There’s a history to this file-sharing thing that can help us anticipate its future
BY CARLY CARIOLI
I PROBABLY INHERITED the record-collecting gene from my father. He grew up in the era of the 45-rpm single, and he owns hundreds if not thousands of them — the R&B, soul, and funk sides of his youth, bundled on shelves in satisfyingly uniform rows, each disc in its own hand-numbered sleeve. His favorites are loaded into a refurbished 1960s-era jukebox, which sits in the dining room with a small wicker tray of quarters balanced on its lip. No one’s collecting the fee, of course, but you still have to pump the machine full of change to make it sing.
This is a story about a jukebox big enough to store every record in my father’s collection and small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, but it begins with an album I had when I was 12 called The Complete Story of Roxanne. It was a fly-by-night knockoff album — just a couple of studio hacks recording cheap cover versions of a group of popular songs — but it is also part of the history of an argument that took place on the radio in 1985 and 1986, beginning with UTFO’s novelty hit "Roxanne, Roxanne." In the song, the Kangol Kid, Doctor Ice, and the Educated Rapper relate their attempts to woo the new girl on the block, all of which end in abject humiliation. Soon after the song became a hit, a teenager calling herself Roxanne Shante recorded a withering answer track called "Roxanne’s Revenge." UTFO, realizing the commercial potential of a feud, found their own claimant to the throne in a young woman who called herself, in an explicit challenge, the Real Roxanne. Thereafter, a flood of bewildering answer songs was recorded by a mystifying array of artists. The fad lasted the better part of two years, and by the end it had become a sour joke.
Many years later, I stumbled across another copy of the Complete Story of Roxanne and went online to see if I could find out anything about it. I was surprised to find an item on Allmusic.com claiming that there had been more than 100 Roxanne-answer songs — 103, to be exact. This would almost certainly qualify it, by an immense margin, as the most answered song in history. But Allmusic’s claim turned out to be nearly impossible to confirm. I found estimates by people who were making Roxanne records at the time that placed the figure as low as 20. Still, I felt something forming in my gut: I wanted — no, I needed — to find every Roxanne-answer track ever made.
Despite its uncanny specificity (103?), I suspected the Allmusic figure was apocryphal. The ambivalent nature of the quest became part of its allure: no one knew how many there were for sure, and it was likely no one cared. Without much problem, I found a few of the easy ones — the original and various salvos from Roxannes Real and Shante — for a few dollars. I put together a list of every Roxanne-answer song I could find mention of and came up with more than a dozen, including "The Parents of Roxanne," by Gigolo Tony and Lacey Lace, a Miami bass duo; "Roxy (Roxanne’s Sister)" by D.W. and the Party Crew; "Roxanne’s a Man," by Ralph Rolle; "Roxanne’s Doctor (The Real Man)" by Dr. Freshh. Then I forgot about them for a while. But one night, about a year later, I came across a listing on eBay for a single I’d never heard mentioned before: "Roxanne’s Real Fat," by a group called the Potato Chips. My heart skipped; I felt a telescoping vertigo. Here was a record by an unknown group on a tiny imprint; maybe there really were dozens more just like it out there, slowly going to warp and to scratch in basements and old warehouses. Maybe there were more than 100, and they were just waiting for someone to rescue them.
This set me off anew, and after a flurry of e-mails, telephone calls, and Googling, I had a somewhat larger list, as well as a handful of tantalizing leads, like the girl in England who said she vaguely recalled a Roxanne-answer song called "She Died," but couldn’t remember by whom. I found copies of the Korner Boys’ "Saga of Roxanne," Zelee’s "No More Roxanne," and the East Coast Boys’ "The Final Word (No More Roxanne)" — it seemed somehow very Roxanne that when the cycle reached its dénouement, even the backlash had become over-subscribed. But after a time my enthusiasm waned. Occasionally I’d see a record on my list for sale online or in a shop, but in the years since I’d started looking, the prices of old-school hip-hop records had soared, and I found it increasingly hard to part with $15 for a single that, I could be almost certain, was going to be, at best, sublimely ridiculous.
I MIGHT NEVER have picked up the trail again if it weren’t for a peer-to-peer file-sharing program called SoulSeek. One night, at about 2 a.m., I was using it to troll through a music library on some distant user’s hard drive. SoulSeek, which can be downloaded at www.slsk.org, began as a haven for fans of dance music and electronica, but soon metastasized into wider use thanks in part to a simple organizational principle: the folder.
Since Napster died, networks like Kazaa and Morpheus have absorbed most of the mainstream traffic, and most of the litigation, in file-sharing. But the available material there tends to be skewed to new and popular songs, and, since the music industry has gotten wise to downloaders, these networks are often littered with dozens of fake songs meant to throw file-sharers off the scent. Because Kazaa and Morpheus are used to trade songs more than albums, their users typically keep all their music files in a single folder on their computers, and these folders are like messy rooms: haphazard junk boxes full of disorganized songs.
SoulSeek users, on the other hand, arrange their files in collections of folders. Usually, one folder contains a complete album, often with cover art or text files (the folder’s title might even contain the year of the disc’s release and its label). This folder, in turn, might be contained in another folder that houses all the user’s albums by the same artist; and a group of artist folders may be collected in a folder tagged by genre or year. In other words, it’s a downloading service that works like a record store tailored for music geeks. It has attracted a discriminating sort of user who is more likely to have indie-label, back-catalogue, and out-of-print material than you’d find anywhere else on the Web. If you’re looking for the Bright Eyes Christmas disc, or a live set by Grandmaster Flash from 1981, or DJ Whoo Kid’s latest 50 Cent mixtape, or the complete Carter Family discography, or Liz Phair’s original "Girlysound" demos, this is where you’ll find them most readily.
Downloading on SoulSeek is a bit more congested than on the major file-sharing servers: it uses a system of queues, by which downloaders wait in a kind of electronic checkout line to access tracks from the computers of other users. Sometimes these lines are very long — up to 1000 users can be found waiting their turn to download. But you can keep track of your place in line — like taking a number at the deli counter — and if the line is too long for your liking, you can search out another user with the same material. This encourages users to make connections with each other via a buddy list that gives confederate users preferential line-cutting privileges in each others’ queues, making SoulSeek more like a bazaar than a supermarket. Instead of using the system’s search engine to look for specific songs or albums, I often find myself browsing the collections of users with fast connections or interesting tastes. Which is how, on that late night, I stumbled across a folder marked "Roxanne Phenomenon (Roxanne’s a What?)."
After years of digging in used-record shops and scouring online record stores, I clicked once on the folder and — 40 minutes later on a broadband connection — I had on my hard drive nearly every Roxanne song I’d already collected, plus most of the songs I’d been searching for, and another half-dozen whose existence I’d never known about. Clarence "Blowfly" Reid’s "Blowfly Meets Roxanne." The Invasions’ "Roxanne’s Dis." Overnite Bandits’ "Roxanne’s Baby." Tanganyika’s "I’m Lil’ Roxanne." And the elusive "She Died," by Rocksann. Somewhere, someone had had the same dream, and had put considerably more effort into the quest. Not only had this person compiled a body of obscure and long-out-of-print recordings of dubious merit, but he or she had taken the not-so-easy step of converting the analog sources — vinyl records — to digital MP3 files, and then packaged them as a discrete, shareable entity. The question was, why? Even before I was finished downloading the Roxanne songs that night, I beheld an answer: the folder that contained them was in fact a subset of a larger folder. That larger folder was labeled "iPod."
THE iPOD, Apple’s sleek and stylish portable MP3-playing device, is slightly bigger than a pack of cigarettes and can hold up to 10,000 songs. That’s big enough to hold most people’s entire music collections. Thanks in part to its clean, simple design, it has managed to avoid the image of a nerdy, techie gadget and instead become an instantaneously iconic accessory. "Having fun racin’ all your hotrods here/downloading all your music on your iPods there," Jay-Z rapped recently. The first thing one sees in the video for 50 Cent’s latest hit, "P.I.M.P.," is 50 himself, dressed in an immaculate white suit, cuing up the song on his iPod while surrounded by half-naked women — thereby inaugurating the device as a touchstone of gangsta style.
But the iPod threatens to be more than a mere fashion statement: it has the potential to change the way people listen to music, perhaps even more so than the Walkman did. And that’s because Apple understands music consumers better than the music industry itself.
Why do file-sharers go through so much trouble to put music they already own on their computers, where the fidelity is sure to be subpar? When Napster was in session, the answer turned out to lie in the CD-R (recordable CDs), sales of which spiked dramatically — in some cases, more than a thousand-fold — at exactly the same time Napster became popular. Users were uploading and downloading their favorite songs to their computers in order to burn their own mixtapes — or else to burn copies of their albums for their friends.
The iPod effectively removes the need for CD burning, while at the same time practically demanding a sharp increase in CD ripping. For the first time, MP3 isn’t merely a way station for music on its way from a mass-produced CD to a home-burned CD-R: it’s a functionally viable format in its own right. With an iPod, the MP3s one downloads are liberated not only from your computer but from the CD itself: an iPod can be configured to broadcast via a signal through a car radio, or it can be plugged directly into your home stereo system as a component. So if the iPod is really going to become the next standard portable music device — and with over a million sold so far, this appears plausible — then its users are going to have to transfer their existing CD collections into MP3s. The last time users switched formats this way, the music industry cashed in: when consumers bought CDs of albums they already owned on vinyl, the industry was swept out of its mid-’80s slump, and earnings grew at an enviable rate for a decade. But with the iPod, there’s one major difference: since consumers can convert CDs to MP3s on their home computers for free, the music industry won’t see a dime.
In 1999, the year Napster caught fire and sales of recordable CDs began rising exponentially, the music industry was developing two new and similar formats, DVD-audio and the super-audio compact disc, both in competition to replace the CD. The lesson the industry had taken from the CD boom was that it could make people pay more for discs that sounded better. And in the late ’90s the labels were betting they could do it all over again. But what file-sharing and CD burning said about consumer desire was that people wanted to pay less for music, and that they wanted instantaneous access to it via the Web; that they wanted more control over how they listened to the music they owned, and that they would sacrifice sound quality in order to get it. Meanwhile, the more recent lesson of SoulSeek is that people are willing to wait in line for the kinds of things an online store might offer: a sense of organization, complete albums without the threat of bum files, some semblance of an album’s packaging. Those concerns are addressed by the iPod, with its nearly inexhaustible storage capacity and almost endless portability, and by Apple’s iTunes store, which offers instantaneous downloading of songs for 99 cents and albums for $10.
Still, while the iTunes store has sold more than 10 million songs in a little over four months, Apple also sold about 300,000 iPods, with a combined capacity of three billion songs, in the same period. The iPod is creating a demand that far outweighs what iTunes provides in supply. Which means one of two things: iPod owners are downloading music for free, or they’re burning their existing CDs to MP3 via their computers, where they’ll probably end up in folders called "iPod" that will be searchable on networks like SoulSeek. The person who created "Roxanne’s a What?" was not alone. Here’s a sampling of what was in a folder one SoulSeek user titled "ipod_sync": full discs by Alice Cooper, Cabaret Voltaire, Can, Caravan, David Bowie, Dead Can Dance, Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Brian Eno & David Byrne, Genesis, Gong, Joy Division, Kevin Ayres, Mike Oldfield, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Wings, Pere Ubu, Pink Floyd, Robert Calvert, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, Talking Heads, the Birthday Party, the Cure, the Fall, and the Sisters of Mercy (and that’s not even a third of the contents).
SOULSEEK SEEMS better prepared than Morpheus, Kazaa, and iTunes to deal with the onslaught of iPod users, who will presumably be looking to fill their 30-gigabyte hard-drives with many albums’ worth of songs. And it’s better prepared to deal with the interesting things that begin to happen when music is freed from the confines of its earthbound vinyl and plastic casing. The Web site BoomSelection tracks developments in the mash-up craze (the world’s first Internet-only music genre), in which bedroom auteurs produce unlicensed remixes of pop and rock songs like Freelance Hellraiser’s "Stroke of Genius," where Christina Aguilera appears to sing over the Strokes. Last year the site was faced with the dilemma of what to sell, since all the genre’s songs had always been made available free on the Internet. The document it eventually produced, Nevermind the Bootlegs, was a 400-song compilation issued in MP3 format on three CD-Rs.
What do you call such an undertaking? It isn’t quite an album — as a collection of conventional CDs, it would outweigh all but the most outrageous boxed sets. But it is definitely something. Even "Roxanne’s a What?" is something: it exists, if only as a numbered selection of songs contained in an electronic folder. With its networks of folders, SoulSeek has institutionalized a simple tool that functions like an album — it contains a set of related songs — but is much more flexible. And as users, empowered with the ability to compile their own collections, have begun organizing their songs this way, the folder, as a mode of presentation, has begun to dwarf the scope of the album.
"Roxanne’s a What?" is not an isolated case. I once came across a folder on SoulSeek labeled "The History of Miami Bass" — that is, the subgenre of hip-hop, perhaps best exemplified by 2 Live Crew, which prizes an earth-quaking rhythm section and sensationally crude lyrics. The files in the folder were arranged chronologically, and began, fantastically, with a recording of Orson Welles’s 1938 Mercury Theatre of the Air production of "War of the Worlds," and progressed through the decades with dozens of selections including Ray Charles’s "St. Pete Florida Blues" (1951), James Brown’s "Doodle Bug" (1959), Betty Wright’s "He’s Bad Bad Bad" (1968), Miami’s "Chicken Yellow (Let Me Do It to You)" (1974), and the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s "Bertha Butt Encounters Vadar" (1978) — all recorded prior to the first hip-hop single — before compiling an encyclopedic discography from 2 Live Crew to Fannypack. There were about 3000 songs in all; a note on the folder said it is "updated daily." There is a folder floating around titled "The Paul’s Boutique Crates," made up of every song that was sampled, however marginally, in the Beastie Boys’ landmark hip-hop pastiche Paul’s Boutique. I once saw a folder that attempted to compile an MP3 of the best-selling songs of each year from the invention of the phonograph up through the end of the 20th century.
Until recently, these kinds of collections would have been pure folly — it would take weeks to download them, and then what would you do? Burn them to CD? Haul a sleeping bag and a refrigerator into your office and listen to them on computer? There is no other medium in which something like "The History of Miami Bass" or Nevermind the Bootlegs or "Roxanne’s a What?" could reasonably exist — even if you could miraculously license every track, the manufacturing costs alone would be prohibitive. But they all can exist comfortably, with room to spare, on SoulSeek, and an iPod would not even so much as wince at them. The shape of my father’s obsession is his jukebox, right down to its fetishistic genuflection to the rituals of commerce; the shape of what is to come is an iPod, the emblem of a frictionless future in which no obsession is too large, and you don’t have to pump the machines full of change to make them sing.
Carly Carioli can be reached at ccarioli[a]phx.com