What to do about music on tape and LP

Yesterday I bought “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull from the iTunes store using a gift card I got for Christmas. The obnoxious part of this is that I already own the album, albeit on cassette. As a matter of fact, I own a lot of music on cassette. I don’t think I got a CD player until around 1994, so the music I bought up to that point was mostly on cassette or vinyl.

In any case, the 1990’s were a great time for record companies. In addition to all the new music they were selling, they were selling lots of CDs because people were migrating their music collections from cassette and LP to CD. Part of the difficulty the music industry has had in the last few years is that they had gotten used to extra revenue from people re-buying music they already owned in order to migrate to CD. However, for most people, this migration is now complete and record companies’ revenues have fallen dramatically. Furthermore, while people are now migrating their CDs to MP3, that can be done without buying the music again (though the RIAA has argued that ripping a CD and adding it to your iTunes library does not qualify as fair use.)

I think I’ve added most of the CDs I own to my iTunes library, but there’s still a lot of music I own that is much more difficult to import. Some of it I have already bought in digital form from eMusic (Pavement, Superchunk, Pixies), which wasn’t too painful since it only cost me like $0.30/track. However, not all of the music I own on cassette and LP is available from eMusic. If I want to add this music to my computer-based digital collection I have the following options, roughly in order of potential illegality (least to most):

  1. Re-buy the music from iTunes or Amazon (or elsewhere). (This is the most unquestionably legal approach, though some tracks are not available in digital form (eg. b-sides of singles released only on vinyl)).
  2. Convert the tapes and records into MP3s by one of the following methods. (I haven’t heard anything about the RIAA taking issue with this practice. That does not mean, however, that they view it as acceptable. Most likely, it is unacceptable to them but they have not attacked it explicitly since it is seen as low-threat and the sound quality would be somewhat degraded.)
    1. Connect a standard cassette player or record player to the sound card of my computer, import the music as .wav files and convert to MP3. This wouldn’t cost anything but it would be very labor-intensive and tedious.
    2. Buy products specially-designed to import music from cassette or LP, like a cassette deck that fits in a 5.25″ drive bay in your computer or a USB turntable. These make the process less painful, but they’re like $100 each. I could buy a lot of albums in MP3 format for $200. As mentioned before, however, some of the music I have on LP or cassette may not be available as MP3s from any online store.
  3. Re-buy the music on brand-new CDs and import the music into my digital library. (The RIAA would love it if I bought the CDs. However, they’d be less enthusiastic about me ripping them and adding them to my computer’s music library. In their eyes, I should buy the album on CD and MP3.)
  4. Re-buy the music on used CDs and import the music into my digital library. (Used CDs are/have been a point of contention for the RIAA, in addition to the act of ripping. If I were to subsequently sell the CD and keep the MP3s, the legality of this approach would have just gone down some more.)
  5. Borrow my friends’ CD copies of your music and rip them into my collection. (The RIAA would definitely take issue with this, though they’re unlikely to find out about it. While in some senses it might seem like this is justified, there is something about this that makes me uncomfortable. I think it has to do with the quality issue. When I buy a cassette, I buy the music subject to the quality constraints of the format. I don’t feel that I am entitled to a copy of the album at a better quality just because I have paid for the music in a format that offers inferior quality (and is also cheaper).)
  6. Download MP3s of the music you already own via P2P file-sharing. (This is likely to get you in trouble with the RIAA. I would be reluctant to do anything that might attract their ire. Even if you’re guilty of nothing, simply being accused will cost you money. Also, the argument from #5 applies here – having bought a song in some format doesn’t necessarily entitle me to a free copy of the song in any format.)

There aren’t a lot of particularly attractive options in the above list. I object to re-buying things I already own. However, it is undoubtedly the most convenient option, which is why I have done it. Fortunately for me, my taste in music changed substantially toward the end of my cassette years, so much of the music I own on cassette is of little interest to me now.

What about you? Do you have a lot of music on cassette or LP? If so, what have you done about it? Do you still listen to it in its native format or have you converted it to digital? Let me know how you’ve solved this problem. Also, if you disagree with my analysis above, let me know where you stand on these issues.

7 Responses to “What to do about music on tape and LP”

  1. February 19, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    I think there would be plenty of people (not the RIAA, of course) that would argue that once you own the music, you own it and that making a copy of it in another format is fair use. That is, they’d argue #5 is a legitimate option.

    I believe there have been court case that uphold the right to buy and sell used copyrighted works. It’s referred to as First Sale Doctrine:

    (Now that I look at it, it looks like it was both a court case and a law that back that up.)

    I’m pretty sure, though, that few people would argue that you have a right to rip music and then sell the CDs.

    I’m no copyright person, though.

  2. 2 Colin
    February 19, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I think the issue of quality or fidelity comes into play in these discussions. For example, there was a time when I could have bought a CD or a tape of the same album. Tapes were cheaper at the time. If #5 is legitimate, why would I spend the extra money on a CD? I’d just buy the tape to secure ownership and then rip the album from my friend who bought it on CD. That seems problematic.

    This is an interesting issue, though. It brings up the philosophical question of what exactly you bought when you purchase music. Is it the medium or an unrestricted license to listen to the music? I think the RIAA would argue that it’s the medium. This is in line with their objection to the fair use provision that allows for people to make backup copies of CDs. They claim there is no need to make backup copies because, if your CD gets damaged, you can always re-buy it. In any case, I hope that this question is answered more unambiguously in the future.

    Thanks for pointing out the stuff on used CDs. I figured it must be legal, since there are plenty of used CD stores, but I knew that the RIAA felt that it should not be legal.

    As far as ripping and then selling, that seems obviously wrong, since you would be getting to have your cake and eat it too. I have hundreds of CDs that I keep around solely as essentially a proof of ownership for my digital files. What a pain.

  3. 3 Milkshake
    February 20, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    If what you are saying is true (and I have no reason to doubt you) that the RIAA is fighting people who buy CDs and then burn them to their computers/mp3 players then that just makes me all the more happy that I’ve downloaded for free all of my music for the last 6 years.

    While I appreciate your ethical nature I think you should decide what is and is not fair use and not let corporate america – who care nothing about ethics and only about making their share holders as much money as possible – dictate these things.

    If you bought a song – no matter the format – the record company got paid, the artist got paid (not much but still) and the producers and the store where you bought it and everybody down the line got paid. You own that song now.

    I think you should seriously consider downloading your entire non-digital catalog via P2P. Do some research and I think you will find that people who ONLY download never get sued.

  4. 4 Colin
    February 20, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    The RIAA isn’t suing people for ripping their CDs onto their computers. However, during some trials for people who were being sued, RIAA lawyers suggested that ripping a CD that you purchased was actually stealing. The RIAA has since backpedaled from that position and has said that that lawyer misspoke, but it was said.

    I agree that the record companies are only out to make lots of money. That said, the same is true for most businesses. The main difference is that the RIAA is using underhanded legal tactics to essentially bully their own customers in an effort to cling to an outdated business model. On top of that, they’re working to get Congress to pass laws protecting their business model and they’re trying to get internet service providers to filter network traffic to protect their copyrights. Trying to get so many people to protect your failing business model is just sad.

    Unfortunately for them, I really don’t see the point of record labels anymore. Almost all of the things they offered before can be obtained relatively cheaply without them. Perhaps I’ll post more on this later.

  5. 5 Colin
    February 20, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    By “only download” do you mean “not upload or make tracks available for others”? If so, then you’re right. I haven’t seen any cases of people getting in real legal trouble for only downloading.

  6. 6 Milkshake
    February 21, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Yes that’s what I mean. I never feel guilty for downloading songs. A lot of it is music that I have paid for anyway. Even for the music that is new to me – if I like it I end up going to concerts and give the artists money than they would have ever received from me had I not tried their music for free in the first place (a common argument I know). And if I don’t like it – what difference does it make – I never used to spend money on unknown music anyway. If it sits on my computer and I never listen to it what does it matter?

    I agree completely with you that it’s sad the way these record companies are bullying their customers. They just can’t overcome their history of greed. I remember reading in the 90’s that CDs cost the record companies just pennies and yet they would sell them for 15 to 21 dollars or so. And what percentage of it would go to the artist that wrote it? I love finding up and coming artists with large followings on the internet now selling their own recordings and making 7 dollars profit directly for every album they sell.

  7. 7 andy (not andyl)
    February 22, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    I’m dealing with this too – I just (finally) built myself a media server, so I ripped a lot of my music. 24G later, I’ve realized that I’ve got a ton of albums on vinyl, and that’s not including a lot of 7″s.

    I have absolutely zero problem downloading all this stuff. I’ve paid for it (sometimes more than I would have paid for a CD!), and if it readily exists in digital format, I’m going to download it. I’ve been able to find a lot of stuff this way, but there’s a lot of records that I just can’t find – I don’t have access to Waffles.fm, or any serious music tracker, and I don’t care enough to get an invite. I also am not going to (despite the fact that I can do it easily at work) rip all of those albums to digital. I’m resigned to ripping the more rare stuff, and probably a lot of 7″s, but the vast majority of it I’ll be getting from friends/the intarwebs.

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