Dya, Dya, Dya Ya Wanna Danz?

A couple of months ago, The Wall Street Journal published a troubling article about the spread of fake compact discs [...]

September 1 1994 by Joe Queenan

A couple of months ago, The Wall Street Journal published a troubling article about the spread of fake compact discs in China. The article, entitled “Fake CDs Are a Growth Industry in China,” said counterfeit CDs “accounted for an estimated $2.1 billion of nearly $31 billion in global recorded music sales worldwide,” with China fast becoming the premier pirating nation.

On the positive side, the Journal said most of the bogus CDs were bound for markets in Asia, though a shipment recently had been intercepted en route to Argentina. On a similarly sunny note, the Journal also noted that fake CDs are relatively easy to spot because of typographical errors that appear on the packaging. Thus, a Madonna CD that turned up in a retail outlet near Guangzhou included one song called “Fevet” instead of “Fever,” and a second entitled “Like a Prauer” instead of “Like a Prayer.”

Last week, I was in a huge Manhattan music store shopping for compact discs. Boring, predictable, 40-something Yuppie that I am, I figured I’d pick up a couple of vintage recordings by the intergalactically influential Sixties singers/songwriters Neil Young, Lou Reed, and John Fogerty, plus a couple of CDs by the Rolling Stones, Little Feat, Slade, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Thus, you can imagine my horror when I lifted Neil Young’s quirky 1983 rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’ out of the bin and found the song “Kinda Fonda Wanda” listed on the back.

“Oh, my God!” I thought to myself, “the dreaded Chinese counterfeit discs have already reached these shores!” And in a big way. Yes, as my trek throughout the store continued, I stumbled upon a staggering number of CDs containing songs whose titles apparently had been butchered by Asian counterfeiters. For example, on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1986 compact disc Live Alive, I found not one, but two, giveaways that pirates were involved: a song called “Voodoo Chile” and a second song entitled “Ain’t Gone ‘N’ Give up on Love.”

Things didn’t get any better when I turned to Little Feat’s 1978 live masterpiece Waiting for Columbus and found the track “A Apolitical Blues.” And I was very close to buying Prince’s highly appealing 1985 homage to psychedelia Around the World in a Day, until I spotted the telltale title “Tamborine.” I was all set to grab a copy of John Fogerty’s 1985 comeback record Centerfield, until I noticed a track with the name “Vanz Kant Danz.” But nothing up until now had prepared me for the shock waves I felt when I studied the packaging on a couple of vintage Slade re-releases, which turned out to be a veritable cornucopia of piracy, including tracks such as “Cum on Feel the Noise,” “Coz I Luv You,” “Gudbuy T’ Jane,” “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” and “Skweeze Me Please Me. “the name “Vanz Kant Danz.” But nothing up until now had prepared me for the shock waves I felt when I studied the packaging Who did these pirate jokers think they were fooling?

Things only got worse when I turned to more contemporary recordings I was thinking of buying in a desperate attempt to seem cutting edge-such as Montel Williams or Douglas Coupland. Ride the Break, the latest release by JC-001 & DZire, seemed like a good place to start, but sure enough, when I turned to the back of the CD, there it was: a song entitled “Build the Motha Up.” For similar reasons, I was leery of Gangsta Pat’s new CD #1 Suspect because of the unnerving presence of such tracks as “Legion of Doome” and “Gangsta’s Need Love 2.” And something about the track “Lenchmob also in Tha Group” on the CD Guerrillas in the Mist by the rap group Da Lench Mob convinced me I’d better take a pass. As I strolled up and down the aisles of the music emporium, it occurred to me that the compact discs I’d been studying might merely be a bad batch of pirated CDs imported from China through one unethical distributor, but that other stores in Manhattan might have the real thing. No such luck. That afternoon I visited no fewer than nine record stores, and the results were always the same. Counterfeit CDs were everywhere. In a tiny shop in the grungy East Village, I came across a Van Halen CD entitled OU812, which featured such suspicious tracks as “Finish What Ya Started” and “Cabo Wabo.” In an upscale midtown record shop I yanked out a CD by the Digable Planets which contained the song “La Femme Fetal,” proving that those sleazy Chinese pirates had now expanded their operations to include gross mutilation of the French language.

My experiences that day forced me to call into question The Wall Street Journal’s optimistic estimate that pirated compact discs account for only about 7 percent of the world’s recorded music and have yet to reach U.S. shores. Based on my sampling, fake CDs are everywhere, and the total percentage of rip-offs could well be in the high 20s. With piracies occurring on everything from Shaquille O’Neal’s debut album Shaq Diesel, which contains the track “(I Know I Got) Skillz,” to the soundtrack from the movie “Above the Rim,” which features the song “Dogg Pound 4 Life,” it is clear this situation has gotten out of control. Obviously, such piracy hurts consumers, but it also hurts performers such as Axl Rose and Da Lench Mob, who are losing millions of dollars in royalties. Last but not least, it is hurting the Chinese people, who risk losing their most-favored trading partner status with this country if they do not act quickly to foil the machinations of their homegrown CD pirates, who are certainly one Motley Crue.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.