WHEN WE WERE MILLIONAIRES
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


 

When I was 18 years old I moved to Montreal and set up a music file-server. I was there for university, the internet was fast, I didn't even know yet what I liked. How free that felt - not to even know yet what I liked. I knew I knew very little; I knew there was still so much to hear. The purpose of the server wasn't just to share the little music I had already discovered - artists like Sloan, Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel - but for visitors to share their own favourite music, so I could learn what else was out there.

Belle and Sebastian - "The Stars of Track and Field".
Dave Matthews Band - "Lie In Our Graves".

My server was called "Into the Grove." I called it that because I liked the image it evoked - entering a hiding-place, ducking under boughs. I had never heard of the Madonna song. I was 18 years old, I didn't even know yet what I liked. After logging in, users could see all the music on my computer: everything I had bought and ripped myself, everything other people had uploaded. Instead of Napster or KaZaA I used a service called Hotline, which allowed users to upload and download complete albums. There was 69 Love Songs and Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' Live at Luther College and Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations. Dozens - and eventually hundreds - of records, which you could download yourself, unlimitedly, as long as you were a member.

How did you become a member? You had to upload an album I'd like. Something that wasn't yet in my collection - plucked from your own CD shelves or hard disk. I remember the server had a document laying out some of my favourite things, as loose inspiration. LIKES: The Beatles, Mogwai, Ben Folds Five, Beck; DISLIKES: Led Zeppelin, Limp Bizkit, Dr Dre, The Deftones. I hadn't yet wrapped my head around pop music, or hip-hop, or country, or dance - then again Into the Grove was how I started to do that. A user who saw I liked Odelay uploaded OutKast's ATLiens; someone answering my call for stuff that sounded like Smog gave me my first taste of Gillian Welch. I had lists of requests based on things I had heard of (but usually not heard). Without enough life-experience, without context, I didn't know what was obscure and what wasn't - whether Elliott Smith was more famous than Björk, or Björk than Clem Snide. I didn't know that my first Joy Division album wasn't supposed to be Les Bains Douches. I didn't know that no one else was crazy for the Hungarian fiddler Félix Lajkó. People uploaded treasures, their own private treasures, and everything sounded new to me, a thousand revelations - as if the ground was covered in gemstones, more than I'd ever pick up.

Lajkó Félix - "Etno Camp".
King Geedorah - "Fazers".

Into the Grove ran off a graphite-coloured iMac G3 in my dorm room. The computer would slow to a crawl when there were too many users connected, so I'd shut it down when I was on deadline - pulling an all-nighter for "The Social Imaginary of Tokugawa Japan." I didn't think of it as stealing music, even though it was. I was still buying new CDs several times a month. There was too much music to imagine paying for it all.

It wasn't long before I had filled the iMac's whole drive with songs. Since external hard-drives were too expensive, I bought a CD burner. Now I could back up albums to blank CDs, re-importing the music as I needed it. Each 650 MB CD could hold eight to ten albums: soon I had five, then ten, then 20 of these supplementary CD-Rs, carefully catalogued, stuffed with Radiohead B-sides, the Uncle Tupelo back-catalogue and Belle & Sebastian EPs. As the server became more popular, I started to go through more and more of these discs; paying $3 or $4 a pop began to take a toll, and eventually one of the Into the Grove regulars offered to meet me at a métro station and drive me to Kahnawake - where blank CDs, tax-free, sold for less than a dollar each.

Joy Division - "Disorder" (live at les Bains Douches).
Cat Power - "The Leopard and the Lamb (White Session)".

I said yes. One Sunday I took the subway to a stop I'd never been to before. The guy was waiting in a little Honda, the interior littered with kids' toys and Pepsi cans. I never learned his name but I can't even remember his username any more - Pedro or something like that. I don't know if he was an immigrant or Indigenous or Québecois; I didn't even ask him about his kids. Our real lives seemed taboo, like events we had witnessed in a war. Pedro (?) wasn't the first person I had met from the internet but he was the first peson I had met from Into the Grove - someone linked to me not by lengthy correspondence or hours of conversation but simply by shared interest, mutual obsession, a passion for diverse recordings and their accumulation. On the long drive to the reservation we talked about the Foo Fighters and Radiohead, HMV and Cheap Thrills, and Sam the Record Man's going-out-of-business sale. We passed signs for beer, fireworks and tax-free cigarettes. No thank-you, I thought to myself. We're here for blank storage media.

That media? We bought it. Entire spindles of CD-Rs, discount spoils - room for many months' worth of music. Or at least it should have been, but by then I was greedy. Albums arrived online every day and I was gobbling through them, discovering new artists by the hour. Looking back, I know I must have become less discriminating - but it would have been difficult to separate my appetite from my curiosity. My taste was expanding at the same rate as my hoard - gigabyte by gigabyte, discography by discography - as if each new upload was an invitation, or a dare.

Can you like this? What about this?

Let's be clear: none of this story is special. I'm telling the tale of Into the Grove not to hoot about taste but to commemorate a place that gave me an education. I didn't have a local record-store guy or world-wise older sister. I was just a teenage music pirate.

At the turn of the millennium, the internet seemed full of heartfelt pitches. Millions of users singing the praises of their favourite things - crowding around them, talking about them, calling for others to recognize their charms. Not the sturm und drang of social media: just clear-throated whoops, and echoes. Strangers like Pedro logging on to share their passions, not just once but every week, long after they had earned their Into the Grove membership rights, as if they couldn't help themselves.

Carlo Spidla - "Blackfly Rag".

I didn't appreciate them at the time. At the time, I thought the music mattered most (the quantity of stock-piled files; all those precious, catalogued mbs). It did not. Where are those CD-Rs now? (They're in an Edinburgh landfill.) The part of Hotline that lasted longest is the other people. Without them, in some alternate universe, 18-year-old Sean Michaels went on listening to Sloan and Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel. He went on listening to those, and their corollaries, whatever sounded similar-enough or congenial.

I didn't even know yet what I liked. But here's the thing: I still don't. None of us do. We'll keep changing til we're gone. Til we're cold in the ground. We can learn pleasures, discover - we can like what we don't.

That's the wonder of living, of not being dead.

By now I know: there aren't many better feelings than sharing something beautiful with someone else. I don't mean the crummy kind of sharing - a fleeting power dynamic, teacher/student - but the kind of sharing that reminds you of the ways you love something, the ways it touches you and makes you vulnerable. Sharing something precious is like holding up a mirror. And there's something radical to it too, I think. This gesture's at the heart of romantic love, and parts of parenthood, and maybe even of our responsibilities as human beings. By sharing what we've found, we can all be richer.

Alina Bzhezhinska - "Journey in Satchidananda".
The Blue Nile - "I Love This Life".

True sharing takes generosity. It has to mean something. It requires intention, and the sense that the thing you're offering has value. An algorithm can't be generous, just as a coin-flip can't be kind. My old file-server was a refuge, and also a kind of theft. But I understood the value of what I had. All those thousands of splendours. I thought I was a millionaire.

Posted by Sean at January 30, 2019 11:40 PM
Comments

This is everything. Thank you Sean.

Posted by Justin at January 31, 2019 5:25 AM

What a wonderful moment. Thank you

Posted by Anthony V. at January 31, 2019 1:44 PM

Thank you for this.

"An algorithm can't be generous"

A few years ago a good friend's husband was staying with us having travelled from England to attend a childhood friend's funeral. All this to say it was a sombre time with someone we knew, but not well.

One night we started talking about music. Then we started pulling songs out of our phones to play for each other. It was an hours long rambling journey of remembrance and discovery. It cemented a friendship.

Spotify and it's ilk can never do that for me.
It's the connecting that matters.

Posted by asta at February 1, 2019 8:06 AM

I very much was also an 18-year-old Sean. Except I was a 15-year-old Laura. Loved this.

Posted by Laura at February 1, 2019 8:22 AM

I love knowing this. So much of the music I love came from following this blog, and now I know I have Into the Grove, a random guy named Pedro and an iMac G3 to thank somewhere along the path. Thank you Sean for the beautiful writing, as always.

Posted by Karin S at February 2, 2019 4:36 PM

i had the benefits of a pirate for an older brother. thank you for sharing your treasure and not burying it.

Posted by ru at February 3, 2019 1:25 AM

Those last two paragraphs, wow. Thank you, Sean. Really appreciate this.

Posted by Brayden at February 4, 2019 2:39 PM

Love all this. Thank you, Sean! Your top 100 has been keeping me company recently. Lots of beauty in there.

I recently had a friend play me Charlie XCX's Stay Away and Nuclear Seasons. They're early songs for her, but maybe you'll like them. Perfect little pop gems. Great hooks.

Have a nice day!

Posted by Cole at February 4, 2019 4:17 PM

You're the best, Sean.

Posted by Ian Linkletter at February 5, 2019 10:30 PM

This is lovely, Sean.

Posted by Jordan at February 6, 2019 2:00 PM

Sean, this is from a now older white man from south of Canada. Born mid 20th century, and now dedicated to NOT hearing classic rock, but to finding new good sounds to enjoy. I grew up with AM radio always on in the house, with my parents’ station playing ‘adult pop’, big band, and novelty music. My Irish grandfather started me listening to an old shortwave tube radio, which led me to music from around the world. The radio-rich local AM radio options were pop, r&b, C&W, and big band. Mid to late 1960s, FM radio started playing LPs in stereo, and I found jazz, and classical, and folk. I listened to everything, but fell most comfortably into folk and emerging non-pop rock. [Note: all of this was far before computers and internet—radio was one-way exposure, if you looked and listened.] Then I was old enough to start sneaking into live concerts- Jim Kweskin, Big Brother, Yes, Joni Mitchell, Newport Festival, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Incredible String Band, Dead, Dylan, and breaking the fence down at Woodstock. Employment got me deeper into classical: orchestral, chamber, and contemporary classical…. There were also performances by Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth, New Music America, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Glenn Bracha, Fred Frith…all live, all there in front of my ears. After all that , computers and the internet joined my life , and within a few years I found this site, “STG”, very early, and I never left, especially after you introduced me to Arcade Fire, which I heard in their second US concert, with Hidden Cameras opening for them, and with my high school daughter tugging at my sleeve “Dad, we’ve got to go – it’s a school night…” Thanks for your ears, your generosity, this post, and for creating this site, and for resuscitating it. Thanks.

Posted by J at February 7, 2019 7:27 PM

Thank you Sean for all these years of music and beautiful writing. You've been an inspiration for me.

Posted by Pedram at February 9, 2019 12:03 PM

By the way, the essay format of the blog is a cool next step. Keep it up!

Posted by Pedram at February 9, 2019 5:47 PM

Reading this felt so close to my turn-of-the-millennium pirating days. Thanks Sean.

Posted by Brendan at February 9, 2019 8:21 PM

Wonderful. Sharing this post with folks who have generously held up mirrors to and with me over the years.

Posted by Philana at February 10, 2019 2:35 AM

Thank you, again, for candling the hearts of strangers

Posted by Andy at February 11, 2019 8:57 AM

Thank you Sean! Been listening, reading and loving for a long time. What a beautiful post! I have never felt so comfortable about the music I love and share, than after reading this

Posted by Tyler at February 12, 2019 12:57 AM

Another appreciative older white man here sending thanks from (not too far) south of the northern border. (I got to Woodstock after J already had knocked the fences down.) It's inevitable that from time to time we get stuck listening to music from when we were 14-21, but this site helps keep me from overdoing that.

Posted by RPS at February 12, 2019 3:20 AM

Sean,

I remember when you posted that Carlo Spidla song long ago here. I still listen to it to this day, and love the track in part because it reminds me of the "old days" of music pirating you speak to so eloquently here. Thank you so, so much for continuing to post and share here.

Posted by travis at February 16, 2019 12:39 PM

missed you. very glad things are well with you all.

Posted by lynn at March 11, 2019 5:42 PM

Said the gramophone will always be my favorite blog. Thanks for sharing this piece and so many great tunes over the years.

Posted by Ian at April 18, 2019 2:01 PM

Love this. Bless you.

Posted by eB at April 27, 2019 5:26 PM

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about said the gramophone
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"And I shall watch the ferry-boats / and they'll get high on a bluer ocean / against tomorrow's sky / and I will never grow so old again."
about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

Emma Healey writes poems and essays in Toronto. She joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. This is her website and email her here.

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Site design and header typography by Neale McDavitt-Van Fleet. The header graphic is randomized: this one is by Neale McDavitt-Van Fleet.
PAST AUTHORS
Dan Beirne wrote regularly for Said the Gramophone from August 2004 to December 2014. He is an actor and writer living in Toronto. Any claim he makes about his life on here is probably untrue. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.

Jordan Himelfarb wrote for Said the Gramophone from November 2004 to March 2012. He lives in Toronto. He is an opinion editor at the Toronto Star. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.
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