It’s a debate we’ve all heard countless times. On the one hand we have the advocates of “free music”, who believe that any and all musical properties (recordings, sheet music, etc.) belong to the general public, and that paying for music only serves to fatten the wallets of nameless, faceless corporations who want to extort you for every penny you’re worth. On the other hand we have people who work in the music industry and the musicians themselves, who want to be compensated for their work and believe that anyone who downloads or trades music without paying is a petulant brat and ruthless criminal who should be put behind bars. Unfortunately, the debate has recently become somewhat stale in my opinion, not only because of this painting of the two sides in extremes, but because both sides often revert to the same tired arguments, which, when closely inspected, don’t hold much weight.
The most commonly heard argument from those against the free distribution of music is incredibly straightforward: Downloading music illegally is stealing. From both a legal and logical standpoint, this is entirely true. So why then is illegal downloading still so common, from people who otherwise have no criminal inclinations at all? The answer is frustratingly simple: Downloading music illegally doesn’t FEEL like stealing. Think about the act of actually stealing a hard-copy CD or vinyl from a record store. You would have to sneak in late at night, probably break a window or bust a lock to do so, take the item off the shelf, and make off with it before being spotted. Compare this to illegally downloading an album from the internet. You click a few buttons with your mouse, wait maybe a minute or two, and it’s done, all from the comfort and convenience of your own home. Not exactly the same experience, is it? If you steal an album from a store, you face a relatively high chance of getting caught and facing legal prosecution, while illegal downloading takes place so frequently and with such ease of anonymity that the chances of being caught (much less prosecuted) are virtually negligible. But perhaps the biggest difference between the two techniques is the presence of a tangible item. In the first example, you have physically stolen an item from a retailer, and now that it is in your possession, the store has one less of these items than it did previously. In the second example, the online album can be electronically generated as many times as it is downloaded, so not only have you not taken a physical item, but you’ve taken something from what is essentially an infinite source. The concept of downloading as “stealing” for most people tends to break down because of these two factors. People arguing against the free distribution music will often use an argument like, “Why do you steal music? You wouldn’t still a car, WOULD you?!”, with the expected response being, “Oh no, I would NEVER do that! That’s horrible! Thank you, dear musician, you have saved me from my wicked ways!”. But ask someone, “Would you steal a car from an infinite source of cars if you could do so easily, instantaneously, and with virtually zero chance of serious legal repercussions?”, and you’d most likely get the response, “Hell yes I would”.
Herein lays the major difficulty surrounding this issue, which is that the technology to electronically copy and distribute music advanced much faster than the music industry could keep up with. We were able to download and share a wealth of music from the internet before the business could develop a proper way of regulating it. People quickly became acquainted and comfortable with programs like Napster and Limewire, and now we’ve developed to the point where music is simply expected to be a free service. Once people have become used to the idea of something being free, how is it possible to get them to pay for it once more? How can we offer something that is more significant and more substantial than just “free”? It’s a loaded question, and one that is going to be addressed later on, for now it’s time to take a look that flawed arguments of those FOR the free distribution of music.
We understand that music can be illegally downloaded quickly and easily, yet at the same time we must understand that it hurts people in the industry, not to mention the artists themselves. Why then is it still so rampant? I believe that the self-righteous attitude of many people who illegally download music comes from a misconception of WHO exactly profits when you pay for music. In one episode of the television show South Park, the boys decide to form a band and, looking for musical inspiration, download a few songs from the internet. They are immediately descended upon by a SWAT team, and when the boys explain that they didn’t think it was that big of a deal, they are taken by one of the agents to see the supposed consequences of their actions. They see that, thanks to illegal downloading, Lars Ulrich from Metallica might have to wait a few more weeks before being able to afford a solid-gold shark bar for his private swimming pool, and Britney Spears has had to downgrade to a slightly smaller private airplane. While I’ll be the first to admit that it was a pretty darn funny sequence, it unfortunately does represent what many people think about where their money goes when (and if) they purchase music. Many believe that the only ones who profit from music sales are extremely wealthy record company executives and artists who are already successful, popular, and rich, and that refusing to pay for music is actually some form of meaningful protest. People are quick to toss off quips like “Oh boo-hoo, Metallica, I feel REALLY bad for you!”, yet they all too often fail to realize that for most musicians, the difference between whether or not people pay for their music doesn’t determine what size of personal aircraft they can afford, but determines whether or not they can afford to pay the rent for that month. Many people will follow up with something along the lines of , “Artists don’t make that much money off of record sales anyway, so if you really want to support them, just go to one of their live shows”, but this is much easier said than done. Because of locations and scheduling, not to mention convenience, far fewer people are able to attend an artist’s live shows than are able to purchase their music, and the kinds of people who aren’t willing to pay $8 or $10 for an album are not too likely to pay upwards of $20 or $25 to see an artist live. While it is true that artists signed with major labels don’t make significant amounts of income from record sales alone, if the artist doesn’t sell very well (regardless of how many people download their music illegally), the record company will not put in the extra money to publicize them or to have them to go on tour and play live shows. In the case of self-managed bands and artists, they actually retain a significantly higher percentage of profits from record sales, so not buying music from these artists impacts them much more directly and can even affect whether or not they can go on tour or play live shows at all, not to mention affecting whether or not they decide to keep making music.
Then there’s the excuse we’ve all heard countless times, “Come one, it’s just one song, it’s not like my 99 cents is going to make a difference”. In the grand scheme of things, no, your 99 cents doesn’t make that big of a difference. The problem is that when hundreds of millions of people think that their 99 cents won’t make a difference, it ends up making one hell of a difference. Think of it as embezzling on a grand scale. If you take a few cents from the “Take A Penny, Leave A Penny” tray, it doesn’t make much of a difference, but if several hundred million people do it a few billion times, the store will quickly be run out of business. Each individual, though, could shrug off any responsibility by claiming that he or she didn’t take THAT much money.
And then comes the grand-daddy of all retorts from proponents of free music: “You can’t put a price on art, man; you shouldn’t demand that we pay you, you should just make music because you love it and it’s what you DO”. Many of us squirm upon hearing these kinds of arguments because, deep down, there is some kernel of truth to it. It’s a beautiful idea, this vision of a perfect world where we could just sit around being “artists” all day, making art for art’s sake and not having to worry about money. In fact, of the most brilliant composers of the modern era, Charles Ives, was an advocate of free music, claiming that once he finished composing a piece he did not consider it “his” anymore, rather it belonged to the rest of the world and they could use it and do with it as they pleased. However, it is worth noting that Charles Ives was also a brilliant financial businessman who developed and patented the modern system of estate planning, and by 1915 was making a yearly salary of about eight million dollars. Not all of us have a fall-back plan as good as that one. For professional musicians, making music is not a HOBBY, it is a JOB, and the sad fact is that many people do not have a concept of the difference. Because so many people make music as a hobby (and don’t get me wrong, it’s great that they do), they don’t understand the concept of paying a professional. As an aspiring professional musician myself, I can tell you that many people find the idea of paying you to make music is laughable at best, and offensive at worst. They believe that because it’s something people do for a hobby, nobody should get paid for it; after all, people aren’t surgeons and lawyers for a hobby, are they? But imagine someone who does carpentry as a hobby marching into an architect’s office and saying “I built a toolshed in my backyard and I didn’t get paid for it, therefore you shouldn’t get paid to draft that 20-floor office building”. The hobbyist has a basic working knowledge of his craft and works for his own satisfaction; the architect has years of intense training and study under his or her belt, a degree in his or her field, an extensive working knowledge of the craft, and is capable of producing work of a complexity and quality that the hobbyist simply is not. The architect deserves to paid, and the same should be said of professional musician versus a hobbyist musician. The simple fact of the matter is that a professional musician can provide a much more polished and, well, professional service than can a hobbyist. If you want someone to sing at your wedding or in your annual Christmas cantata, you’re going to get a much different result if you hire a professional singer with a degree and years of training than if you get “my friend Nancy who sings real good at karaoke night” to do it for free. If you want someone to write a score for your student film, you’re going to get a much different result if you hire a professional composer than if you get “my buddy Dave who plays bass in a jam band and totally writes his own songs” to do it for free. Being a professional musician takes YEARS of serious study, and if people don’t think that professional musicians deserve to be paid, then people will stop putting in the immense time and effort it takes to become a professional musician with a professional skill set. At that point, all we would have left is poor, uninformed musicianship and bad covers of pop songs on YouTube. You know which ones I’m talking about, and you know that we don’t want any more of that.
But then there’s the idea that we should do what we do solely because “we love it”. Yes, we love what we do as musicians, but there are also doctors, engineers, veterinarians, teachers, biologists, and countless others who love what they do and have meaningful careers. Should we suggest that these people not be paid for their services because they enjoy what they do, and that they should be content to simply “feel good about themselves”? No – they are professionals, they deserve to be paid like professionals. Most of us can agree on that, but still the fact remains that many people aren’t comfortable with the whole idea of paying musicians. I remember reading a very passionate article just recently about how paying for music is elitist and wrong because (in the author’s point of view) it would be reinforcing the old ways, in which the wealthy aristocrats would pay for music to keep it out of reach of the general public, and it was time for us common-folk to “take back the music!”. Clearly this author never bothered to take a peek inside a music history textbook. Do you know why we have the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Beethoven, and the ballets of Stravinsky? Because some embarrassingly wealthy people paid them an awful lot of money to do it. Yes, these men were artists, some of the greatest artists who ever lived, but they didn’t write these masterpieces by sitting around and just being “artists” – they did it because someone PAID THEM to WORK. They were professionals, and they needed to be paid for their work so that they could continue to compose, not to mention pay the bills (and in Mozart’s case, buy booze). Paying for music ensures that quality music will endure, and your personal contributions are really not so much about stuffing the pockets of any particular individual but about respecting the work of the artist.
So we come to the inevitable question – in a world where people have become used to getting music for free, how do we get them to pay for music again, and how can artists be adequately compensated for their work? There is no easy answer to this question, and I can’t really claim to provide any brilliant insights, but a key piece of the puzzle I believe is to embrace the advancements of technology rather than shun them. Like it or not, the internet and file-sharing is here to stay, and rather thinking of it as inherently “good” or “bad”, we should think of it as “different” and adjust our business models accordingly. The opportunity to reach limitless numbers of people instantaneously via the internet is quite exciting - the challenge will come with how to regulate this technology and separate the musical wheat from the chaff. One successful idea I’ve noticed taking shape is professional artists’ accounts on YouTube. Anyone can see their music videos free of charge with slightly lower audio/video quality than the finished product, and can decide whether or not to purchase the music (at full audio quality) afterwards, AND the artists still get compensated because companies pay for advertisements before the clip begins. Not a perfect system necessarily, but it’s a start.
One thing that professional artists should keep in mind if they want to be successful is to make their music as (legally) available as possible. In many instances, people are tempted to steal music because they can’t find a way to purchase it legally; for example, many items in the “International” iTunes stores cannot be purchased in the U.S. iTunes store, so the only way to acquire the songs would be to pay to have the CD shipped from overseas (expensive!) or download them illegally (free!). I can remember one instance just recently where I was very tempted to illegally download a particular song for this very reason. I heard a clip of a song by a particular Australian singer on YouTube and thought, “Wow, that’s really great, I definitely want to buy that!”. I searched on iTunes and it wasn’t there – I looked into every legal means of downloading it that I could think of and came up with nothing. I finally decided to look up the actual album itself, which had to be shipped from Australia, and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. Was I going to pay $80 for one song? No. And I remember thinking that I could just bypass all of this by downloading the song illegally, and there were probably many other people who had done just that. In the end, I did not download the song, and the clip was removed from YouTube within a few days due to copyright violations, but I also did not buy the $80 album. Instead of being able to make a little bit of money by making their music legally available online, this distributor made none. So while artists aren’t obligated to make their music easily available through legal means, I believe that doing so is in everyone’s best interests.
Lastly, I believe that there simply needs to be a more open and less hostile dialogue between the people creating/distributing music and the people purchasing it. If people have a clearer view of WHY they should pay for music, and what their money helps to pay for, there would be considerably less illegal downloading of music. There would still be some, and there will probably always be some, but we can change the conversation in a meaningful way and maybe find some creative new ways of making music available. I would just ask you all to remember one thing – if a song isn’t worth paying 99 cents for, then it’s probably not worth listening to in the first place.
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.