Like millions of other Americans, I have become a foot soldier in the cassette revolution -- and a happy soldier at that, one who delights in the pleasures and conveniences that cassettes offer. But every revolution has its shortcomings as well as its benefits, and this is no exception. For one, the recording industry seems determined to treat the cassette buyer as a second-class citizen; for another, the question of pirated recordings is a long way from being resolved--and probably never will be resolved to the satisfaction of the people whose work is so casually and cavalierly stolen.
I joined the revolution rather by accident. Last fall I started working out on an exercycle, an activity so relentlessly monotonous that I requested for Christmas, and was granted, a portable tape player to help me pass the interminable cycling hours. This of course led to the purchase of a number of tapes, a collection that steadily grew until I had accumulated a nice little library of portable music. So when necessity forced us to purchase a new car a few weeks ago, we had a cassette player installed and now revel in the joys of choosing our own motoring music, not to mention hearing it without static or interference.
More often than not, though, that music must be listened to with almost no information about the artists playing it or the music itself. The recording industry appears to believe that people who buy cassettes are incurably ignorant, for few manufacturers of "pre-recorded" cassettes provide liner notes remotely as thorough as those to which record purchasers are accustomed -- even though the price of cassettes is the same as or higher than the price of records, and even though pre-recorded cassettes now account for nearly one third of total recorded music sales. The Musical Heritage Society does give its cassette customers condensed versions of its record notes, but it is an exception to the rule. Most manufacturers are content to provide, at best, the names of the musicians, a list of the selections on each side of the tape, and the playing time of each side; if you want more information than that, you have to go to the record store and copy the liner notes off a record jacket.
Unquestionably the worst offender, in my experience, is Columbia. Because of its prominence and its superb backlist, one could reasonably expect it to be the most conscientious, yet it seems to regard its cassette purchasers as functional illiterates. The other day, for example, I purchased two Columbia cassettes by the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis . Neither has any notes at all; the titles of the numbers are listed on the cassettes, but no other information is provided. None. Had I not known from reading reviews that Marsalis is the featured performer on one of these tapes, "Fathers and Sons," I'd be in total ignorance about it; Columbia hasn't bothered to list a single performer. Ditto for the second tape, except you know that Marsalis plays on it because the name of the tape is "Wynton Marsalis." On the other Columbia tapes that I possess, of musical comedies and classical music, scarcely more information is provided and on none of them is playing time given.
When the industry treats the buyer of prerecorded tapes with such blatant contempt, it's rather difficult to take very seriously its strident complaints about pirated recordings: Since the buyer doesn't get full value for his money from a prerecorded tape, why shouldn't he go ahead and record the album off the radio or a friend's copy? Additionally, if what I have read in the hi-fi press is accurate, the sound quality of prerecorded tapes is sometimes far inferior to that of records -- which is yet another reason for the owner of a tape recorder to feel guiltless about purchasing blank tapes and filling them with music or talk obtained at no additional expense.
The only trouble is that stealing, any way you look at it, is still stealing. Contrary to what many Americans appear to believe, there is no "right," whether moral or constitutional, to obtain copies of other people's work without paying for them. It's the same issue that was addressed in this space a while back when the subject of lending libraries came up, but in the case of pirated recordings there is an even more flagrant violation of the artist's right to his or her own work. At least the person who borrows a book from a library has made, through taxes and/or library fees, a miniscule payment for the labors of the person who wrote it. But the person who tapes, say, a Sviatoslav Richter performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto makes absolutely no payment for it -- none to Richter, none to any member of the accompanying orchestra or its conductor, none to the recording company. If there's a more accurate word for this than "piracy," I don't know what it is.
It's also a practice that seems to have become as American as baseball, Mom, apple pie and tax-cheating. Armed with our tape recorders and our video recorders, we have become a nation of petit larcenists, blithely swiping the work of musicians and actors, conductors and directors, composers and screenwriters. Not merely that, but we clearly regard this as a matter of right. In the continuing legal and political controversies over audio and video piracy, the villains in the popular view manifestly are the manufacturers, producers and performers who contend that purchasers of blank tapes should pay a surtax to be divided among the people whose work those tapes will be used to pirate.
All of which is very easy to become exercised about, but hellishly difficult to resolve fairly and realistically. The banning of audio and video taping would be laughably unenforceable and almost certainly unconstitutional. My hunch is that sooner or later a surtax or some other form of additional payment for blank tapes will be legislated or ordered by the courts, but whatever revenues it produces will probably be insignificant compared to those lost by performers and record manufacturers as a consequence of taping. It would be nice to think that people would stop doing it for the simple reason that it is morally indefensible, but to hold that hope requires a considerably more elevated view of human nature than history can support.