Piracy vs. Purchasing: Who’s Right?

The discussion of the ethical grey area of piracy is in no way a new conversation. For as long as people have created art, other people have tried to fashion a way to get it for free. Piracy as a headline-making crime, however, gained attention with the advent of free music downloads, most notably with the Napster’s popular free service in the late 90s. Now, personally, this is not a subject I have really followed closely over the years. I remember the crazy court cases involving members of Metallica and Pearl Jam and I watched with mild shock as teenagers were prosecuted for piracy.

I guess I never really formed an opinion on the topic; most likely because I never engaged in Internet piracy. I don’t currently download pirated movies, books or movies. I have never really examined my motives for the lack of engagement in this 21st century past time. Pretty much, I’ve just been a combination of lazy and scared. I’m the one who will get caught and I’m too short for prison. Not to mention, I’m much too lazy to figure out how to even go about it.

Does this mean I’m innocent of piracy? Certainly not. I have bootlegged albums, movies, etc that friends have given me over the years, and I’m more than happy to take free art off their hands. But if forced to pick a side…well, I just don’t know.

I did some cursory research on the topic, and what interested me most was that a good deal of the articles and/or blogs written about piracy vs. purchasing have everything to do with royalties and industry income. People argue back and forth on whether or not the music industry will come to a grinding halt as a result of Internet piracy. I think enough time has passed now that we can all agree this will NOT be the case. The amount of money that labels are losing is really negligible, it seems. And truth be told, maybe it’s time we do away with labels for the most part anyway.

My understanding of the fiscal breakdown is that a record label takes the biggest chunk of the money made from albums sold; presumably because the label is responsible for the artists’ work making it to the hands of the public. It is, in fact, a giant machine. The bigger the machine you climb onto, the bigger the potential profit. The problem, however, is that signing with a label is a gamble. They invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into a band with the stipulation that the band will pay them back via royalties.

In essence, major labels are loan sharks. So, if the band is totally convinced that the gamble will pay off, then perhaps this is the best route to follow. The problem, and this is the part of the conversation I really don’t see a lot of, is that once a band signs with a label, they lose most (if not all) creative freedom. Most labels aren’t focused on creating good art, they are focused on making money. So if a band is in the “fair to middlin'” arena and signs with a label, they could lose out on the chance to have a career in music altogether. If their album sales don’t match the label’s financial output, then the band will undoubtedly be dropped. If these same middle of the road bands self-promoted via the Internet with the ultimate goal of just “making a living,” then perhaps we would see more bands rise to moderate popularity. In order for this to be achievable, however, the buyers have to respect the art enough to pay for it.

When push comes to shove, the conversation needs to steer away from money and head towards respect for art. With the above scenario in mind, I believe that ideally we, the purchasing society, would be able to create a system in which music labels (of which I have a pretty low opinion) went the way of the rotary phone. With the increasing usability of the Internet, there is absolutely no reason that a perfectly talented band shouldn’t be able to make a decent living producing art. That means, though, that we the fans need to start coughing up some dough. We like music (books, movies, etc). We like to be entertained. And for the greater population, we depend on the more talented set to take care of fulfilling these needs. The artists deserve money for their contributions to society- otherwise we will cease to have art. Imagine being a talented musician with only a few spare hours here and there to craft art. This is not the formula to advanced talent and skill. This is the formula for mediocrity.

If we the purchasing public continue to “steal” music, the bands will be forced to continue to hop on the industry machine. Really, it’s a sick sad cycle. I think one solution is that the people start paying the artists directly for the music and that the artists lower their expectations for income. Unfortunately, the egomaniacs of the world will likely never allow this to happen. The P.Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Johns need their Hummers and their Lambos and their mansions and their video girls.

For bands with the intention of producing art, though, maybe we could make this happen with a commitment to paying for the art we get. I remember interviewing Chris Hall back in the day. He had a great attitude. His band had had a couple of hits over the years; his attitude was that he was totally happy because he was able to do what he loved and he only had to make coffee for someone when he wanted to. If more fans paid for art and more artists approached their work as though it was a medium for expression rather than a route to fame, maybe we could do away with the corporate bullshit altogether. Just maybe we’d begin to see music and art with more integrity begin to rise up.

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