Editor’s Note: This is part two of a five-part interview with Scott Wickberg, the first individual to be targeted by the RIAA for copyright infringement for sharing MP3s online. Scott’s story started with an early interest in music, which unfortunately progressed into the events that Scott discusses with Beyond Clause 8 in this interview. Today, Scott operates the vinyl tracking website SlyVinyl and digital marketing firm Wick Creative.
Click here to return to part one.
To listen to the audio for this part of the interview, click here.
Beyond Clause 8: So you said your friends started idolizing you as the cool kid and you were all set up with the multiple CD burners and all these computers, did you become the go-to man to be able to share the music that no one else could get? Or was it hard to get everything that you were able to get your hands on through these websites?
Scott Wickberg: Yeah, it definitely evolved into that, and I don’t think it’s stopped since then. Even after things went down, I still have been that guy—like, I would make monthly mixtapes of the best songs, and I’d drop those to my friends via MP3. Now I do that via sly vinyl; I make a monthly playlist every month on our Spotify account, and it just kind of turned that way because I had access to quite a bit of resources very quickly. I loved music, so naturally you get the question of ‘hey I need a new album, what should I listen to?’ and you’re just like, ‘um…this one?’ and people say ‘man, this was great!’ then more people start asking you ‘what should I listen to?’ And in some way, when there’s not a whole lot of people out there who have that kind of access to music and listen to it as nonstop as I do, it wasn’t like there were a whole bunch of other people to ask. Now, everyone in the world has an opinion about music and has access to all of it, but back then that wasn’t really the case. So, I was somewhat in a way a gatekeeper of music. I mean, everyone could still go buy CDs, but what were you going to do, go to Hastings (laughs) and sit at the listening booth for four hours while you ask the guy who wants you to leave to open another CD for you? (Laughs) It did kind of evolve that way and it hasn’t really stopped.
BC8: You said it continued evolving, you being the music arbiter of your friends’ worlds and sharing all this music that you were getting with them. Based on my understanding, you ended up setting up an FTP server so you could presumably share the music, your recommendations, everything you’d found with your friends. When did this start coming about? How’d you get that idea?
SW: I started getting a lot of the music, or at least I was initially really interested in the music that couldn’t be bought, right? Maybe it’s because I started with that Metallic track that I couldn’t buy anywhere. I loved the album, and here I had a studio, essentially a soundboard copy of “Ride the Lightning” with an epic five minute solo that was better than the album version. I don’t know if it was that song or what, but I started to collect a lot of live music. The main thing I started really collecting was the acoustic studio sessions, so you get like all the demos that are now dropping of [artists] like Bob Dylan. When you know he’s got these home tapes where he records the “Blood on the Tracks” in his home—it’s like acoustic home demos. My opinion, and I think in a lot of peoples’ opinion, that just raw sound sometimes is better than what ends up coming out of the studio when some record exec says it has to be pop-y so it gets on the radio. There’s stuff like that, and Ryan Adams, I was a really big fan of Ryan Adams, and he was just doing heartbreaker albums and he was putting out . . . Well, I don’t know if he was putting out, but his studio sessions were leaking out, and it would just be him and a couple of his buddies in the
studio pounding out some tracks. I started really collecting a lot of those, and I don’t really know how it came about, but I very quickly amassed the largest collection of acoustic studio sessions on the Internet at that time, so my FTP quickly became kind of like the hub. Oddly enough, very similar to the way that SlyVinyl has kind of evolved, I just started with one passion and then found that people across the world shared it.
Now I don’t feel like that’s as crazy whereas at that time, to have dudes emailing me from Stockholm and saying ‘hey, I saw you had these Bob Dylan sessions, I’ve been looking for those for years! Is there any way you could send those my way?’ (Laughs) I’m sitting there as a 17 year old dude in my parents’ house in my bedroom chatting back and forth with these music collectors in other countries and trading these songs. So, what my site ended up being was I kept getting emails and I’d email other guys, and then I just decided to do essentially a GUI front end of an FTP server, so it was all ‘http-able’ and you could browse through and download anything, but you could browse through it all.
It was never an open FTP kind of thing. It was never a “hey come over here and download all you want.” It was a club of sorts. I had a list on there of acoustic releases I was looking for and you had to send me—I had an open send—and you had to send me at least one of those, and, if you did, then you got in. So, it became a community where people could upload and share music back and forth, and it was all of the non-purchasable variety. I had, obviously, other albums; you know, albums I had bought that I would rip into MP3 and keep for my purposes, and yeah, for sure I downloaded and bootlegged albums that I wanted to have off the Internet. But, the FTP and the majority of the songs that I had at that time were locked up in this kind of acoustic studio session archive that I created.
BC8: So what motivated you to charge this “entry fee”? Having this list of music you were looking for . . . What sparked it? Was it just you trying to expand your collection and get people to share music that they had?
SW: It was more just that. That’s the way it always was. When you went to any music trading site, that’s just how it worked. You would say, “Hey! I got this cool thing.” And they’d be like, “Cool. I’ve got this cool thing. You send me that. I’ll send you this one.” So it was just kind of the way people traded music at the time. You found someone who had stuff you like, and you had stuff they like, and you send them some CDs, and they’d send you some CDs. So it was more just taking the common way of doing music and just putting it into a digital format. I don’t think there was much thought to it—other than there’s obviously not going to be enough bandwidth to go around. And if there’s millions of people on here, then no one gets anything. And so I just said, “Trade music with people who trade music with me.” I don’t know. [There] wasn’t much thought really to it. It’s just kinda the way you traded music, and I just did it in a different format I guess.
BC8: So by the time you started to go away to college this FTP server was still running, correct?
SW: Yeah. For sure. And it gained some momentum at that point, having additional server space. I mean, originally, I was just doing it out of my house—We had pretty fast internet, but at that time, “pretty fast internet?” I mean, come on! That was slow as crap.
SW: But I had gotten other people that helped host some of the speed. So that was still going when I was going to college.
BC8: So when you finally went away, how many users did you have who had been “vetted” by the music submission system? You mentioned you had people from Stockholm, all over the world, emailing you. How many people did you have that were inside the system who had been approved by you and who were sharing music with you?
SW: It was probably only in the range of like one hundred to two hundred, because I wasn’t letting everybody in. It was pretty selective. It wasn’t like upload one release and get through the gate and then just take all you want until you’re done with it. There [were] quite a few on there, but the amount that was actually active? It was probably similar to Sly Vinyl. It was probably twenty or thirty dudes who were pretty active. And they’d upload any and all of the cool stuff they found. And they didn’t have to, by any means. But again, this was a “thing” that they were a part of.
BC8: When you went away to college, or even before that point, did it ever occur to you that this was something you should be worried about? One of the main drivers based on what you said is that you couldn’t get a lot of this music legally. They were unreleased studio records, just unofficial or live recordings of a lot of these artists. So that was a lot of the motivation, but did it ever occur to you—not necessarily that this was wrong (because that’s a discussion for another day), but just that it was something you should be worried about?
SW: No. To be honest, I never at all thought at any point that the RIAA was going to come knocking on my door by any means. First off, how do you get sued for something you can’t buy? I mean, I know you can (laughs). It is like a joke I heard somewhere… “It’s not like I was going to Hastings and downloading a CD into my pocket and then walking out the front door.” You couldn’t get this stuff. There were websites everywhere for people trading CDs back and forth. You didn’t see the RIAA busting [down] someone’s door, “Give me those 200 Dave Matthews Band CDs!” You know? This just wasn’t happening. I don’t know. I’m sure someone got in trouble for collective tapes or CDs somewhere, but I sure as hell hadn’t heard about it. I mean, I could see if you were on a New York street corner selling bootleg Bon Jovi CDs or something (laughs). I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what was popular then . . . Selling bootleg Aerosmith “Get a Grip” CDs. But this wasn’t the stuff you could even buy. So I never at any point whatsoever thought any kind of legal repercussions were coming my way.
BC8: Back then, things were a lot different. I had never even heard of the RIAA. It didn’t even occur to me that such an association would exist. To me—I was young at the time—but artists made the music, and then there were the CDs, and there were the free MP3s on the internet. That was the way it was for me. That was how I understood it.
SW: Right. It’s like RIAA came out right then. And then they got celebrity—celebrity endorsements from Metallica, which is just so ironic and terrible at the same time—That the poster people for the group that ended up trying to throw me in jail was the same group that made me fall in love with MP3s. It’s just… the irony is just too thick.
BC8: (laughs) It’s crazy how the world comes ‘round.
SW: I know, right? I mean, it was your damned MP3s, your amazing guitar solo from Germany that did this to me!
Click here to continue to Part 3.