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The philosophy of trading music

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I’d like to discuss the philosophy of trading music, and offer my experience with the practice.

 

For those who do not know, music-trading is essentially the act of bartering MP3s (among other digital formats of music like FLAC and so on). This practice is popular in Japanese culture, particularly within the vk scene. It is not popular outside of Japanese culture.

 

Typically music-trading involves music that is extremely difficult to find elsewhere, such as the content of demo tapes; bonus (tokuten / 特典) or freely distributed (haifu / 配布) items, such as those received exclusively with the purchase of something at a particular location, or provided to the attendees of a live event; and limited-sale, or out-of-print items. Readily available items, such as things which can be purchased easily online or in stores, are sometimes traded as well, but this is considered by the community to be somewhat unethical and closer to piracy. (Though, undoubtedly, you could argue the practice of music-trading is inherently unethical to begin with.)

 

Music-trading also frequently involves bootleg recordings of lives (tereko / テレコ) which are valued by sound quality, or content (for example, if an uncommon or particularly unique rendition of a song is performed, a recording may be more highly valued). DVDs and bootleg videos are also traded, but this is less common because they make for large files which is inconvenient. In the early 2000s, when bandwidth was more of a concern, music-trading was often conducted in Japan using writable CD-Rs and the postal system. Because uploading music in Japan is a far more severe crime than many other places, some traders still prefer to do it this way. (Though most simply utilize encryption, uploading ZIP files with passwords.)

 

Music-trading has a very poor reputation for different reasons. First, it comes off as a severely elitist practice which excludes those who do not have anything of value to trade (which is the vast majority within any given fanbase). Second, (while the same could be said of piracy in general) it is extremely disrespectful to the creators of the music, whose intentions behind the availability of their content is being violated.

 

It’s worth noting here how exclusivity and ephemerality tend to be highly valued in Japanese culture. They are also commonly used as marketing tactics. A lot of products and merchandise in Japan are sold in limited quantities or in singular locations or for limited periods of time. The Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, for example, has an exclusive gift shop which only sells special product merchandise that can only be purchased there. Furthermore, they show exclusive animated films which can only be seen in the theater they have there, and will supposedly never be released on consumer media.

 

Admittedly, I’m no expert on exclusivity and ephemerality in Japan. All of this is based on my personal and subjective observations. But, in my estimation there is no malicious intent behind it. It’s simply something that seems to be considered fun and enjoyable, as frustrating as it might be sometimes.

 

I think this aspect of Japanese culture is often mistaken for elitism by those from other cultures. Part of the fun for many who trade music is the experience of happening across the opportunity to obtain something exclusive and rare, and the ephemeral singular experience that comes with this.

 

And, this kind of culture is fundamentally engrained in the music we’re talking about here. After all, the creators themselves chose to release it in limited quantities, or to an exclusive minority. If they wanted to make money from it, or to get it out to more people, they’d make the effort to do so. (And sometimes they do; the electronic/pico-pico kei band FLOPPY, for example, recently released a new album with a second disc containing a bunch of exclusive tracks they’d given out or sold in limited quantities over the past years.)

 

And, as previously mentioned, a lot of this is simply marketing. Some of the music in question is meant to complement ticket or new album sales, and is never intended to stand on its own. A lot of it is given out as gifts to fans during holiday events and things like that.

 

Whether one agrees with it or not, the creators of this music intended for it to be scarce or difficult to find. To quote The Mandalorian: This is the way.

 

If you’re interested at all in music-trading, I think it’s important to understand what is motivating the people of this community, and the culture behind the practice.

 

Here’s my take on music-trading: I do not like it.

 

But, I see no other way to support my interests, or to otherwise obtain certain items. I see music-trading as a necessary evil, or something like that.

 

There’s definitely something quite snobby about assessing the value of music based on its scarcity or how few people have access to it, rather than the way it sounds. (Those epic rarez and 10-copy demo tapes of your favorite bands? Odds are these releases totally suck, and the main reason the band hasn’t made any attempt to re-release them is because they’re embarrassed by them.) Furthermore, hoarding music makes you feel like some kind of grouchy dragon who never learned to share.

 

If you use Last.FM or mention that you have something rare online, people are going to beg you for things. Who are you to deny them something you could infinitely duplicate? (We are talking about MP3s, after all—not physical releases. And this typically isn’t stuff anyone can buy, so sharing it isn’t taking away sales or preventing artist support.) On the one hand, you want to share with these people because maybe you’ll make a cool new friend and have another person to discuss music with—and at least in my experience, it’s just kind of nice making others happy and helping them out when you can; but on the other hand, the more people who have this music, the less opportunity you’re going to have to trade it to get more music—the less you're going to be able to barter.

 

Thus, the life of a music-trader can often be quite lonely and self-serving.

 

I tried to resist this path of hoarding my collection for a long time. When someone asked me for something rare, I’d give it to them under the condition that they keep it to themselves. A few of these people ended up “paying me back” tenfold later on with more music, and some of them ended up being really great friends. Others spread the stuff I gave them online, sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes out of spite and jealousy.

 

The best situation is when you can establish a small community of likeminded individuals who are willing to share this music with each other, and no one else. Thus, everyone gets to enjoy the music, yet its tradable value is uncompromised. If one of you wants someone outside of the community to have it, they can simply ask this person to assimilate and “join the club,” so to speak.

 

Some may still observe a situation like this as elitism, but I would argue against this because with the right attitude and behavior, anyone could be a part of a community like this. In the end, music-trading is merely the process of upholding the culture behind the music in question, which is established by its creators.

 

Have you ever traded music? If so, what was your experience like? Otherwise, what is your opinion on the practice? Please free to share why you approve or disapprove of music-trading, or perhaps why you’re a little bit conflicted about it, like me.

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I wouldn't pay a cent for something as ephemeral as music files, let alone jump through hoops like uploading some mediocre obscure demo or live performance these guys may or may not even want, but all the more power to anyone who's into it.
Have japanese people not heard of soulseek?

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29 minutes ago, hopefully_benign said:

I wouldn't pay a cent for something as ephemeral as music files, let alone jump through hoops like uploading some mediocre obscure demo or live performance these guys may or may not even want, but all the more power to anyone who's into it.
Have japanese people not heard of soulseek?

Well, no one’s paying money for files in this context, just trading files for files.

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