The Real and ONLY Reasons Why Fans File-Share Music
October 21, 2010
Kyle Bylin in Fans, value

Thus far, we’ve looked at eight reasons why fans file-share music.

Mainly, they’re unaware of the number of legal and alternative options to consume music that are available; they want to hear music and grow to like the songs before they buy them; or they don’t know the artist, either not well enough or at all, or don’t trust them, due to recent line-up or sound changes. Rebuilding that trust takes time and isn’t easy.

As well, fans file-share music when there’s too many hoops to jump through on an artist’s website or because the offer that the artist made, whether by price, package, or delivery, was terrible. Next, we looked at the role that the biases of digital technologies play into file-sharing—the different ranges of social behavior they promote in audiences.

We also tried to understand how choice overload can cause decision paralysis, leading fans to become overwhelmed. To cope, they take the path of least resistance, attempt to explore all of their options at once, and end up committing to no decision at all.

Lastly, we looked at how fans employ their own Internet law of economics when buying music and end up file-sharing it to mitigate the risk purchasing with an album they wouldn’t have otherwise bought. A number of motivations were intentionally left out of this analysis. Let us now explore some of the more common reasons why fans file-share:

1. Because They Can 

Why do dogs lick their butts? Because they can. Why do teens sext each other? Because they can. Why do men and women cheat on each other in a relationship? Because they can. So, why do fans file-sharing music online? Because they can. Taylor Northern went as far as writing an entire blog post to illustrate this idea.

The whole psychology of the behavior can be ignored, as this simple fact of life explains everything. It’s an axiom of human conduct. This assertion, however, implies that there’s no rational behind file-sharing. Since fans can just download music for free, they do. Why did they download Katy Perry’s new album instead of legally downloading it off iTunes?

Because they can. They have no argument or excuse to justify why they downloaded the music. It was there. They wanted it. So they file-shared it. End of story. This is a dangerous argument—not because there isn’t truth to it. It, however, implies the reverse thought.

How do we make it so they can’t file-share? After all, if they’re only doing it because they can, then this is a simple fix. We can stop them.

The problem is that this notion flies in the face of everything else we know:

1. Mass behavior is hard to change.  

2. Copying will only get easier.  

3. Sharing is human.

4. Knowledge is a curse.

5. Unintended consequences occur.

On a later date, I will follow up on these ideas. Suffice it to say, there’s no way to make it so fans can’t file-share. Trying to do so only ignores the many problems that are bigger than file-sharing music. 

2. They Don’t Care

I’ve been told that fans don’t buy music because they don’t care about paying artists. It’s that simple. Technology writer Nick Bilton has argued that it’s not so much that people don’t care about cultural creators; it’s that the web, by its very design, lacks humanization.

“People are oblivious to the fact that a human being is on the other side of the digital information that they are consuming,” Bilton writes in I Live In The Future & This Is How It Works. Yes, the web has enabled performers to connect with their fans and humanize themselves. But to most, artists still live in the radio and don’t exist in the real world. 

Instead of assuming that fans don’t care about paying artists, why not ask why they don’t? 

Our society places a low premium on cultural creators. Arts and music have been pushed out of the classroom in favor of subjects that prepare students to take their standardized tests better. Like many aspects of their lives, like food, clothing, and electronics, people don’t have a clue where music comes from. They’re disconnected from the processes of arts creation and from the real people and places involved. The business of music and the commercialization of the public listening sphere is something that they’re ignorant of. 

If the contention is that the fans don’t care about paying artists, it assumes that as a society we’ve given them a reason to care. Have we given them one? Or have we failed to nature a public that cares about any kind of artists? Painters and poets are artists too.

Last I checked no one cares if they make money either.

3. Music Is Worthless

It has also been suggested that fans just don’t value music in a meaningful way.

As I’ve argued in the past, this argument is misguided; it fails to ask the more meaningful question. Is it that people don’t value music? Or, is it that music has become in some way disconnected from its cultural value? Months later, I still don’t have the answer to that one.

From the perspective of Steve Lawson, there’s another part of this argument that its proponents fail to consider. The simple fact, he argues, is that, “Music is worthless.”

The kind of music that we recognize as music and of having value—those noises that fit within the ‘organized sound’ definition—that has “no inherent value at all.” Lawson continues, “All the value is contextual. It can be invested, it can be enhanced, it can even be manufactured counter to any previously measured notions of ‘quality’ with a particular idiom, but it’s not innate. Noise is not a saleable commodity.”

His whole argument, one he has made before: the financial value of music “is entirely based on the listener’s sense of gratitude for it.” To him, that gratitude manifests itself in different ways, but is commonly expressed by sharing, saying thank you, or paying for it.

So, what happens when that person is no longer grateful for music itself for existing, the artist who created it, or the person that introduced them to it? As well, what happens when that person has become unwilling to express that appreciation by sharing it friends, saying thank you to the artist, or buying it from a retailer? Well, that scary experiment is playing out right now. Music is being taken for granted—almost as if it’s a fact of life.

It is. But, not on the scale that fans are betting it to be. The ramifications to this aren’t obvious. Nor will they reveal themselves for quite awhile.

Why are people willing to pay $6.21 for a Venti coffee and muffin from Starbucks, but recoil at the idea of spending that much on a few songs? It’s a hard call. Somewhere along the way, they’ve become disconnected from the value and society has failed to instill in them an appreciation for all cultural creators. Somehow, I don’t think turning off their web connection or suing them for everything they have will make them value art more.

4. Keeping the Money

Pop-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman nailed this one.

“People didn’t stop buying albums because they were philosophically opposed to how the rock business operated, and they didn’t stop buying albums because the Internet is changing the relationship between capitalism and art,” he writes. “People stopped buying albums because they wanted the fucking money. It’s complicated, but it’s not.”

Napster spread on college campuses full broke students looking to save money. They found a way to save money by downloading music and not buying it. Therefore, they did. No lawn protests occurred. Fans didn’t care about the corporate influence on music in the public sphere; the mistreatment of artists by labels; or even the declining quality of commercial music. They wanted to keep the money. It’s complicated, but it’s not.

His wider theory is file-sharing came at a time when many fans where looking to reallocate money to pay off their self-imposed debt, whether that be credit cards or student loans. There’s an article that appeared on Forbes titled “No Job And $50,000 In Student Debt. Now What?” The answer to that question, as I see it, is that they’re not purchasing albums anytime soon. They can’t afford music or their burnt coffee anymore either.

Assuming that the fans aren’t that broke and are keeping the money. What are they spending it on? Klosterman isn’t convinced that people’s disposable income budgets are interchangeable—that because they aren’t spending money on music, they’re buying video games and movies instead. Charles Arthur at The Guardian has argued otherwise.

He has contended, “the music industry’s deadliest enemy isn’t file-sharing – it’s the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, and a zillion games publishers.” He thinks gaming packs more value than music and the attention of fans, along with their money, has shifted.

Additional Reasons

There are two additional reasons that fans file-share music.

Everyone’s doing it . “The simple truth is that humans, being first and foremost social creatures, rather than independent agents, rely on copying to learn and to negotiate the rich and sophisticated social reality they inhabit,” write Mark Earls and Alex Bentley in Forget Influentials. “Copying is our species’ number one learning and adaptive strategy.” Fans copy the behavior of others fans and they spread; it’s pulled through the population.

No one gets caught. Fans file-share because everyone else they know does it and certainly, they aren’t the ones that would ever get caught. They’re smarter than that. Those who got sued must have done stupid things that put them at risk. No matter how scary the stories get about fans getting sued, people generally believe that bad things won’t happen to them. It’s basic psychology. We imagine the future and see only good things. Of course, around 30,000 fans have been caught file-sharing music. But, none of us knows enough people to know someone close to us that got sued and we wrongly assume that our chances have lessened. After all, I don’t know anyone who has been caught—do you?

Where Does This Leave Us?

Breaking the Internet won’t fix the record industry. Instead, we must build a digital ecology of music culture that pays artists for their art and supports creativity. Along the way, we must protect, as legal scholar Larry Lessig says in Free Culture, “the space for innovation and creativity that the Internet is.” Just as we strive to defend artists and the innovation and creativity that their music is, we must defend what the Internet is: an architecture to enable unplanned and unforeseen innovation. Doing otherwise would be a grave mistake. 

It’s time that we start thinking honestly about what music means to us and the future we’re attempting to create for it. This is a time of turbulence. The evolution of this ecosystem, if fueled by our curiosity and imaginations, will resolve most facets of music piracy. File-sharing is both market and moral failure. “The Internet is in transition,” Lessig writes. “We should not be regulating a technology in transition. We should instead be regulating to minimize the harm to interests affected by this technological change, while enabling and encouraging, the most efficient technology that we can create.” The changes that we seek won’t happen overnight, as beyond the technological, they’re also cultural and societal.

Meanwhile, the best thing we can do is focus on reconnecting real people, places, and values. If we desire to nurture a society that values that ‘art’ that music is, it begins at a local level. Show people the beauty beneath the scars and the lyrics became the bloodstained poetry on your heart. Why music matters has nothing to do with musicians and everything to do with the meaning it creates in people’s lives. Connect your audience to that meaning and value is created. Preserving that value doesn’t take breaking the Internet. All it takes is reminding real people in real places why music matters to you.

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
See website for complete article licensing information.