For some time I’ve been working on a notion that one way or another we are all thieves. Sometimes willingly, sometimes incidentally, but we’ve all stolen something. I just can’t prove it yet.
Years ago I was employed at an art supply distribution center. The impetus is difficult to recall, but at some point a few days in I set a goal for myself: I would steal one rubberband for every day I worked there.
I didn’t need the rubberbands, though I’m sure I could find a use for them. It was just a silly thing to do. Rubberbands tend to be of little consequence and I stole them easily enough by putting one on my wrist every day and walking out with it. When I got home the rubberband was desposited on the knob of my bedroom door until it would hold no more rubberbands. The goal wasn’t to hurt the company and force them to buy more rubberbands and it wasn’t to save money by avoid purchasing my own rubberbands. In fact, I doubt weather most of the rubberbands I stole were actually purchased by my employer. It is more likely that they were bundled around shipments of various merchandise. Mostly I just wanted to see if I would stick with it and willingly awknowledge that I was a thief.
It’s doubtful that anyone is going to brand me a criminal for stealing one rubberband a day and so revealing this truth isn’t particularly damaging. If you think long about it you can probably admit that you’ve stolen something at some point, accidentally or willingly. And yet being accused of being a thief feels awful. So here is another more damning admission: I, John Everett Morton, have pirated music.
Often I’ll ask people a question out of nowhere, sometimes as part of a thought or social experiment. Sometimes that question is, “Have you ever stolen anything?” Most people say they have not or admit to some small childhood crime of stealing a piece of candy. When I follow up with “Have you ever illegally downloaded music?” and they very often answer in the affirmative. So you are a thief? “Well, yeah, but…” That’s usually the extent of their argument.
My introduction to pirating music was in the Fall of 1999 when I started college. It was the first time that I had access to high-speed internet right in my own dorm room and Napster was running almost around the clock. It was rare that I was downloading full albums. The bulk of my downloaded music were Smashing Pumpkins bootlegs, demos, and other rarities not commercially available. Occasionally I would download a handful of songs from other artists because I did not wish to purchase a whole album. Fifteen years ago you couldn’t log in to iTunes or Amazon or CDBaby and download a single song of you choosing. CDs were still king. MP3 players did exist, but held very little data at first.
Professional musicians remain divided on file sharing. Some argue it’s a clear violation of their copyrights and intellectual property. Others argue that it’s no different than when kids made mix tapes. I can understand both points of view and I don’t think the record industry was ever up in arms about people making mix tapes from vinyl, cassettes, or CD. The difference is that if you were the recipient of a mix tape or even a mix/copied CD-R, you had to actually know someone who paid money for the original product and was willing to share it with you. With the advent of Naptster’s peer-to-peer file sharing and the BitTorrent technology that followed in Naptster’s wake, it is now possible to get as much music (and video) as your hard drive will hold without ever knowing who gave it to you.
So what about it? Is music piracy wrong? If you’re asking for my black and white opinion, yeah, it’s wrong. Yet it is so commonplace these days that we just shrug our shoulders and say everyone is doing it. As an aspiring musician you might think I’d be more upset about this, but I’m not. In some sense this rampant stealing is hurting the record labels more than the artists. As reported by a number of media outlets, 2014 has been the first year without a platinum-certified record since the designation was conceived in 1976.
From a creator’s point of view, I would rather someone who didn’t have the funds to buy my music hear it by stealing it than not hear it at all. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I have some music to sell. From a consumer standpoint, I’m rather tired of getting burned by bad music. Sometimes an album is available to stream before purchase, but many times you just have to buy it to find out if you like it. Some libraries loan out music, but rarely have new releases right away. And since appreciation of all art is subjective (as difficult as that can be to admit) you can’t take an album back to the store after you’ve purchased it and say, “I’m sorry, this is just not good and I don’t want it anymore.” At best you can sell your used copy on eBay.
The method I’ve employed the last few years is to often download an album (illegally) first, give it a few listens, and then buy it if I like it. If I don’t like it then I should remove it from my computer/iPod/whatever. That sort of seems fair, but still walks a thin line. Too often I conveniently forget to buy it later because, hey, I’ve already got it. Most of my music listening is done while I work at the computer, drive in my car, or do chores around the house. Gone are the days when I would lay in bed studying the liner notes of an album that played loudly throughout my room. And while I still covet the tangible CD or vinyl record complete with liner notes and lyrics, I feel like the physical package of music in the last decade has diminished as it is just cheaper to put less in there. At one point a large storage unit lined with CDs was a source of pride for the avid music listener. It will be interesting to see what happens as CD sales and digital downloads dwindle while the vinyl record continues to enjoy a comeback, at least for now.
One challenge for labels is to find a format that everyone can jive with and that just won’t happen. Downloadable content, even high fidelity FLAC files, too often leave out the liner notes and when they are included it just isn’t the same as the tangible in your hand. On the flip side, I’ve got boxes and boxes of compact discs that I don’t feel like putting on display any longer. Even when I’m listening through my home stereo, more often than not I’m streaming the music from my phone. Perhaps labels could let people download music with a 14-day trial in which the music self destructs if the user doesn’t buy a license for it. But let’s face it, there are all sorts of ways around that. An idea I’ve been toying with myself is to have both CDs and downloads available, and make physical liner notes, identical to the CD version, available for a very small upcharge. It grants the instant satisfaction demand now with the promise of something tangible to come. These are all just ideas. I don’t have the answers. Maybe we just have to make peace with the fact that it will be as easy to steal music as it is to buy it and appeal to consumer to pony up by putting out the best possible product we can.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Arctic Monkeys albums to purchase.
UPDATE: November 9, 2014
Since writing this last week I’ve been doing some additional reading on the subject of album sales. I started to wonder which avenue for purchasing albums gets the most money directly to the band. I’ve investigated using CDBaby and iTunes to sell future releases and I’m somewhat familiar with those price structures. The thing is if you are an independent artist and you don’t have to worry about a label, lawyers, etc., you can get a bigger slice of the pie, but you’re going to move a whole lot less units. There is an article at NPR, Where To Buy Music To Get More Cents On The Dollar To The Musician, that illustrates some of this. The very best solution is to buy albums at shows. Comments on that article further suggest as I suspected that buying merch at shows (or through the artists’ website in some cases) is an even better way to support the artist directly.
The Root also has an article, The Music Industry’s Funny Money, that suggests for every $1000 in sales of an album, the average member of the band makes $23.40, and that’s not anything new. Ray Davies dished on some of this in one of my favorite albums, The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. Sadly, you’re not likely to pick it up at one of their shows anytime soon so get it wherever you can.