After The Cloudburst: A Songcatcher’s Dream


A fable by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers

Once upon a time, information was digital and everything was accessed through storage clouds. Hard drives were an afterthought in modern households, as the convenience of the cloudwerks overshadowed any sense of dependence, privacy or dislocation of personal property.

Then one day the cloudwerks burst—that is, for some reason, the public and private (but not government) storage providers all crashed at the same time, and modern life was disrupted beyond any electronic inconvenience ever experienced.

Chaos reigned for a brief time, but storage providers had backups in place almost immediately. Most consumers found their digital holdings restored within days and life went on. Of course this included lawsuits filed by countless institutions and individuals claiming duress, lost time, and undermined commerce.

There was another, more insidious consequence after the cloudburst. Dark corporate powers had taken advantage of the worldwide reboot and monetized every bit of music on the web. No free streaming, no videos, no unsubscribed radio, no unauthorized file sharing, nothing. There would be no entertainment online without payment, and all cloud-coded music services would be automatically Debited On Delivery.

The new policies minimized piracy and maximized profits. Everything was still available on the web, but it was all parceled out as incremental cloud commerce, and all cloud commerce was monitored through the Motherboard—the Master Music Corporate Motherboard—also known as the MMCM.

Reassembling personal music collections and restoring them to cloud status had been controversial. Proof of purchase and file origins were required, and since the MMCM mandated consumers provide past proof of purchase, it ultimately delegitimized 57 percent of all the music files that had been kept on the cloudwerks.

Ironically, replacing personal audio archives wasn’t a problem for most folks. Those consumers had clear purchase histories with registered file vendors and were grandfathered back into place with nearly all of their licensed sounds intact.

The people who gathered massive amounts of music from unauthorized sources were the ones experiencing file restoration problems. Some were outraged, others crestfallen as immense song collections—often irreplaceable—were delegitimized and denied reimbursement value by those jerks at the cloudwerks.

The cloudburst had certainly bummed out young Adam Coil, and he was just a casual music listener with very little purchase history. Mostly checking out songs on his phone, he’d only downloaded a few favorites and some playlists from friends. Like most other people, Adam listened to music online without ever paying a dime.

He didn’t like the new “track and debit” billing system. While user fees were variable and it was cheap to pay-per-play or subscribe to a service, Adam never really imagined spending money on music.

Unfortunately, Adam found his entertainment alternatives to be quite limiting. Terrestrial radio was virtually all talk and bad news, and network television was mostly nonsense. Not surprisingly, he became self-conscious around his friends and was feeling culturally hindered.

Then one weekend, bored while visiting his grandmother, Adam discovered a vintage laptop in her storage room. The computer had both a hard drive and a disc drive, and Adam noted the laptop’s memory was totally unused—no games, movies, podcasts or TV shows, and no music.

For kicks Adam decided to copy the old CDs that his grandmother still kept her closet. Of course, he needed to stay away from all online music services to avoid automatic debits and resale charges when downloading another person’s discs, so Adam disabled the internet connection in effort to evade the fiscal grasp of the MMCM.

That afternoon he downloaded the CDs, all 28 of them. It was a light smattering of 20th century music; mostly pop stuff like the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elton John, Abba’s greatest hits, a Time/Life collection of Jerry Lee Lewis and Cat Stevens’ Teaser And The Firecat.

Since he was afraid to just grab the information off the internet, Adam had to enter all of the data manually. He carefully archived the names of artists, discs and song titles. This required reading the little CD booklets for information—tedious work that took him more than four hours.

For some reason, Cat Stevens’ Teaser And The Firecat intrigued him—tickling a faint memory that Adam couldn’t place. Wasn’t it also a children’s book or an animated film? Impulsively, Adam went online to check the album’s history. He tried avoiding all of the commercial websites, but there was a brief moment of music sales crossover so Adam got offline again.

It was no problem convincing his grandmother to let him keep the unused laptop. Adam took it home and decided that it would be fun to download some more CDs—thus began his quest.

Adam began showing up at other people’s homes, laptop in tow, eager to raid their digital cupboards. It was always just a friendly visit—but did they have any old music that he could perhaps download? Adam soon deduced that it was usually the elderly folks that still had audio recordings in the outdated CD format.

In order to further his goal, Adam was compelled to develop a set of social graces that included patience, manners and consideration. No more simple “yes,” “no” or “fine” answers to inquisitive adults. He learned to make actual conversation and pay attention to his hosts while downloading their CD collections.

Talking to older people was something he’d rarely done, and at first it was a real challenge. Adam also began bringing food and other small offerings and was generally becoming far more thoughtful. Some days he got stuck doing chores for the old folks, leaving little chance to actually download anything at all.

It was slow going, but in spite of all the detours, dead ends and delays, Adam was making steady progress copying the CDs of relatives, friends, and geriatric neighbors grateful for a visit of any kind.

Adam was usually too busy entertaining his hosts to input any of the CD notes during his visits. Later on, he’d try to find the information, vigilantly avoiding websites that might register his music queries or browsing habits.

Adam must have visited 20 homes all across the city, and he had downloaded more than 900 CDs, which totaled about 10,000 songs. One particular retiree turned out to be a goldmine. The guy traveled a lot, but he let Adam go to his home and download stuff when he was gone. There were more than 500 discs at his place, and Adam spent two weeks copying the entire collection after school.

Predictably, the CDs he downloaded all contained older music. Adam was still missing out on the current sounds that he once enjoyed for free but now he didn’t seem to mind—his growing music library included all sorts of interesting artists, most of whom he’d never even heard of before.

Adam had the basic information about his music collection, but actually learned much more from the old folks’ recollections. He would always listen to their stories about the concerts, their favorite artists, and which songs or albums were important to them at the time and why.

Adam even thought about creating a dummy account online so he could do more research, but there was always news about people caught with unauthorized downloads paying major fines. Although he yearned for easy access to album artwork and detailed artist histories, it was just too risky to search online very much.

Then Adam’s father sat him down to talk about the dangers of downloading. His dad said that he’d better be ready if a music debit arrived, and as parents they weren’t asking him to stop, but they weren’t going to support his habit either. Adam was 17 and had to take full financial responsibility—and be more careful.

His dad was right, in lieu of the current policing of copyright, publishing and performance royalties and the rooting out of all unauthorized music, the threat of being retro-debited by the MMCM for surreptitious downloading was quite real.

It was a little more surprising when his father also told him that they were sending him away from the city for the summer to go upstate and stay with his great-uncle Edward in a little village called Strawberry Valley. Adam would be leaving in two weeks at the end of the school year—a new beginning of sorts.

Strawberry Valley had around 1,500 citizens with 500 homes and 300 families. When the day came, Adam had to wake up at dawn and take a six-hour bus ride to get there. Uncle Ed was waiting to meet him, smiling and waving his hat as Adam stepped off the bus.

They stuffed his bags into Ed’s creaky sedan and toured the perimeter of the township before heading home. Uncle Ed pointed out the community square, two opposing hamlets bordered by mountain elevations, and Strawberry Valley Creek. That was it.

There was plenty of space at the house and Adam was relieved to see the accommodations. His room had a wooden desk and a pastoral view. Adam fretted over the poor reception on his phone but forgot all about it when Uncle Ed showed him the den. The walls were all shelves and loaded with hundreds of books and about 1,000 CDs.

His uncle already knew all about Adam’s pursuit and said it would be OK for him to download the CD collection, which was mostly old folk and blues stuff. The only strict rule for the summer was that Adam had to be out of the house for at least six hours during the day while Ed worked on his writing. Adam couldn’t take the car, but there was an old bicycle out back that he was free to use.

Adam was intimidated by the music library confronting him and hardly knew where to begin. That night during dinner, Uncle Ed gave Adam a history lesson to help put things in perspective and perhaps provide the youngster with some needed direction.

Ed told Adam that in the early 1900s, a woman named Olive Dame Campbell went through parts of Appalachia to discover, uncover, recover and preserve folk music indigenous to the region, which had been passed down in the oral tradition and had roots leading back to the arcane folk balladry of the British Isles.

The songs were in danger of being lost and forgotten as mountain elders died off, leaving their oral traditions broken and unspoken. Campbell transcribed the lyrics to many of these folk songs from Kentucky and Tennessee, and in 1917, she published the influential book English Folk Songs From Southern Appalachia.

According to Ed, prescient songcatchers like Campbell made vital contributions to society using their refined sense of history, responsibility and music appreciation. Ed also espoused the higher purpose of repositories like the Smithsonian Institute and the Library Of Congress, and how saving a single piece of sheet music could be an act of cultural heroism.

He spoke of the Lomax family, an insightful brood of folklorists who helped shape our understanding of established music forms through transcription as well as recording, interviewing and filming traditional artists throughout the country and the world. John Lomax’s early contributions included the 1910 anthology Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads and overseeing the Library Of Congress’ Archive Of American Folk Music.

The Lomax tradition of documentation often involved lugging unwieldy sound equipment into far-flung environments, as John Lomax and son Alan initiated the seminal field recordings of musicians like Lead Belly (in Louisiana State Penitentiary), Muddy Waters (on Stovall’s Mississippi plantation), Jelly Roll Morton, Memphis Slim, Doc Watson, Fred McDowell and many others.

Ed described the archival nature of Harry Smith, a different kind of songcatcher. Smith was an oddball record collector who scrounged up old discarded 78s, buying thousands of discs during WWII before the records could be melted down for shellac and the final traces of their cultural relevance wiped out. Preserving a range of folk, gospel, country and race music, Smith compiled a select number of recordings (made between 1927 and 1932) into a truly epic sound collection, the Anthology Of American Folk Music.

Ed also recalled generations of digital scavengers. This included the early trials of Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and other peer-to-peer forums resulting in legal verdicts on file sharing with some individuals paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Fights over distribution and ownership had tied up the courts for decades, retroactive charges on downloaded songs were now a reality, and new subsidiary re-use/resale taxes could be a huge liability.

Perhaps, Ed mused, there was still a good reason for Adam to do what he was doing, maybe even a responsibility. The Library of Congress had been available at no cost until the government took away their arts funding. The Smithsonian had marketed Folkways Records as a non-profit enterprise. Why not craft an underground archive and just see what develops? To that end, Ed decided that he was going to have a dinner party for his friends to meet young Adam—they could be helpful.

The dinner party consisted of Adam, Ed and three of his Strawberry Valley cohorts—septuagenarians all—Gavin Hale, Seth Cody and Andrea Realer. Gavin was more playful than Ed while Seth was stone serious, and all three men seemed solicitous of Andrea Realer’s attention and approval. Everybody was whip-smart and cultured. Adam wondered how and why they ended up living in Strawberry Valley.

Not coincidently, Ed’s friends all had CDs and plenty of them. Andrea wore her long grey hair pulled back tightly into a bun. She had a big collection of women’s music and recordings associated with the Black Power movement of the 20th Century. Adam had never even thought about feminism or Black Power, but was intrigued by the diverse social tapestry that Andrea described.

The two old gents had their specialties as well. Bald and bespectacled, Gavin Hale was a dedicated jazzman, but only interested in recordings up to 1970 and strictly opposed to the advent of electricity in jazz. That said, his knowledge of artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong was worthy of great respect and due consideration.

The palsied, diminutive Seth Cody had the wildest, most eclectic taste of the bunch. Psychedelic rock, electronic dance beats, modern classical and world music all came up in his solemn stream-of-consciousness discourse, which was understood by his compatriots as a narrow sampling of his vast, encyclopedic range.

Much wine was consumed, topics old and new heartily discussed, and the party was a revelation for Adam, who barely spoke. Seth, Gavin and Andrea each invited him to visit and download their respective CD collections. He would need to organize his time in Strawberry Valley to take full advantage of the opportunities.

Within a week of his arrival Adam had established a route and schedule that took up the bulk of his day. Every morning, he’d check his laptop before disabling it and placing it in his backpack. After breakfast with Uncle Ed he’d be out the door, biking from north to south and back again—visiting Seth’s house in the morning, Gavin during the afternoon, and then over to Andrea’s place before pedaling home to dinner.

Most days Adam hardly touched his phone, and immersed himself in a much deeper socialization. He really liked the gentle, small-town rhythm of his new summer project. One nice thing was that Adam actually got to listen to music on real stereo systems. Seth Cody had an impressive old rig with great speakers, but it was his unique music collection that really made the difference to Adam.

Old Seth was frail and didn’t always feel like talking, but Adam took advantage of his morning silences by examining the many books on art and culture that littered Seth’s home. It was a new sensation. Between the steady downloading and serious reading at Seth’s place Adam’s thinking began to evolve.

Seth haltingly told Adam to be like Harry Smith and “save everything.” Don’t decide what’s relevant now, just respect the recording, and honor it for the future. If someone bothered to make a record there might be something worthwhile. Consider it all later on—just trust the process and time will show the wiser.

The afternoons with Gavin Hale were equally cerebral, and more intense interpersonally. Gavin spoke with professorial ease, sharing many great stories and outlining the social, intertwining contexts of race and jazz. Adam was unfamiliar with most jazz artists, but he simply started downloading at one end of the huge CD collection with hopes of finishing up before summer’s end.

Adam’s daily bike route was also rigorous. Uncle Ed lived in Pepper Patch at the foot of Bose Mountain, so pedaling south to see Seth on County Road 80 in Middle Valley and then back through Strawberry Valley near the creek to Gavin’s house was no small trip. By the time Adam rode north past Mount Sovereign up to Andrea’s tiny bungalow, he was usually pretty tired out.

One day, Adam smoked some of Seth’s medical marijuana and sat directly in front of the stereo speakers listening to the Hawkwind CD In Search Of Space. When he got over to Gavin’s house and told him about his impactful morning, Gavin said that hearing music properly was all about time and place—set and setting—powerful variables that couldn’t always be controlled.

When he visited Andrea later that day all he could do was eat everything that she put in front of him and fall asleep on her couch. Strawberry Valley began to suit Adam, and his days were always full. It was almost like living in another era. He was biking everywhere and getting in shape both physically and mentally.

His evenings were quiet, ordered and satisfying. Adam usually downloaded Ed’s CDs and researched details to complete his archive. The two had a lot of great talks about the early 21st century, and Adam was reading a lot. Adam figured that if he stuck to his new schedule of daily downloading that he’d have around 50,000 tracks before heading home in the fall.

While he was enjoying Strawberry Valley, Adam wasn’t hanging out with anyone his own age. He’d backed off from texting and wasn’t online much at all. Mostly off the internet, Adam was compelled to look at life through a different filter. Still, he was feeling pressure to achieve the 50,000-song threshold and really tired of typing in all of the information that went with it.

Adam was archiving so much that he began to show signs of carpal tunnel syndrome from working on his computer. Adam never imagined that he’d start breaking down physically and felt a growing need to find a safe online shortcut to make his task easier.

His visits to Andrea’s bungalow were especially warm and comforting. She was compassionate, lectured less than Gavin or Ed, and asked a lot about his life back in the city. She always seemed to have baked goods coming out of the oven upon Adam’s arrival and besides having an obvious maternal side, she was very funny. The two laughed a lot whenever they were together.

Summer was ending and Adam had a week left in Strawberry Valley. He planned to head home before Labor Day and was pushing hard to wrap things up with Ed, Seth, Gavin and Andrea—all on schedule to hit 50,000 tracks. Tuesday afternoon he was copying the complete works of Gil Scott-Heron from Andrea’s collection when he noticed that she was acting a little strange.

She kept looking at him and clearly had something on her mind but wasn’t saying anything. Adam wondered if there was a problem with all the downloading. After a disjointed discussion about his impending return trip home, Andrea invited him to goodbye dinner on Friday and suggested they watch a movie or two together.

Since he was charting his final farewells in Strawberry Valley Adam readily accepted the invitation but was curious about the movies Andrea wanted to watch. She asked if he’d ever seen Summer Of ’42 or Harold & Maude. Adam admitted that he hadn’t heard of either film. Andrea said she owned both on DVD and thought that he might enjoy them.

When Adam got back to Ed’s place he was still confused about Andrea’s demeanor. She had behaved oddly and even looked different, wearing her long grey hair straight down instead of tied up in a bun. Adam also wanted to know more about the two movies that she’d mentioned.

Without much thought, Adam opened his laptop and did a search on both movie titles. He began to understand as he read about Summer Of ’42—a coming of age story with a sexual component between a young man and an older woman—but by the time he finished the synopsis of Harold & Maude his ears were flaming with embarrassment. Could Andrea have been hitting on him?

Adam sat staring at the computer screen. Flooded with confused emotions, he finally remembered to get offline and tried to get some sleep. He wondered if he should cancel the dinner with Andrea and maybe leave town before the weekend instead of waiting until Monday to go home.

He didn’t have much time to think about Andrea’s invitation because the next morning there were a couple of flagged email messages waiting for Adam. They were both from the MMCM.

The first message stated that according to his recent browsing history he was interested in two movies from 1971, Summer Of ’42 and Harold & Maude. The MMCM asked if he was interested in viewing or purchasing either film—or both together at 10 percent off of their regular asking price.

The second MMCM email added insult to injury. The message was a “Recommended If You Like.” The RIYL said that if he enjoyed Summer Of ’42 and Harold & Maude, he might also be interested in the movie The Graduate or perhaps the Simon & Garfunkel movie soundtrack.

It hit Adam hard that the MMCM was tracking his interests. He never even questioned how they found him—he had more pressing concerns. Realizing just how vulnerable he actually was, Adam decided to stay home instead of following his daily routine. In a prolonged bout of paranoia, he began checking his computer obsessively, getting online and then off again as quickly as possible all day long.

As he feared, more messages started coming in from the MMCM. They said that according to Adam’s browsing history he was interested in the Cat Stevens album Teaser And The Firecat and the movie Harold & Maude, featuring a soundtrack by Cat Stevens. Did he want to buy or stream Teaser And The Firecat or the soundtrack to Harold & Maude?

Adam barely read the email about Summer Of ’42 and other discounted film scores by Michel Legrand—he was freaking out about the Teaser And The Firecat. That evening, he got another query asking if he was interested in streaming Cat Stevens Radio or purchasing the entire Cat Stevens music library.

Adam dreaded each new message, and by Thursday his worst fears were realized. He had stayed home again, and the next MMCM communiqué highlighted the fact that other people in Strawberry Valley who shared his viewing interests were watching the movies Zachariah, Zabriskie Point, THX 1138 and Logan’s Run. In no uncertain terms, the authorities knew where Adam was at and what he was up to.

Then came another MMCM missive, this one a formal sales questionnaire. In order to better service him as a customer, they were interested in his exact status regarding Cat Stevens and whether he did or did not already own Teaser And The Firecat. According to the terms and conditions of this questionnaire, Adam had 72 hours to respond under penalty of law.

It didn’t take long for Adam to do the math. He knew that if the MMCM found out about the 50,000 unauthorized tracks he’d downloaded onto his laptop and charged him the standard $10 per song re-use/resale charge, he’d owe them about $500,000—a half-million bucks!

There was no easy way to avoid a retro-debit. Possession was nine-10ths of the law, and even dead people had been subpoenaed for illegal downloads of late. Once these types of communications started coming in from the MMCM there were very few options.

Adam was beside himself with anxiety. After hours of suffering silently, he finally told his Uncle Ed, who was surprisingly casual about Adam’s dilemma. Ed said that the retroactive debit was an unconstitutional imposition and there were class action lawsuits against the MMCM that he could join up with if he wanted.

Ed suggested that sometimes fighting for something was more important than the consequences. Perhaps it was just constructive to stand up and be counted. There might be value in being a rebel, or even a martyr like Joel Tenenbaum who was charged $675,000 in statutory damages back in 2009 after losing his defense against Sony BMG for the file sharing of 30 songs.

Uncle Ed concluded that Adam should either fight the heavy fine or smash the laptop and be done with it. Ed said it was really Adam’s experience that mattered and no one could ever take that away from him.

Those were the options Adam saw, too: either go through the legal process of accruing huge debits with the MMCM or simply destroy the evidence before he took the bus home—forsaking his grand digital archive and all the hard work that had gone into it.

Adam agonized over his potential retro-debits and hardly slept on Thursday night. But by Friday, he had somehow pulled himself together. He decided to go ahead and have his dinner with Andrea and watch those old movies. Adam was also quite sure that he’d know what to do the morning after.

—Mitch Myers