I used to download a lot of music. One good song by an artist new to me was often enough cause to download her entire discography. I mostly didn’t feel bad about it, and still don’t, so this is not some contrite confession in search of what would assuredly be a feeble absolution, which is not because I am without moral or ethical capacity, as you’ll see in a moment. Rather, there are myriad practical considerations that led me to shift to a cloud-based / streaming, bought-and-paid-for model of personal music consumption. I.e, downloading ‘s kind of a pain in the ass.
Let’s just dispense with the ridiculous notion that downloading music without exchanging payment to any involved party is “piracy” before we really get started here. Piracy is a specific act. It is the selling of an illegally made copy of some product. The guy at the flea market who only wants five bucks for a bootleg DVD of The Fast and The Furious 37 is engaging in piracy. He took something he paid for, made a copy, and is now gaining financially for that effort without just payment to the artists or studio. One more time for emphasis – if you don’t make money from it, it’s not piracy! Our society had an argument about this several years ago with the Napster case and big business won. They won big too, because not only did they convince the courts that sharing things with your friends could, in certain cases, be illegal, but they also convinced an entire generation of consumers to adopt the term “piracy” to describe this activity, which has a sinister connotation that “sharing” never will. Now, you can argue, even on purely moral grounds (and I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning), that artists should receive compensation when their music reaches a new listener. However, the question quickly arises: where you draw the line? If I own a CD and let you borrow it for a few days, that’s OK, right? Or is it? It’s a thorny bit of philosophy, in my view, and beyond my aims in this piece, so I’ll leave it at that. Regardless of the moral machinations involved, it is perfectly within the bounds of a rule-based society to decide you can’t do something and ours decided you can’t share music in digital form. Consider, though, how different the conversation around this issue would be if that were the language we used – “illegal sharing.”
The legality of things being what it is, though, only makes the already tedious process of downloading even more so. With ISP enforcement, which can even go as far as tagging certain torrent files in a kind of sting operation, there’s always a risk you’ll be caught and have your internet service suspended or worse. You can stay anonymous but that means using a VPN and, for most people, that’s going to cost at least ten dollars a month. OK, so, rightly or wrongly, downloading ‘s illegal, and, civil disobedience considerations notwithstanding, I prefer to stay on the safe side of the law.
The ethics of the situation, I think, are a little more clear cut. I do believe artists should get paid when a person takes possession of a copy of their work and this is the one area I have to admit feeling some remorse. There are couple of mitigating points I’ll make, though. For one thing, it is absolutely not true that what I downloaded, as a whole, represents lost sales for artists. Now that I’m strictly purchasing music again, and have been for several years, I can calculate an average monthly album purchase rate. Over the last four years, I’ve purchased forty nine digital albums, a few individual tracks, around ten CDs, and a couple of records. Call it sixty five albums in four years. That’s close to one and a half albums bought per month. As I think back over twenty five years of buying music, this seems about right for my pre-downloading days too. So, even though I may have downloaded a couple hundred albums in the course of a few years, the data shows this only represents about fifty albums worth of lost sales for the industry. Now, that’s not nothing, and if you extrapolate that to hundreds of millions of people over the last fifteen years or so, you can see why the industry, and even some artists, are pissed. But there’s a catch. I have no doubt that because I downloaded so much music the total amount of money I spent on enjoying it actually went up significantly. Since I was able to explore so many artists and genres, I became a fan of lots of acts I never would have otherwise. I went to about thirty concerts during my downloading period, bought a ton of t-shirts, and became a fan of bands I am now supporting through album sales. Yes, there definitely were albums I would have bought were it not for downloading, but not nearly as many as my file storage would indicate and, overall, I’m quite certain it led to me spending more of my money on music, in one form or another.
Downloading requires a lot of effort too. It isn’t a simple matter of Googling an artist and album. You have to have dedicated torrent software and a music management program. You also have to stay up on which torrent sites are operating well and safely. You may still have to search more than one to find what you’re looking for. Even when you do, you then have to evaluate the files you’re looking at. Are there comments that speak to its legitimacy? Are there enough people sharing it that it won’t take forever to download? What’s the bit rate and thus the sound quality? It’s all, as I said in the beginning, a bit of a pain in the ass.
Part two, which will explore the surprising fact that I turn out to prefer buying my music is coming Wednesday.