So it’s a few minutes before 2AM last night and Maureen and I are sitting at the bar in the downtown Baltimore Holiday Inn, talking to the sound guy for The Hold Steady, a band I started listening to a couple of years ago after buying their album, Boys and Girls in America, solely because it ended up near the top of a whole bunch of Best of 2006 lists from publications I like, such as The Onion. On first listen I was sort of unimpressed — solid, entertaining bar rock to be sure, but lacking, I don’t know–greatness? But that opinion started to change on the second go ’round, and then more so on the third, fourth, fifth, and tenth. And it turned to unreserved admiration after seeing them live at the 9:30 Club. Watching most bands live is fun but ultimately not much more than listening to a bunch of albums you like, by a band you like, played on shuffle, through a really great stereo, at a much louder volume than your neighbors will allow at home, standing alongside a bunch of like-minded fans who, like you, are in the process of enjoying numerous socially lubricating beverages. The Hold Steady, by contrast, are transcendent in concert, inhabiting an alternate reality of greatness, multiplied by 100 and then some. That band live is the closest you can get to joy in two hours while keeping your clothes on.
Anyway, we left the venue, which was in a somewhat horrible pre-fab restaurant and entertainment complex in Baltimore that Maureen aptly described as Applebee’s rock and roll, and went out for a while before ending up back at the Holiday Inn, where we had Pricelined a cheap room because I’m getting too old to drive back down the Baltimore-Washington parkway at 1AM after a night on the town. And there they were, the sound guy, another roadie, and lead singer Craig Finn, who’s sort of the dorkiest Midwestern rock-god-cool frontman in the world. There was nobody else — The Hold Steady apparently has no groupies of note. Finn left after a half-hour and we ended up chatting with the sound guy. Audiences in Great Britain are the toughest, he says — they have very specific opinions regarding proper sound mixing and will let you know if you’re not getting the job done. We discussed our shared sense that Wall-E looks to be a good movie, and why. Then I asked him a question that had been bugging me: Why, if the band’s new album (the much anticipated follow-up to Boys and Girls in America) was scheduled to be released on July 15th, was it available on iTunes now?
“It leaked,” he said, grimly. “Probably a reviewer gave it to a friend who put in on Bit-Torrent or something.” Given their recent breakout success, a lot of time and effort had gone into packaging, marketing, and timing the release – only to have it all blown to shreds by the leak. So they had no choice to but to put in on iTunes to provide a paying on-line alternative, while the physical CD launch couldn’t be changed. “It’s still going to hurt retail sales,” he said, “Not just because people will already have the album, but because retailers won’t want to spend money and shelf space promoting what’s seen as an old product.”
Which brings me to the subject of stealing music. I know that information wants to be free and that artists make all their money touring and selling merchandise anyway and that the big record companies deserve what they’re getting and that music “sharing” builds the fan base in a time where competition for entertainment mindshare is more fierce than ever before, and I know there’s some truth in all of those things. But I also know, and I think you do too, that there’s a strong element of b.s. to these arguments, the fervency of which is substantially a function of latent guilt over the fact that people can be greedy and cheap and selfish and as such are enjoying the music of The Hold Steady and others like them without paying for it, and there is no real moral justification for this, none at all. For all the critical acclaim, the band is obviously not rich – they were staying in the Holiday Inn, for Pete’s sake, and one of the reasons is that people who know better are using the Internet to steal. To whom I say, with good cheer as a fellow music fan and with faith that you can be better: Stop, thief.