Digital Music

What Do You Really Think About the Piracy Issue?

This guest post is written by Chris R. at CD Baby's DIY Musican blog.

image from diymusician.cdbaby.com Some folks in this over-saturated industry equate music piracy with free promotion, reciting the popular soundbite that “obscurity is a greater danger than theft” (Think of BitTorrent pitching their new Artists Pilot Program as a way to “amp up your audience”). Others regard free file-sharing (particularly the illegal kind) as high treason against the sacred art of music. As with most polarizing debates, the truth and best solutions probably live somewhere in-between the extremes.

In defense of those crying foul, shouldn’t talent and craft be rewarded for its own sake? After all, you don’t expect to hire a contractor to remodel your kitchen and then give him 2 beer tickets as payment. You wouldn’t dream of asking some local kid in your neighborhood to mow your lawn for free.

No. You pay them for their service and then enjoy the fruits of their labor, just like when you buy an album or MP3. You’ve paid the artist (and their label, manager, & distributor), and now you can listen to their work at your leisure. And yet I hear at almost every gig, “Hey man, I love your new album! I listen to it all the time.” But when I enthusiastically ask them where they got it from, inevitably they say 1) a torrent site or 2) they burned/ripped/transferred it from a friend.

Even worse, they’re ignorant to the fact that their explanation might offend me.

After all, I’ve spent my own money, time, and talent to make the music this person is now enjoying for free.

Paid In Fun Units

A friend of mine often jokes that musicians today are paid in “fun units.”

She thought up this absurd standardized measurement (which takes on a new colorful meaning when abbreviated to “F-Us”) because music consumers often rationalize their voracious illegal downloading (and their resistance to paying an $8 cover-charge at a music venue when they don’t mind spending $50 on booze) by saying “Well, you’re playing music. At least you’re having fun.”

Really? Because I could think of a few other fun things I’d rather be doing with my time than running scales on the guitar and staring at a computer monitor trying to book another tour.

Or perhaps it is the local club owner or booker saying, “We can’t pay you, but you’ll get two drink tickets and the gig will be really fun and a great way to get your name out there.” Granted, they’re running a business too.

But artists need to carefully consider whether these “opportunities” are really just a “fun” way of getting taken advantage of.

People who justify their cheapness by reminding musicians how much FUN we’re having might not always be ill-intentioned, by they are minimizing or altogether ignoring the hard work and creativity that many artists dedicate to their craft.

Should we stand for it? Do we have any choice? Is this minimization an irreversible trend?

The End Of Standard Practices

At the same time, I would much rather someone actually hear my music, even enjoy my music for free, than not hear it at all. Perhaps a new fan would never have been at my show in the first place, were it not for that little initial theft.

Is this a fair trade-off? Can musicians today demand the same kind of respect and wages as a tradesman, teacher, bartender, neighbor mowing your lawn, or babysitter?

Or, in a world chalk full of talented people who have easy access to affordable recording technology, is it merely the squeaky wheels, the hardest-workers, the buzz-bands, and the lucky few who deserve to be compensated for their commodity… ummm…. I mean “art.”

After all, simple laws of Supply & Demand illustrate that the more music that is available out there, the less that music is worth. And since 0s and 1s require almost no shelf space whatsoever, you cannot determine value of a digital file in the same way as a physical product that requires storage, shipping, distribution, and manufacturing costs-per-unit.

Sure, the internet has democratized music promotion and distribution, allowing indie artists access to a kind of exposure formerly reserved only for major label acts. But as the old paradigm erodes, so too do the standard practices that were tightly controlled by a more consolidated, powerful elite (the major labels, the PROs, etc.). And one of the things that seems to be going out the window is the general view that musicians should be compensated for the very act of making music that people want to consume.

Music Is Worth Something

The new unknown frontier is an exciting and frightening place.

Thankfully, things are tempered by a healthy tension between those hoping for a headlong rush towards free music and the Old Guard who’ve got their feet firmly planted in soil that keeps turning over, and this tension between the extremes has its own moderating power.

Music-makers and music-consumers aren’t being driven off a cliff any time soon. I, for one, though I’m not bold enough to say exactly WHAT the value of a recorded or live musical experience is, am confident that it is worth something.

So, what about you? Is piracy an issue for you as an artist? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill? Or is the sky really falling?

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22 Comments

  1. From what I’ve seen the answer depends on where the person is in the foodchain ; Hobbyist, Professional, Consumer.
    Hobbyists – like to give their music away and see piracy platforms as a means of exposure. Being that they only want to be “heard” more outlets of any variety are viewed as positive. This is the phenom of Soundclick, the greatest music dump since mp3.com. Have at it.
    Professionals – who make their living in some form or fashion from the paid sales of recorded music are of course going to view piracy as detriment to their livelihoods. Piracy rates for illegal downloads of commercial music are reported at a ratio of 20:1 pirated to paid. What legitimate business could survive that degree of cannibalization without monetization?
    Consumers – of course want everything as cheap or free as possible, and also make up the largest majority of voices in the discussion. No surprise there are a million rationalizations for free…
    What it really comes down to for me, is that professional music has always been elitist. Like professional sports, there are very, very few who really ever get to the winners circle – and that just makes for a lot of sour grapes amongst the rest of the would be’s and hopefuls.
    The bigger question we should be asking is that without piracy, couldn’t, shouldn’t more artists actually be able to make a living from making music? Isn’t this the promise of the internet and web 2.0? Unfortunately piracy effects all musicians, not just rock stars.
    Personally I’d love to see a world where all musicians can charge for their work if they so choose without the fear of piracy. Then they could invest in their work and know that they have as good a chance as anyone to make a living, making music. And really, isn’t that the way it should be?

  2. I think this a “mountain out of a mole hill” senario.
    The record industry is painting a very bleak picture that doesn’t reflect reality. The truth is that the musical ecosystem is just balancing out. Returning to the way it was before someone figured out how to capture sound and sell it. New unimagined ways of making money are just waiting to be revealed. That’s how it’s always been.
    I get that people who made a great living doing something that will no longer pay what it used to (recording engineer, etc.) are upset and dismayed, but countless industries deal with this issue every time innovation occurs. The people who survive are the ones who adapt.
    I have issues with people who say that they deserve to be paid for their work. On it’s face, I agree with that statement completely. But do I think someone should be paid for their work if they create something they can’t charge for? No, I don’t. You say “But music has value!” Of course it does. But so does air. You would die if you couldn’t breathe it but I don’t see anyone opening their wallets to get it. If a scientist were to create air in a laboratory and then got upset because people keep walking in and breathing it, maybe he should bottle it and sell it for use underwater or in outer space (or make something else in his lab instead). Not run around screaming that people keep stealing his work. That’s just a bad business model.
    Everyone has a right to paid for their work… but you don’t have the right to choose what kind of work gets you paid. That’s determined by the market place and the economy.

  3. Jeff – what you seem to be missing is that people already have the choice NOT to pay for music – that’s fine, but they don’t have the RIGHT to steal it – and that’s the difference.
    If we are talking about a true disruption it would be like film to tv, where a new industry and new jobs were created.
    If pirates believe there’s a revenue model in free content, why don’t we see these people supporting musicians and filmmakers?
    Where is The Pirate Bay Record Label? Where is the Limewire Film Studio? Why is it that the people that shout the loudest about the content industries not adapting are the people stealing their content and not making any of their own?
    Food for thought.

  4. I think pira…I mean file sharing is a great thing. As long as the internet continues to exist and internet usage continues to grow, more people look to file sharing for their music needs.
    File-sharing is not about theft or stealing, and file-sharing is not just about torrents and limewire either.
    I do believe that file-sharing can be monetized, but we need to have basic understanding of what file-sharing really is and how it really works.

  5. @ C. Sunday – if it’s not about theft or stealing, then what is it about?
    Also – how would suggest file-sharing be monetized (on behalf of artists that is, not rapidshare, who are clearly monetizing it already).

  6. “Jeff – what you seem to be missing is that people already have the choice NOT to pay for music – that’s fine, but they don’t have the RIGHT to steal it – and that’s the difference.”
    While it may seem like I’m missing that point, I’m actually not. First, let me address your point about “rights”. You have the right to control your intellectual property. But it’s important to remember that it’s not a God given right, but a Government granted one. Not every culture or country believes that intellectual property is, or should be, a real thing.
    And then there’s the “Stealing” issue. Everyone (even the copyleftists) have adopted the “theft” language. People are “copying” the work, not “stealing” it. You may have decided that, due to technological improvements, the distinction doesn’t matter. People are getting what they need or want from the copy of your song and so it’s the same as stealing. And while you could argue that it has the same effect as stealing, It’s still not actual stealing. If someone “steals” your song by downloading it, but then asks permission to use it for an ad, have they suddenly “returned” your song? No. They have licensed it. People are “Infringing on your license” when they download or copy your work. They are not “stealing” it no matter how many times you say it. The original files haven’t moved.
    Now, I know you are rolling your eyes at this… convinced that it doesn’t matter, but I assure you, it does. If someone breaks into my house and steals my U2 cd’s, who just got robbed? Me or U2 (or U2’s label)? I mean, the robbers took copies of recordings that did not belong to them, right? If you say both, you’d be wrong. Because if U2 just got robbed then I never really owned the songs in the first place. Which may be true. And that means I was only licensing them. What I owned was the plastic disc. But what if the robbers then license the music? Then It’s just me that got robbed of plastic disk? So what’s the disk really worth? And why is an empty one cheaper? Did I overpay?
    The point I’m trying to make is that the meanings of words matter. It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation about how to solve these issues when we repeat dogma and change how we view reality.
    “If we are talking about a true disruption it would be like film to tv, where a new industry and new jobs were created.”
    Firstly, I don’t know why you think “true disruption” would automatically mean new jobs were created. Perhaps you mean “fair” or “positive” disruption. But economics doesn’t care about those things. That being said, I do think new jobs have been created. People are employed to build iPods, yes? Manage and code sites like iTunes and Amazon? These are just a few jobs that wouldn’t exist if the digital shift hadn’t happened.
    “If pirates believe there’s a revenue model in free content, why don’t we see these people supporting musicians and filmmakers?”
    I’m not sure I understand this question. How do we know pirates aren’t supporting musicians and filmmakers? And who do you mean when you say pirate? Businesses selling ad space while offering up unlicensed material? Kids who “stole” a copy of the song but still went to a show or bought a t-shirt? Am I to infer that Best Buy or Target or any other retailer is supporting musicians and filmmakers in some other way other than renting shelf space?
    “Where is The Pirate Bay Record Label? Where is the Limewire Film Studio?”
    I can’t answer this as I’m not involved with those companies. Would it surprise me to hear that either one was starting such a thing? Not really.
    “Why is it that the people that shout the loudest about the content industries not adapting are the people stealing their content and not making any of their own?”
    I assume that you are implying that I am not a content creator and am infringing on artists government granted monopolies. This is not the case. I am, indeed, a content creator, I don’t use P2P sites and I’m not against copyright. I do think it needs some major overhauling, but I think it has it’s place.

  7. “Also – how would suggest file-sharing be monetized (on behalf of artists that is, not rapidshare, who are clearly monetizing it already)”
    heres an idea: the majors could launch a competitor P2P site where it is legal to share their music on. only that site. who wouldnt use it?

  8. THE BUSINESS OF SELLING RECORDED MUSIC IS DEAD!!!, quit talking about all this nonsense, the cat is out of the bag people, if I can get it for free I will, hello, that’s not rocket science, that is HUMAN NATURE, oh, oh, oh, one more thing, the economy sucks!!! So yeah Im likely use my income only on things I absolutely need. Furthermore Im a recording artist, I realize that I cannot change pirating, because I JUST CAN’T!!!!, I can sit here and complain, and talk about all kinds of intellectual ways to look at the issue, but at the end of the day, I can’t stop millions of people from doing what they are going to do anyway, so why not use the fact that people are going to pirate my music anyway, and find ways to get my name out there so I can get payed somewhere else down the road, by doing a show or selling merch or whatever. And if I don’t oh well, maybe I’ll try something different, and see what happens, but trust me you will NOT, NOT, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT STOP IT, ITS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN SO ADAPT OR GET OUT OF THE “INDUSTRY” CALL IT A HOBBY AND SHUT UP!! GEEZ. QUIT ACTING LIKE A BUNCH OF HUSSY’S.

  9. it’s theft, and it’s that simple. people were paying for human labor, not 5″ plastic discs.
    the whole “it’s not stealing because there’s no physical product” argument is juvenile.
    If you want to listen to bits, strap headphones to a empty harddrive and have fun.
    music doesn’t mean ANYTHING until it’s experienced by another Human Being, at that point it’s not worthless bits, it’s two humans in a sacred contract.
    infringement is stealing compensation from labor, it’s still theft worse than shoplifting as it effects more people.
    stealing human labor is bad karma, and no amount of rationalization can change that, sorry…

  10. lolz. this is a political issue not a technological one. ACTA. and there will be others… Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act… buckle up…

  11. how would the artist get paid? how would you fairly track consumption for payments? how much would be charged? got details or just a one liner?

  12. “it’s theft, and it’s that simple. people were paying for human labor, not 5” plastic discs. the whole “it’s not stealing because there’s no physical product” argument is juvenile.”
    No. It’s NOT theft and it’s that simple (look up the definition) and people WERE paying for plastic disks. Your “people pay for the labor” argument is juvenile.
    Don’t take my word for it. Ask any economist. Home taping, that began when they created the cassette tape, should be enough to prove my point. But in case it isn’t, let’s consider television.
    In television (I’m talking about analog tv. Now that it’s digital it suffers the same fate as recorded music) no viewer paid for a show. And no one would. Yet, people were laboring over it. Performers and writers were “connecting” with an audience. It was (assuming the show was good) a valuable experience. But what they discovered right away is that no one would pay for it. So, they came up with a 3rd party system. Advertisers. It’s different now because you can buy tv shows on a plastic disk… because people will pay for a physical thing.
    “music doesn’t mean ANYTHING until it’s experienced by another Human Being, at that point it’s not worthless bits, it’s two humans in a sacred contract.”
    I agree with this (with possible exception to the ‘sacred contract’ part.. seems a bit grand) and I thought I covered it in my last response. Value can’t always be boiled down to money. Again, air is valuable but we don’t pay for it because it’s everywhere. Digitally recorded music is headed in the same direction.
    “infringement is stealing compensation from labor, it’s still theft worse than shoplifting as it effects more people.”
    This MIGHT be morally true, except that infringement still isn’t the same as stealing. It’s not a criminal offense to infringe (at least not in the states). It’s a civil matter and a judge has to rule that your rights have been violated before a judgment can be handed out.
    But I’m not, nor have I been, making a moral argument. I’m looking at this from an economical place because morality isn’t going to get you paid for your work.
    Just so we’re clear, I agree that people will and should pay for labor or a service. If you play a show, people will pay you for that labor. But people will not (unless they really want to, similar to a donation) pay you for previous labor… for labor you did in the past or you did for someone else. They feel cheated when this happens. This is especially true when they are using their computer and hard drive and electricity to do your manufacturing and shipping for you.
    So go ahead and believe what you want, but the days of selling digital material are coming to an end (and I’m not saying it doesn’t have value… just that it’s not monetary value). Sure, the governments will try (and fail) to plug the leaks but that’s only going to last as long as the major labels can pay lobbyists. Once that money drys up, we (as content creators) will be lucky to have any intellectual property rights at all.

  13. File-sharing in itself is not about stealing or theft, it is about discovering and sharing things with people you care about…
    Personally, I believe if we can find a more efficient/easier way for music fans to discover and share music ‘across the web'(in the cloud), mp3 trading/swapping would decrease; then we can monetize the engagement between peers, when they ‘share’ files in the cloud.

  14. more rationalizations that have been heard before….
    Canard: You never lost revenue from a sale that never existed.
    Reality: Unless you can say that you never would have bought every song you illegally downloaded, you’re just rationalizing. There are plenty of ways to audition music on the web. You don’t need to illegally download an entire record to your ipod from rapidshare to decide if you like it or not.
    Canard: I’m only taking digital bits. 0s and 1s.
    Reality: When someone shoplifted a record, were they only stealing plastic?
    Canard: It’s not theft, because when I take it, you still have it.
    Reality: When some one counterfeits money, you still have your money, but it isn’t worth as much. They’ve stolen the value of your currency.
    Canard: Going after illegal downloading is whack a mole.
    Reality: All law enforcement is whack a mole.
    Canard: If bands made better music we would buy more.
    Reality: If the music is so bad, why are you downloading it?
    Canard: The majority buy the stuff after downloading it.
    Reality: No, they don’t. Music sales have been in a steep steady decline since Napster was first introduced.
    Canard: Bands make most of their money on touring and merch.
    Reality: And that’s not much anymore. And it’s because people take their music without paying for it. Bands used to make money selling records. Now many can’t afford to tour or even make records anymore.
    Canard: Record labels need to figure out a new business model.
    Reality: Record labels have been trying for the past 10 years to figure out a solution. But there is no business model that can be based around theft.
    Canard: Art is not business.
    Reality: Nothing is free. Everything takes time and/or money to make.
    Canard: We’re dreaming of the major record companies going bankrupt.
    Reality: And then what? You’ll stop taking music illegally? No, then you’ll take it from indie labels. And then just the bands themselves.
    Canard: What about all those poor buggy whip factories that went out of business when the automobile came along?
    Reality: Music making hasn’t been replaced. It’s still for sale. It’s just that you can illegally take it without fear of being caught. The analogy makes zero sense.
    Canard: The war on illegal downloading is like Prohibition or the drug war.
    Reality: The analogy makes zero sense. Those were items that were illegal to sell. It’s not illegal to sell music.
    Most importantly, hopefully you understand that illegal theft hurts the musicians and those, like me, that try to make good music for you to enjoy.
    Matt Allison is offline Report Post

  15. What can I say… As I see it, that entire list you just posted could be labeled “more rationalizations that have been heard before”.
    I suppose only time will prove one of us right.

  16. This is a hopeless issue to discuss. Technology enables people to steal music so, therefore, they do. Unless you can change this dynamic somehow, the recorded music industry is dying and becoming deader by the minute.

  17. Bingo. You hit the nail on the head. If we (and I mean the entire recording industry) allowed file sharing, illegal avenues would cease to exist. There would be no incentive for Pirate Bay (or anything like it) to have been invented in the first place. And because it would all be legal, the industry could create ways to monetize all the sharing and the all the social capital that comes with it. It would have made Facebook and YouTube look like Friendster.

  18. wow. rationalizations for what? not getting ripped off… you have an interesting way of looking at the world…

  19. Rationalizations for what passes as “truth”. Not “getting ripped off”.
    I believe I have an objective way of looking at the world. And that is what’s needed to move forward regarding the file sharing “problem”.
    I think it would be best if musician’s could stop looking at their recorded works as property. You have every legal right to take that view but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Why? Because the fans don’t consider it property. They never did. They bought plastic disc’s because it was the only way to play back the experience.
    As far as this list you posted goes, let’s break it down.
    “Canard: You never lost revenue from a sale that never existed.
    Reality: Unless you can say that you never would have bought every song you illegally downloaded, you’re just rationalizing. There are plenty of ways to audition music on the web. You don’t need to illegally download an entire record to your ipod from rapidshare to decide if you like it or not.”

    I agree with this… except that the major labels aren’t using these “other ways to audition music” that you speak of. Only the Indies and DIY artists are using them. And guess who’s not getting “pirated”.
    “Canard: I’m only taking digital bits. 0s and 1s.
    Reality: When someone shoplifted a record, were they only stealing plastic?”

    Yes. Why they were taking the disc has to do with the listening experience captured on the plastic… but what they were stealing was indeed, just plastic.
    “Canard: It’s not theft, because when I take it, you still have it.
    Reality: When some one counterfeits money, you still have your money, but it isn’t worth as much. They’ve stolen the value of your currency.”

    Counterfeiting is still not stealing. Although, I do believe that counterfeiting is a much more accurate analogy to the piracy problem than stealing. That being said, counterfeiting is also not the same as infringing on a license.
    “Canard: Going after illegal downloading is whack a mole.
    Reality: All law enforcement is whack a mole.”

    Agreed. Which is why we should be focusing on getting paid in other ways. Ways that fans feel good about.
    “Canard: If bands made better music we would buy more.
    Reality: If the music is so bad, why are you downloading it?”

    I disagree with this canard. People won’t buy more. They will never buy more. People aren’t downloading music because the music is or isn’t bad. People are downloading it because they can.
    “Canard: The majority buy the stuff after downloading it.
    Reality: No, they don’t. Music sales have been in a steep steady decline since Napster was first introduced.”

    Agreed. Which is why we should be focusing on getting paid in other ways.
    “Canard: Bands make most of their money on touring and merch.
    Reality: And that’s not much anymore. And it’s because people take their music without paying for it. Bands used to make money selling records. Now many can’t afford to tour or even make records anymore.”

    This has always been true. Even large acts made most of their money from touring and merch. It’s not as much anymore because bands now have to trade these profits for tour support, etc. Only a very small percentage of bands EVER made money from music sales. That was the labels cash cow. This statement “bands used to make money selling records” is mostly BS.
    “Canard: Record labels need to figure out a new business model.
    Reality: Record labels have been trying for the past 10 years to figure out a solution. But there is no business model that can be based around theft.”

    True. But you can build a business model around “free” (e.g. television). The labels are just trying to tackle the problem from the wrong direction.
    “Canard: Art is not business.
    Reality: Nothing is free. Everything takes time and/or money to make.”

    Many people spend money doing things they enjoy that don’t create a profit. Art is one of them. If you can make a profit from your art, Great! But if you are choosing to do art to make a profit, I might suggest another career.
    “Canard: We’re dreaming of the major record companies going bankrupt.
    Reality: And then what? You’ll stop taking music illegally? No, then you’ll take it from indie labels. And then just the bands themselves.”

    Agreed. Which is why we should be focusing on getting paid in other ways.
    “Canard: What about all those poor buggy whip factories that went out of business when the automobile came along?
    Reality: Music making hasn’t been replaced. It’s still for sale. It’s just that you can illegally take it without fear of being caught. The analogy makes zero sense.”

    The analogy makes no sense because we keep insisting that music is a “thing”. It’s not. It’s an experience. The plastic disc was a “thing” and that “thing” has been replaced.
    “Canard: The war on illegal downloading is like Prohibition or the drug war.
    Reality: The analogy makes zero sense. Those were items that were illegal to sell. It’s not illegal to sell music.”

    This depends on the context of the statement. It’s a perfect analogy if you accept that it means: an example of the government putting in place laws that go against the will of the people.
    People want/wanted to be able to purchase drugs and alcohol and were told “no”. People have always shared their music experiences but are now being told “no”.
    Right or wrong, fans don’t really care that you want to get paid for what they believe isn’t worth buying. We can pass laws all day long about how your music is a “thing” and that you own that “thing”, but it’s not. It’s an idea and the execution of that idea. There are many ways to profit from an idea or performance but most people know instinctively that it will never be a “thing” that you can buy or own. (unless it’s housed in a physical medium like a CD or DVD)
    When people do “buy” a download, they aren’t doing it to own a “thing”. They are doing it because they are willing to pay for a service that lets them get that “experience” (the song) in a convenient, quality controlled way. (e.g. iTunes)
    Fans don’t mind supporting and purchasing things they want from an artist in order to support that artist… but it has to make sense. MP3’s and other digital products usually don’t pass that test. It’s that simple.

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