The Cowboy Junkies, "Piracy", and How it Made Them Big

Those of you who weren’t teenagers in the 1980s may not remember the image to the right. Back then, the technology that the entertainment industry feared was good old magnetic tape. The industrial-entertainment complex’s movie arm was fighting the Betamax; MPAA capo Jack Valenti famously testified before Congress that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American

public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone”. In the end, Hollywood discovered that the new rental market opened by videotape technology was a gold mine.

Meanwhile, the music industry was fighting the tape battle on two fronts: home taping on analog cassettes whose fidelity would be considered laughable today, and the possible threat of DAT — digital audio tape. They insisted that the mix tapes that I made for girls I like were threatening the livelihoods of Depeche Mode and The Smiths, while they were running ads in musicians’ magazines screaming that DAT was the devil. Before I became the Accordion Guy, I was a synth guy, and I remember reading two-page centrefold ads in Keyboard magazine with large headlines that read “Don’t let them do DAT!”

As with videotapes, we know what happened with audiotape: home taping did not destroy the music industry, which grew in leaps and bounds as the music scene grew. While DAT as a medium never made it big in the consumer market, the underlying technology — digital music  — did.

The fundraiser for Sam Bulte being held tonight at the Drake Hotel will feature a performance by Margo Timmins. You may remember her band, The Cowboy Junkies, best known for their album, The Trinity Session. Recorded on a single microphone in the Church of the Holy Trinity for $250 (ironically, that’s the per-plate price of admission to the fundraising dinner at which Margo is performing tonight), this album was originally released on a small label and got its buzz based on word-of-mouth and thousands of mix tapes that teenagers — myself included — made for each other.
Back then, one way to declare your love (or at least infatuation) for a girl or guy was to make a “mix tape” of songs for her or him. If you were particularly creative, you’d embellish the tape with an artistic J-card (that’s the cardboard liner that went into the cassette case — here’s an example). The important thing about a mix tape was that it let you say things that it provided a kind of indirection — a way of saying things that you might not otherwise be able to say in a face-to-face conversation (instant messaging may be like that today).

I remember making mix tapes for girls I liked back at Crazy Go Nuts University. Like any guy who’d begun to figure out women even a little bit, I knew to include Sweet Jane from The Trinity Session on those tapes. I’d be willing to bet that the real marketing for The Trinity Session wasn’t done by the record company, but by tens of thousands of people like me, making mix tapes as a form of courting and for make-out mood music. Therein lies the irony of Ms. Timmins performing at tonight’s fundraiser: the viral marketing that made her big back then (and that’s also helping pull them out of the “where are they now?” file) is precisely the sort of thing that the people backing this fundraiser are trying to kill with the help of Ms. Bulte.

A copule of musical gifts for you: this page on features Waltz Across America, the Cowboy Junkies’ 2000 live album. It offers two free MP3s from the album: Sweet Jane and Misguided Angel (somewhat apropos), both songs that first appeared in The Trinity Session.

Here’s another goodie — Mixed Messages, a comic from the old dot-com era site Breakup Girl. Breakup Girl was an romantic advice-dispensing superhero, and in this adventure, she helps a guy tap the power of the mix tape.

11 replies on “The Cowboy Junkies, "Piracy", and How it Made Them Big”

Ah DAT…. I remember ye fondly. I wanted a DAT recorder, until I realized that I couldn’t really use it for the intended purpose, naimly recording and cutting my own stuff (or that of bands performing live) because I couldn’t copy DAT to DAT, that ended it for me right then and here….. Sad.

I think it’s worth pointing out, also, that cassette tape use was mostly personal. Because lps were so fragile, and easy to ruin from dust and scratches, what most of us did when we bought a new lp was tape it on first play, then file it away. Then we could play the tape as often as we wanted without worrying we’d damage the record. We could also compile our own mix tapes, taking out songs we didn’t like (like the drug dealer character in Boogie Nights).

The point is, even though it was easy to simply get a tape from a friend of an album he/she bought, it just wasn’t that common. Lps were still reasonably priced and, because of their size, it was a lot more fun to sit in your room and stare at the album art as well.

From time to time friends would give me mix tapes but, like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, I almost never listened to them (“I haven’t digested that one just yet”). There was something magical about owning and holding a lp.

Does anyone have anything as boring as a quote from Margo about all this? I haven’t heard anything to make me think Sam Bulte is actually really great, but I’m guessing that copyright isn’t the only issue she addresses as a politician. Distilling her career down to a single issue, then claiming that anyone who supports her supports her stance on that issue, is very weak. Maybe Margo doesn’t read this blog or BoingBoing and hasn’t heard about the poopstorm people are raising about Bulte. It’s convenient to believe that everyone’s as informed (or less) as you are, but it’s a pretty poor assumption to make. Has anyone, you know, told Margo about this stuff?

Uh, Margo is married to Graham Henderson, the head of the Canadian Recording Industry Association. I think she’s heard about it.

Maybe she plans to use the forum to present a stunning repudiation of all that Bulte and the industry cronies stand for. Just like Marge Simpson did in the “Blinky the Fish” episode, in which she turns Mr Burns’ manufactured press-conference from a defeat into an opportunity for self-expression.

From Marge to Margo.


Anonymous Bosch.

First off, I’m a longtime fan of the Cowboy Junkies, so I’m biased. They are a so-called “tape-friendly” band, and I’ve seen an interview in which they speak out in favour of file sharing (for the life of me, I can’t find it at the moment). Additionally, on their ‘official site’, there’s a bootleg-sharing forum. As such, I was kind of surprised that Margo Timmons was involved with this dubious fundraiser.


Something I know a bit about.

I used the book the CJs at the Rivoli.

I booked the record release of “Whites Off Earth Now” and the indie release of Trintiy Sessions. (Clintons got the Big label release)

I used to put a stool on the bar, so Mrs. Timmins could see the stage.

Prior to the CJs, the Timmins boys were in a punk band… I forget the name… Suzanne Timmins is a rockin’ babe…

ummm, OK.

I guess I have absolutely nothing intelligent to add here, except that they’re good people.

Sometimes, the way the spin goes, gets you involved in something.

I think Sam’s actions here are the issue and not that Margo’s singing at a fundraiser.

Joey, I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned that way copyright affects karaoke.

As you know, the disks are very expensive ($20 to $40 cdn) and are very difficult to copy properly (only Plextor CD burners are consistant in good quality)

As a KJ, I am allowed to have a back up copy, but I am prohibited from using that copy in a public forum. (ie where I need it most)

I’m in dark bars, around drunk people… maybe drunk myself.

I wish there was a fair use clause, 1 copy for 1 disk.

I’ve had a $12,000. theft that almost shut me down because I comply with this stupid, shortsighted law.

If you the law is a toothless tiger, you can read about the latest bust here

My point was to point out that the strong kind of copyright enforcement that is being endorsed by the backers of tonight’s fundraiser would’ve made the music-sharing that led to success of the Cowboy Junkies impossible.

The Junkies’ success could not have been predicted by the marketing wisdom of their era. In the 1980s, the important thing was to get on MTV, a considerably more expensive propostion than getting radio play, so bigger always meant better. As a result an increasingly large amount of money was being spent on marketing sure-fire arena-rock-friendly artists: U2, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Winwood, Sting, Aerosmith, Poison, John Mellencamp, Michael Jackson.

In spite of all this, a different group of artists were making it big largely on the strength of word-of-mouth and mix tapes: not just Sinead O’Connor, LL Cool J, Husker Du, NWA, Tracy Chapman, Ice-T, 2 Live Crew and yes, The Cowboy Junkies.

There’s no condemnation of Ms. Timmins in my post, merely the pointing out of an irony that’s lost on Bulte and her Big Content backers.

Hey, Carson! I don’t know much about the laws concerning karaoke jockeying, and would support a fair use clause that would allow you to keep the master copies of your karaoke discs in storage and work with duplicates. I would even support some kind of system that would allow you to create a set of discs from your set that contained only your most-requested hits so that you could do smaller gigs without having to drag out the entire set.

We’ll have to talk sometime about the copyright complications with karaoke. I’m sure that it would make for a fascinating article, and I suspect that Michael Geist and a certain Boing Boing editor friend of mine would link to it too.

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