Why people download music illegally

As a full disclosure/precursor to this (purely opinionated) rant I am about to partake in:

1.  For the last 20+ years I have written, performed, toured, and recorded music.  I have run an independent recording label, received money from album sales, both physical and digital, been paid for mechanical and performance royalties.  I have produced and engineered a number of musical acts, some of which I was a musician/songwriter, others I was not.  I have received music demo, production and marketing grants from content organizations, and have been played on commercial, college and internet radio stations.  I have hired other musicians, producers, engineers and have paid for their services.  Despite this, I would say I was only marginally successful, and was likely never more financially in peril than I was during the period when I was most involved in the music industry.

2.  I am a Canadian citizen, to which there are significantly different copyright laws and protections than in the United States, and my comments are shaped by this bias.

3.  I have downloaded music I did not pay for.  I have witnessed my own music downloaded and not paid for.

This is a message for all of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues who are music writers, composers, producers, DJs, engineers, and performers.

Musicians do not make money from record sales

This is not news.  You have heard the horror stories of bands getting screwed.  You have hired lawyers to read through the deal memos, 360 contracts and other tomes delivered to you by record labels.  You were taught all the different types of royalties, monetary distribution, and legal pitfalls, either through post secondary music school, or on the streets.  Yet still, if there is so much love and trust between artists and record labels, why were there so many amusing/terrifying stories about record deals?

If you have ever made an album for a record company, you may be familiar with the following breakdown:

From TheRoot.com

From TheRoot.com

This is a typical breakdown, however, it is unclear if this also includes free goods, packaging and advances.. all of which typically come from the artists’ portion.

Of course, some of you are likely thinking “I am independent, I manufacture my own records so this doesn’t apply to me”.  I have two responses:

a) Good for you!  Have a cookie.
b) To create that record, you likely either paid out of pocket, or received funding from a content organization (FACTOR, etc).  In either of those cases, you are not directly seeing money from album sales until your costs are recouped.  You are still likely going to have to send a cut of the album sales to the distributor and retailers.  But hey, you’re going to be slightly less poor than those who signed a record deal.  How’s that cookie?

I could further this point with multiple examples of artists going bankrupt, screwed by record labels, promoters, managers, and [fill in the blank], but I would be flogging a dead cliche.  Scams are an unfortunate, but accepted, fact of being a musician.  We are drawn into the allure of the popularity contest of performing for thousands of screaming fans, topping record charts, and ending up in rehab like members of Aerosmith.  Because of this impulse, we often fall prey to scams.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever played a “battle of the bands”.  We either steel our resolve or become jaded (apparently I became the latter), but despite this, we still keep playing, we still keep performing, and we still keep writing.

Now, onto the endless and tedious debate about music, the internet and file sharing.

Home Taping is Killing the Record Industry

I loved “Pirates of the Caribbean“, something about Johnny Depp stealing Keith Richard’s mannerisms seemed to encapsulate the pure essence of the modern understanding of the term “piracy”.  The word “Piracy”, whose etymology comes from the Greek word for “brigand”, has been co-opted in the latter half of the last century to represent a different sort of criminal.  A criminal who copies, distributes, or publicly performs copyrighted material without express permission of the copyright owner.  As musicians/producers/engineers, we have heard the rhetoric from the music industry over the last 30 years that these pirates are plundering and looting our revenue, and many of us have bought it.  These pirates are breaking the law, and in turn, are the reason why we’re broke and not seeing money from album sales.  But who are these pirates?

Well, technically… you.

The hours you spent learning the opening guitar riff from Come Together… that’s copying.  Playing an awful drunken rendition of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” at the Sunday night open mic… that’s public performance of copyrighted material.  That Jackson Five sample you dropped into your tech house dj mix and distributed on SoundCloud, piracy.

Ok, granted, these are extreme and absurd examples, and are unlikely to be prosecuted by the law.  However, extreme examples are required to illustrate a very real, and very obvious point.  Musicians/artists do not create in a vacuum.  We create from influences and inspiration of the past, and build on those to create new work.  We do not pay those artists when we sit with our instruments in hand, pausing and rewinding the song, trying to reverse engineer the notes they played and perform it ourselves.  Nor do we pay them when we’re in our rehearsal space and someone in the band breaks out into an impromptu cover version.  So, why are so many of us cheering when another file sharing service is taken down, or when the Pirate Bay founders are handed down criminal charges because the Swedish government caved to threats of WTO trade sanctions?  Why are some musicians happy that the RIAA in the US sued consumers upwards of $150,000 for downloading music via bittorrent?

Because some musicians have not come to terms with the fact that they are thieves.

For those of you who have already come to terms with this fact, here’s another cookie.  For those of you who haven’t, all I can say is “Yes, of course, you wrote that piece of music all by your very lonesome and nothing, but nothing, ‘cept you’re own magical and spiritual insight into the universe created that piece of music…  that kinda sounds a little like Lada Gaga, who sounds a little like Madonna, who sounds a little like Abba, who sounds a little like…

The record industry associations and all the companies rallying behind the anti-piracy cause are all repeating the same, tired sound byte.  ”We are Protecting the Artists”.  This seems at odds with the historical actions of the major record labels, who have gone to great lengths to devise contracts, deal memos, and other tomes to ensure they are receiving the most money for their investment.  This is basic capitalism, and they cannot be faulted for this, however, they can be faulted for presupposing the false claim that they are protecting artists.  They are in the business of making money, not in the business of making art.  That’s ok, record label…  but just don’t be so pretentious.  File sharing does not mean that there will be no more music.  Music existed before the phonograph, and it will exist long after.

Musicians, music fans, and everyday people are aware of this.  It has never been some great secret.  We know that it isn’t the artists who are losing money every time someone illegally downloads a song, its the corporations.  We know that the billions of dollars of yearly losses that you are claiming are projected losses, which could likely be better attributed to the fact that a computer manufacturer became the worlds largest music distribution company rather than to piracy.  True to history, the industry fell victim to not understanding the paradigm shift technology brought, and no longer has complete control over the broadcasting and distribution systems.  We don’t want to give our money to you anymore, we are tired of paying middlemen.  We would rather give our money directly to the artists.  If this statement is untrue, then why would worldwide concert ticket revenues be increasing a billion dollars each year?  Does this sound like people don’t want to pay for music?

You may call us pirates, but we are privateers.

</rant>

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One Response to Why people download music illegally

  1. Pingback: Music, money & creativity in the age of the internet! | SAmmmY

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