I’m not going to make a legal argument. It may be valid but just isn’t relevant in practice. A law is only as effective as the means by which you can enforce it. And, unless something crazy happens in the world of Internet regulation, no one will be able to forcibly stop people from sharing music. After all, if there was no bouncer outside a concert venue, we could expect to see ticket sales plummet just as fast as CD sales. The problem is that many people just don’t value music in a meaningful way. What do I mean by that? Well, I understand perfectly well that people value music in the sense that they enjoy it, and love rocking out on their iPod. However, they don’t value it in the sense that they will willingly fork over $1 for a song, thus helping the artist who made it continue to produce awesome music. If I’m going to convince you to buy your next record, it’s not going to happen by scaring you with abstract arguments about copyright law.
I used to illegally download in high school. I remember when Napster first came out. It was incredible. It was fast, free, and delivered on-demand music; what could be bad about that? I can say, in all honestly, I did not once think about how it could negatively impact a musician, until I saw first-hand what it was doing.
After high school, I went to NYU, hoping to become a recording engineer. At the same time, I began to record my own music, in the hope of someday making a living from it. In an effort to get a grander perspective on the business I longed to enter, I got an internship at an indie record label. There I saw artists, with sizable fan-bases, question whether they could record another album. The demand was there, but the audience was not paying for the product they claimed to love so much. This directly translated to artists not recording albums, plain and simple. Instead, they embarked on relentless tours, leaving little to no time for writing new material and recording it.
During this time I also started to look for work in recording studios. There, I saw an effect of file sharing that was not immediately obvious. Musicians could no longer afford to pay recording engineers (amazing artists in their own right). As music sales continued to decline, studios all over New York City were shutting their doors. And it wasn’t just the big time Hit Factory places; small independently run studios were going under as well. It wasn’t that they were creating inferior products. It was a direct result of people not paying for music. This led to a decline in the quality of recorded music, at least when talking about independent artists who don’t have a 1 million dollar advance to burn through.
As I saw this going on around me, I stopped to think. If I want to be an audio engineer at a studio, how can I download music illegally? It would be utterly hypocritical of me to download an album for nothing, and at the same time hope that someone else would buy one I worked on. I realized that if I wanted things to change, I would have to start by doing it myself. Hands down, the best way to support your favorite artist is financially. Of course, telling your friends about songs and re-tweeting alerts helps, but it does not necessarily enable artists to produce moremusic. At the end of the day, what good is a fan who tells 1,000 friends about your album if none of them actually buy it? Sure, those people might go see the band live, but concerts and recordings have totally different budgets and costs. When you go see a live show, it doesn’t make up for the record you ripped off LimeWire. Your ticket price pays the roadies, the sound guys, the tour manager, the gas bills, the van insurance, and maybe, if they’re lucky, the band. That form of logic reduces recorded music to a PR Tool, aimed at promoting the sale of tickets and t-shirts. And what does that say for recorded music as a medium? Will recorded music be reduced to the importance of a T-shirt, used to promote a live show? Recorded music provides a listening experience that is unique and rewarding in its own right, and listeners should strive to preserve that. Fans should respect the wishes of the artist. If a musician asks that you pay for an album, you should respect the time and effort that went into its creation, and pay for it.
Perhaps people don’t really care about how artists make their living. But there are positive repercussions for the listener. First, I guarantee you, it will make the listening experience more rewarding. You will have a recording whose quality matches what the artist intended. You will listen closer. Just like you would savor the taste of an expensive bottle of wine, you’ll savor the sounds of that record you bought. After all, good music is not meant to be “chugged”. Buying a record will also make it easier for that artist to produce another one, meaning you get a kick-ass sounding follow-up to that record you just sipped slowly with some cheese and crackers. It is, in essence, a “win/win”.
Don’t believe me? Try it out. Wait for the release date, like you would a souffle coming from the kitchen. When it arrives, set aside some time to put it on. You can end the listening session with the comforting feeling that you are enabling the artist you love to continue to create beautiful music, that you will be able to tweet about in the very near future.
At the end of the day, it’s really a moral argument. Unfortunately in the music world, as with life in general, the moral road is not always the easiest route to take. As Plato said, “[Music] gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” In this sense, it is almost as important as the air we breathe. I urge you to meditate on this. How much does music mean to you? How does it positively affect your life? Hopefully many of you will come to the conclusion that while you may not have a fat bank account, ten dollars for a record you will play 100 times is a damn good deal.