Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Music Piracy

Downloading copyrighted music is like shoplifting.  (This message is cross-posted on my personal and music blog.)

...That's what most people will tell you (example), and I disagree.

Personally, I think selling MP3s is like selling water. Misguided and ultimately abusive.

I understand artists need to make a living doing what they do. I understand that thousands of jobs revolve around the existing music industry, and I understand that stealing music is stealing money from those people. I'm sorry about that.

But...

...The industry was built on a house of straw.  Sad though it may be, those people's lives will have to change when it tumbles.  ...just as it is with any industry that isn't sound. And, frankly, I don't think any of them will be out of a job when the dust settles: it will just look different. Well, except maybe the executives. They might suffer most. But industry executives are, in no uncertain terms, taking more money from the pockets of artists than we are. My heart will not bleed for them.

And...

No product is being stolen. There's no box, no wrapping, no store. No effective way to prevent it. It's not shoplifting, and the ananlogy is a harmful one.

What's being stolen are services, and in such minute quantities (after it reaches an adequate number of ears) that the "debt" any individual incurs from their transgression is negligible.

Pay-per-download is not an efficient economic model. MP3s could be subsidized externalities. There's an opportunity here. Music is an enormous part of our culture. Enormous! In my humble, the industry needs to stop crying foul (they can't stop it) and do something productive. There are at least a half-dozen superb ideas to accomplish this already: I won't bother repeating them*.

I have no qualms with people freely downloading music, as long as they ultimately support the artists they appreciate.

And remember: I release my music for free**.
 

* Not often suggested, but: what if you put MP3s in the public domain? This could be the greatest thing since the Public Library System!

** Actually, I once made a few hundred bucks, at MP3.com, which was subsidized, freely-downloadable music.  That model failed: it was too early and their math was way off, but that's a story for another day.

3 comments:

peterkirn said...

Well, look, I think you have to look at the context of what I was saying. People use "stealing music is like shoplifting" to say "don't steal music." That's a pointless and one-dimensional argument, I agree.

What I was saying is that "music is like shoplifting" from the point of view of someone in the music business. And, in fact, if you really examine that analogy, you reach two conlusions:

1. It's a kind of loss that doesn't have a material cost associated with it. (Now, wait a minute -- that's a *good* thing for the person in the music business, relative to retail loss prevention.)

2. You would expect someone in this business to consider preventing theft, but (and this is the root of my analogy), it will *always* come second to actually selling something in the first place.

And that comes back to your argument. The real issue here is whether you can sell the item in the first place.

So, what I don't get from what you're saying is what exactly is misguided or *abusive* about selling a download? You've decided to give your music away. Fine - great. I've played gigs with no cover.

Someone else might decide to charge $1 for their album. Or they might charge $50 and mail people some handcrafted case or an open-source MP3 player kit.

What's wrong with that, exactly? I assume you mean the industry is abusive - fine. But the fundamental issue of selling music is perfectly reasonable.

Musicians get an absurd amount of flak for being businesspeople, and that to me is misguided and abusive. We're in a capitalist society in which we have to be able to make money to buy food and pay rent and buy health insurance. I don't think selling the fruits of your musical labors is somehow unethical. If they sign away those rights to a label that ultimately takes all the money and gives them none, well, that's obviously a problem. But it's not the sales transaction that's at fault.

Jeez, we're in the middle of an economic crisis that started because people were selling repackaged debt. I don't think DRM-free MP3 sales is a great sin, somehow.

Jeremy Rice said...

Hey, Peter. Surprised you found this post before I commented on your blog. ;) Thanks for replying.

So:

Point taken... but I still think the analogy is a harmful one, even from the POV of the business.

I didn't say "selling the fruits of your musical labors" was misguided, I said selling MP3s was. I was being pretty careful to say it that way, too.

You're right: the sales transaction is not at fault. It's just that the focus is on the MP3, where it doesn't belong. As I said, there are a myriad ways to make money as an artist that don't involve MP3 sales. Relying on MP3 sales is... well... stupid: people are going to find the MP3s for free, and it's not something we're going to prevent. Those of us who actually care about the artist behind the music will buy them, sure. (I certainly do.) But I would be just as willing--more so--to buy the physical CD, or pay a few bucks to get access to an insider blog, or buy a pre-release, or go to a gig, or... well, you get the point. In fact, here is my personal favourite idea for musicians to make money.

You can still make a profit.

AlexP said...

Hi it's the second time I read this "selling water" comparison so I'm wondering what you're all getting wrong?

French people don't sell packaged tap water, it's water originating from mountain springs and flowing through so many anciant rocks it becomes filled with a lot of mineral elements which are proved to be of medical use.

Also I don't know what the situation is in the USA but water distribution service is not free either in here and nobody dares to argue with that fact seing it's purified and cleaned by many facilities before being distributed...so it has a cost as a service...

Now back on topic, Peter didn't say piracy was shoplifting I think you got his point wrong :p

Interesting post nonetheless.