchbox," with Perkins himself on guitar—and several endearingly sloppy ones.

The music's journey did not end there. I belonged to an email list for fans of the Kinks, and someone on it had promised to ship me some rare material by the band. In exchange for those tapes, I sent him copies of several items from my own stash of music, including the freshly acquired Dylan/Cash bootleg. Revisiting our 27-year-old correspondence, I see that at one point he told me that he could dub videotapes more quickly than audiotapes because he could copy the videos at his job.

Looking back from today, this process may sound absurdly inefficient. But it was much more efficient than the music-swapping subcultures that preceded it. With the internet, you could enter a few keywords into a search engine and find someone offering a recording that you knew only as a rumor. Or you could wander into a digital crowd of music nerds—not just the two or three you might happen to know in your day-to-day life—and discover what unknown wonders they had to share. The ethos was friendly and, for the most part, noncommercial. (When another member of the Kinks list offered me a recording that had been released in the U.K. but not the United States, I mailed her a blank tape and some cash to cover her shipping costs. She returned the money, telling me she didn't feel right about taking it.) The network was sprawling yet intimate, flourishing somewhere in the zone between the online and the offline.