Confessions of an illegal downloader

I’ve illegally downloaded hundreds of pounds worth of classical music and I feel no remorse

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

I’ve never been into shoplifting, though I once had a friend who was. And, no, before you ask, I’m not using that old ‘friend’ device to hide my own identity. She was a girl I met at university. Bookshops were her hunting ground. I’m assuming she was driven by some sort of compulsion because she couldn’t enjoy the books she nicked and — she assured me — God would always punish her by making a contact lens drop out of her eye within hours of the crime.

I wouldn’t enjoy a stolen book, either. But if I listened to classical recordings illicitly downloaded from the internet, would my conscience drain the music of colour? That’s easy to answer. As I type this article, a criminally underrated pianist is shooting C sharp minor rockets up the keyboard in the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata — and I’m loving it. His arpeggios wouldn’t sound any crisper if I’d paid to hear them.

Which I didn’t. I know he’s criminally underrated because I committed the ‘crime’ of downloading his complete Beethoven sonatas from a dodgy website. If I wanted to purchase them legitimately I’d have to fork out over £100 because his recording company has let them drop out of the catalogue.

Nobody in their right mind pays that sort of money for CDs. Being scarce doesn’t make them intrinsically valuable: they’re just polycarbonate plastic discs on which the zeroes and ones of digital data are encoded. Their diameter is based on the diagonal length of a mini cassette (remember them? What a lousy invention) and they play for about 80 minutes because Sony’s president Norio Ohga, like most Japanese classical music enthusiasts, was besotted with Beethoven’s Ninth and wanted it to fit on one disc.

Any laptop can produce a perfect copy of a CD, which makes them very different from vinyl records, whose pressing is a supremely delicate business and every one of which is unique. The rediscovery of vinyl is ironically a celebration of the things that drove us mad before compact discs came along — their fragility and the rituals of cleaning and storage. Incidentally, second-hand LP shops are plagued by shoplifters.

The CD’s fate was sealed from the moment PCs developed the capacity to burn them; the death rattle began when broadband arrived, allowing you to download an album in five minutes. We’ve reached a stage where the entertainment industry has to go to extraordinary lengths to persuade young people to pay for any digital content, which they don’t think of as something you ‘own’. Hence Netflix and Spotify.

But for older listeners who’ve invested thousands of pounds in CD collections, Spotify is basically a radio station; I went off it when it ceased to offer downloads. Although its classical library is immense, it doesn’t satisfy the obsessive-compulsive collector in me. But downloaded files on my external hard drive do satisfy it — even if, increasingly, I can’t be arsed to burn them on to discs. I did try prettifying home-ripped CDs with self-designed covers, but that felt too much like something Valerie Singleton might have encouraged me to do c.1971. (By the way, I’ve had a lifelong ambition to meet Miss Singleton, who was a fabulously sharp financial journalist as well as a Blue Peter presenter. Just saying.)

It was a colleague on the Catholic Herald who introduced me to The Pirate Bay, where I found gigantic box sets — e.g. 240 CDs of the complete Herbert von Karajan playing his Mantovani trick with the Berlin Phil on Deutsche Grammophon, minus the gruesome luxury packaging. In a last throw of the dice, the big companies are gathering together all their recordings in ‘editions’ that work out at about a quid per CD. Too late: they can’t stop these circulating on the net. And we oldies aren’t grateful because we remember the days when their cartel kept the price of a disc at £16.99, an arrangement that not only ripped me off but put retailers out of business too.

If that sounds like a lame justification for my downloading, I can assure you it isn’t. I can’t summon up any remorse and don’t feel the need to justify myself. Nor, incidentally, does the head of an American independent label whom I know is a vigorous illicit downloader. On the other hand, if the record companies manage to block The Pirate Bay, as they did recently, fair enough: it’s a cat-and-mouse game. Also, I’ve discovered something better: a wondrous site from which you can download thousands of free classical recordings without the risk involved in file-sharing (Pirate Bay is a BitTorrent site that asks you to ‘seed’ as well as ‘leech’). But, if you don’t mind, I won’t give you its name. I don’t want anyone blocking it until I’ve filled my boots — and that will take some time.

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Show comments
  • tenbelly

    TPB has indeed been closed down by the Swedish police but there are rumours that it will be back before long.

    Meanwhile what’s already out there is still out there of course, available and ready to download.

    So a new site called The Old Pirate Bay is there to help out in your quest for old classical recordings.

    Here it is.

    btw. it’s called ‘file sharing’ not illegal downloading.

    • Martin Walker

      If you want “old classical recordings” there are many classical blogs out there providing privately digitalised files of out-of-copyright recorded performances (on shellac/LP) or great radio broadcasts.

  • tgiovanetti

    Pretty stunned at such an argument entirely devoid of ethics and morality. Essentially arguing that “everybody’s doing it” and “I don’t like to pay for stuff.” You should be ashamed.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      “… such an argument entirely devoid of ethics and morality…”

      Why not? The copyright holders started it, by reneging on the copyright provisions of ‘reasonable time’. Copyright law currently lets a commercial company the right to a monopoly on someone else’s work for two lifetimes, and the US are trying to make this forever.

      Imagine a world where Shakespeare, Rubens and Bruegel were only available to the rich.

      • John

        That’s a neo-liberal’s wet dream.

        • Dodgy Geezer


          Copyright USED to be a social contract, whereby a creative person was given a state-defended right to a limited-period monopoly as a reward for presenting ideas to society.

          Lying behind the current approach to copyright is the concept that ideas are a property which can be bought, owned and controlled in perpetuity. This is not only wrong, it is evil, and must be fought with all means at our disposal.

          • David Prentice

            As Paul McCartney – who must pay the crafty Rebecca Loos to sing his own songs in the USA – knows only too well.

  • Cyril Sneer

    kickass torrents.

  • mikewaller

    The collapse of Western society in microcosm: what greedy diddums whats,GD gets!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    If DVD movies weren’t so mind-blowingly expensive… Just watched “The Imitation Game”. Great movie.
    Jack, third world Asia

  • rob232

    I remember an episode of The Simpsons where Homer illegally got connected to cable television and his daughter’s terrible problems of conscience. Luckily Damien is not an American Protestant.

    • John

      And it’s not the same thing at all.

      • rob232

        Of course it’s the same thing. It’s stealing intellectual property. You’re supposed to pay for it. Some of us will try to justify it, others won’t care enough to try but it is illegal because it is theft. I simply find it interesting to read an article defending it from a person I normally associate with religious themes.

  • John

    It was always the norm in my youthful days for someone to buy a record and for a lot of people to copy it to tape – no one felt like the pirate they were, no one felt like a thief. You can still make a living or even a fortune by releasing records and merch today, you just need to put it onto vinyl with some decent artwork etc. A lot of the people who pay to see you live and buy your merch at the gig won’t have paid for your records before seeing you, doesn’t make them thieves. Most musicians understand this now. Illegal downloading hasn’t killed music, as Mr Blunt once suggested, it’s just thrown a spanner in the works of the utterly corrupt music industry, which on top of its corruption, also spat out endless clones of anti-talent like James Blunt.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    I’m greatly in favour of pirating – because of the technology involved.

    Governments yearn to control how we communicate and what we see. If there were no reason to develop tools to beat this control, we would all now be effectively enslaved. But piracy has enabled a healthy resistance to be developed, with TOR, DE-CSS and Peer-to-Peer.

    So far, the pirates are winning, and they deserve every ounce of our support…

  • trace9

    Music, the Loot of Larceny for some.. Shame, Dame Thompson.

  • mixodorians

    If you don’t have a disposable income (like students, the unemployed etc) – what difference doses it make to the content providers if you have it or not?
    They are not losing any money at all by you not paying for it.
    You have no money to pay for it.
    So it makes no difference to them if you watch downloaded movies and listen to downloaded games or use downloaded software.
    They lose no money whatsoever as you have no money.

  • BFS

    This is a good example of the horror of relativism; a small sample of what happens when there is no more search for human dignity, right or wrong, a single truth for which is is worth living your life and even dying for.

    Thompson shows us the path to become vegetables of mass consumption, of which the only criteria to is to do whatever you find comfortable and to your own advantage. In this state, selfishness, hate, animalistic consumerism, indifference to the suffering and even murder of others becomes your daily soup.

    I long for a writer that tell us that fighting for truth is the only source of Human dignity and Joy.

    • Kennybhoy


    • Simon Delancey

      From copyright infringement to indifference to suffering and murder seems a bit of a jump.

  • colchar

    I’m happy to live in a country in which downloading is perfectly legal and, because of that, I will download to my heart’s content.

  • waterwillows

    Music and sports are God given free gifts bestowed upon mankind at the Lord’s pleasure.
    As such, gratitude and humility are in order for this Graciousness received.

    What we see today is the pride and arrogance of many who feel that their abilities are the product of oneself, alone. Not so, as it is unlikely one can take a breath without His gift of it. btw … gifts can also be taken back and returned to their Owner.

    Instead of the natural celebration of being the recipient of Graciousness, many allowed the evil thoughts of having ‘rights’ to fleece the people due to their abilities, which they don’t own and never will. The pride is great.

    So life ( being what it is and generally likes to return the favour) simply fleeces them back.
    This would not be happening so often to a humble and thankful provider. Sadly it is all too often not such.

    • Alex McDonald

      Are you sure you’ve got this God the Owner, God as the source-of-everything, the ultimate universal copyright holder stuff worked out properly? I mean, where does it say in the good book “All Rights Reserved, All Patents (Pending, Corporeal and Inneffable) Asserted, Trademarks Reserved, Copyright circa 6006BC, Pirates Will Be Smitten, Applies to Unbelievers”?

      There are billions pirating him right now,
      and I don’t see him slapping them down any time soon with a DCMA (Deus Copyright Mine

      • Thomas Kelly

        Pirate bay is the most famous site,
        there,s plenty of alternatives to pb ,if one wants to look around the net.
        You can borrow cds from the library,
        or listen to radio 3.
        When i go to hmv etc there,s always a sale,
        2 or 3 cds for 10 quid.
        not many people pays 16 pounds for a cd,
        you can buy the 2 or 3 good songs on itunes.
        I think kids listen to music on spotify or youtube,
        i dont, think teens buy many cds ,apart from 1d or beiber cds.

  • John Andrews

    Public libraries funded by taxpayers facilitate ‘sharing’ practices which differ very little from ‘file sharing’. The money paid to authors under the public lending right is of the same order as the money paid by Spotify to musicians. So I reckon the state sanctions the sharing of copyright materials.

  • David Glen

    When everyone has a pad / kindle – and print dissapears – you think everyone is going to pay for their reading matter? This will happen – just as ‘hard media’ has gone for music, and when authors start crying about it being impossible to make a living out of writing anymore – musicians will rightly turn around, laugh and ask why fellow creative types stabbed them in the back when their lively-hood evaporated.

    Secondly why do people justify their behaviour by claiming that what they download is not worth anything anyhow? Either you think the Karajan recordings are a miracle –allowing you to hear Beethoven better than he could at your leisure – and are therefore worth a pound a pop, or you don’t think they are worth anything at all, in which case why download them?

    Anyhow I know how to get any pad version of any magazine for nothing – that’s Ok though isn’t it? Stuff subscriptions, that’s money for the greedy publisher anyway. I mean you don’t expect any reimbursement for your ‘art’ do you ? It’s just a hobby , you can make do with the live circuit fees i’m sure.

  • dramocles

    So much depends on who sets the rules (or “the law”) and in whose interests the law is made. I recall when the big record companies relaxed their copyright fees in order to sell CDs in Russia (when Russians couldn’t afford western prices) and then screamed blue murder when Russian on-line sites offered downloads at similar prices (as it happens, within Russian laws).

    I also recall how Obama took the issue up with the Russians at presidential level. That alone says much about how the interests of big business can be intertwined with politics and how laws are made now.

  • Tomasz Szymaniec

    This article misses the point that a whole generation has justified piracy to itself simply because its easy, saves money and has no repercussions. What happened to that society where old men plant trees whose fruit they’ll never see? (I’m a hypocrite.)

  • zlop

    Who knows what is legal or not?
    Assume all is illegal, ask for permission?

  • Now I don’t feel so bad about making 200 photocopies of “The Fix” and giving them to my nearest and dearest as presents.

  • Video_Download_Reviewer

    You can download music and video from youtube using Download Surgeon, I think it is not a form of piracy.