Steal This Music: Some Thoughts on Piracy

Music piracy, like I’m sure real piracy was at some point somewhere at some time in someone’s history, is kind of a hot topic these days that gets kicked around every now and then. Metallica vs Napster, the RIAA’s great PR move to sue random file-sharers…the whole issue of digital distribution and it’s implications for the music industry has been the biggest issue of the past decade.

Anyway, KISS frontman and avowed tool Gene Simmons recently said that the music industry should, direct quote, “Sue everybody. Be litigious. Take their homes, their cars. Don’t let anybody cross that line”. Yes, if you’ve ever used LimeWire, BitTorrent,, Pirate Bay, those sites that can pull audio out of a YouTube video, or any other method of file sharing or piracy, Gene Simmons has declared you deserve to be homeless. He said all this at a convention for TV execs while giving a talk on “building successful entertainment brands”. Interpret that fact as you wish.

I could write Simmons’ comment off ad hominem by saying that KISS has always been a ruthlessly corporate band so interested in making money I’m surprised they aren’t on Wall Street. I could mention his stint on “The Celebrity Apprentice”. I could mention his shilly endorsements (I’m thirsty, where’s that cool, crisp and refreshing Dr. Pepper I bought?). I could mention Family Jewels.

Or, I could look at what piracy’s done for the music industry and listeners, for better and worse. So I think I’m going to do that one.

Well let’s get the obvious out the way, music piracy hurts the industry, and yes that is very deliberate wording on my part. I haven’t been able to find the exact figures, but suffice to say that album sales have plummeted and a lot of smaller chain stores and indie stores have taken the hit (Tower Records, anyone?). Pirating in and of itself doesn’t help the artist. And as a sharp friend of mine observed, it doesn’t tell labels, “This is what I want to buy, you should put more funding in this”. But let’s face it, pretty much everyone knows the problems with pirating.

So how can pirating be seen as not a bad thing? Well, first of all, it’s a way to discover new artists with no-cost to you. Now, just saying that doesn’t really lend itself as a good argument, but consider this. The first Arcade Fire song I heard was a copy of “Wake Up” that I got off a file-share site. As I’m sitting here, I can look over to my overstuffed CD rack and see Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs sitting there, each one legally purchased. While I’m aware that a lot of pirating is just downloading songs and never giving back, there’s that potential for a stolen song to become a bought album to become a bought t-shirt to become a bought concert ticket (which is where artists make most of their money).

And artists have caught wise to this. Especially anyone in the Nine Inch Nails camp. Radiohead had the first success with direct artist digital distribution, but Trent Reznor and his ilk have modified it. They take a “meet me halfway” approach as seen on NIN’s post-label output and projects like The Social Network soundtrack and Sonoio‘s album. Before the proper album comes out, they’ll release a free-to-download sampler or 4 or 5 songs. Listeners are free to keep these, or can buy the whole album various ways for various prices. That can be everything from a $2.99 digital download to a $159 collectors edition including a portable synthesizer (I am not making this up). This is the business model I’d like to see more of in the future.

Then there’s a side of the argument I haven’t seen, but am amused by. “Musicians make most of their money touring” is the argument pro-piracy people make all the time, but after taking a look at this, I was surprised by exactly how little they get. Once you get down past iTunes, apparently things get questionable, but just looking at album sales alone says a lot. If you bought Coldplay’s Viva La Vida in F.Y.E. for $10 (must have been a sale), then Coldplay gets a buck. But if you pirate it and end up seeing them live, then you and the other couple thousand people there all gave substantially more.

So at the end of the day, I am against straight pirating, but if you then “pay it back” and support the artist, then it’s just another way to break into music. And either way, it’s more exposure for the band. Oh, and on a related note, my girlfriend and I went to F.Y.E. yesterday. We both remarked that we saw way more $9.99s and $13.99s than we used to and way less $17.99s and $19.99s. So prices are coming down, good stuff.

Or hell, the internet has it for free anyway.

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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