Piracy vs. Purchasing: What’s Next?

Music piracy is not so much of a two-sided argument anymore as a many-layered conversation. I think ten years ago it was pretty easy to have a cut-and-dry opinion about the matter, but now that artists have adapted to and even embraced the internet as a forum for music distribution, the debate has been muted.

Distribution methods are dynamically changing, and it seems recording artists are always a step or two behind. Only in recent years have labels embraced online sales transactions, but major distribution outlets like iTunes and Amazon still sell digital music for prices comparable to buying a compact disc at a major discount store like Wal-Mart or Target.

Of course the world of internet piracy is more sophisticated than ever. Major torrent trackers like The Pirate Bay and Mininova (RIP), now the prime target of RIAA‘s legal efforts, have developed ways of circumventing international copyright laws to provide users with terabytes upon terabytes of digital music free of charge, and merely a click away. Although they frequently fall victim to crippling litigation anyway, smaller and private trackers provide access to even bigger libraries provided the user is savvy enough to access them.

Not to mention the exponentially increasing popularity of YouTube, whose original stated purpose before becoming subject to the internet establishment was to host every music video ever created. While artists like Prince have taken offense to the concept, and major labels like Warner Music Group have taken huge efforts to moderate its content, the site remains the world’s largest cache of music videos and single songs, albeit at substantially compressed bitrates.

Myspace (remember, it was that social networking site that USED to be ubiquitous) is now the most popular form of music promotion, allowing artists to upload entire discographies worth of streaming audio as well as a ready-made community with which to network and share their art. The problem of course is that Myspace itself only provides a source of exposure, not income.

Now that major recording artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have all but shunned the concept of major label distribution and its archaic business model, people are starting to reconsider whether this is such a black and white issue. The inherent problem is — are these the right people to be listening to?

I think its nothing short of admirable that Trent Reznor and Thom Yorke have been so vocal about their dismay for major labels, but they are at somewhat of a luxurious position, being that they are hugely successful and at liberty to explore more experimental methods of distribution that may or may not be successful. While nothing’s changed for smaller, independent artists, who still struggle just as much now for exposure as they did when they couldn’t land a record deal before, I’m wondering what effect the rise of internet piracy has had on the middle ground, or even the upper echelon. It seems that even alternative radio is catering more and more to the mainstream, becoming more of the Middle 40 to contrast less and less with the Top 40.

Typically the only artists you hear clinging to the archaic business model that major labels provide and practice are the ones who have negotiated extraordinary contracts, such as Metallica and Pearl Jam as Camas mentioned. More often than not, the recording artists of themselves see a very small percentage of the royalties from their record sales, and a more popular motion now is to sell directly to the consumer for discounted rates. The inherent problem is that there is no centralized marketplace for such transactions, and introducing one would once again subject the artists to a commission a hence a large portion of their royalties. I forsee this becoming the next major beast.

There are other artistic considerations to take into account that mainstream consumers consider trivial. The continued cult popularity of vinyl records demonstrates that a lot of people still have consideration for the artists entire output — listening to the entire album in context with lyrics and full-sized album art in-hand. The realm of digital music will continue to marginalize this subculture into the fringe, but they’ll still be there.

Another consideration is sound quality. Last time I checked, most of what iTunes sold was in proprietary MPEG-3 format, at bitrates as low as 192 kbps. No self-respecting artist would release audio at such a fraction of full quality. Even the aforementioned NIN and Radiohead have taken this into account — when they famously released their albums free of charge, they were in compressed audio formats, whereas lossless formats were available for charge. For now the distinction is only pertinent to audiophiles, but as the mainstream music consumer becomes more tech savvy, I imagine audio quality will become a more pertinent consideration.

The big question is — what’s the solution? Well if I had one, I’d be rich, but I have my fantasies. I think the direct-from-artist model has some serious merit. I’d like to continue seeing music at low bitrates provided free of charge. This allows people to try full albums, to get a feel for them before making the investment of a purchase. It also hopefully circumvents the potential for singles to take centerstage and obscure exposure to the merits of the rest of the artist’s work, or the album as a whole if it’s intended to be experienced as such.

I think the real future has to be in a centralized outlet/promotional forum — something combining the merits of Myspace and iTunes but without the relatively extravagant cost to both the consumer and the recording artist. Services like Bandcamp are huge leap forwards, allowing people to stream audio from the browser and purchase it in a variety of compressed and non-compressed formats, the price of which are left to the artists’ discretion. If this concept was super-imposed on a social networking site like Myspace (or hopefully Facebook), I think it’d have huge potential for success.

It’s been a rough ten years for the recording industry. Now that the war between two giant beasts is almost ending in victory for the internet, perhaps the final death knell of the major label is imminent. In the meantime, the best way to show support for your favorite artists is to see them live. Artists retain a much higher percentage of the ticket price than revenue from their record sales, and its one service the Internet can never provide.

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.