Josh Butler • 21 June 2012

UPDATE: Part 2 of this debate can be read here.

“Is music file sharing good for musicians? All logic says “no,” but many musicians are making the new music climate work in their favour. While music piracy is ripping millions of dollars out of the industry, some artists are thinking outside the box and searching for ways to make today’s environment of almost limitless, free access to music be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, to their careers.

“But,” I hear you say. “How can it be good if people are getting music for free, and musicians get nothing?” Because, I argue, the smart musicians have long recognised that a day is coming where music will be a free commodity, and have taken steps to diversify their web of money-making tools; and because the smart new bands have all grown up with the knowledge that their fans will probably not pay for music and have been pioneering new ways of making money out of music; and because both have realised that there’s other ways to be successful today.

First off, the file-sharing debate has been raging for years. From shadier services Napster to Kazaa to Limewire to BitTorrent to Megaupload to FilesTube, and now on to legal services like Spotify and Rdio, online access to music has been a hot-button issue for what seems like my entire 21-year-old life. It’s something I’ve just grown up with. Born in 1990, I came into the music world as a teenager just as the CD market started dying, and online file-sharing was becoming the norm. I simply don’t know another world, which is the sentiment echoed by NPR intern Emily White last week in her open and honest blog post where she revealed she has 11,000 songs but only ever bought 15 CDs in her life. Setting off a firestorm of debate on the topic online, she was thoroughly flamed in a blog by David Lowery, where he basically tore her down and said she was destroying the very fabric of music itself, was the devil incarnate, etc. etc.(an excellent rebuttal of that is  here at Huffington Post, where Travis Morrison rightly points out that music piracy ain’t no new thang. – remember  ripping new music off CDs from the library?)

It’s no ground-shaking revelation that revenues from recorded music have declined sharply, and exponentially, in recent years. In his blog, Lowery cites that “Recorded music revenue is down 64% since 1999,” and “of 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. Only 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies.” So what does that mean for musicians?

Look, first off, it sucks that musicians are losing money here. Not for one second am I saying “musicians are rich, so it’s cool to rip them off” or “artists don’t deserve to be paid for their art”. Of course they deserve payment. But the current day and age, it’s not so easy. While I don’t back this logic, the prevailing ideology among listeners is that music should be free, and not much will change that. Some bands bemoan this, but the smart ones have recognised that fighting the logic is an uphill battle, and have looked for profit in other areas; touring, mainly, but also corporate partnerships, advertisements, vinyl, merchandise and other special stuff for fans. A financial guy would call it “alternative streams of revenue” or something. And, in some ways, the greater exposure and access to music that we have in our modern day and age  is helping to make money in these areas. How? Let’s take a look.

In the olden days of rock’n’roll (i.e. before Myspace), touring was seen as a way of promoting the album. The album was the product, the live show was the advertisement. Now, the balance has shifted in the opposite direction; bands are using their albums to coax people along to their live shows, as a teaser of “what to expect.” Many bands, especially younger up-and-comers, are becoming more accepting of the idea of file-sharing, because they believe that greater access to their music will bring more people to their shows. If people hear a record for free, and like it, they’re definitely  inclined to go see the band live. If a band makes a good record, they’ve probably got me hooked as a fan for life. This is why many bands offer free online streams of their new album before the official release date; if people can access a product for free, they’re more likely to try it. A real world example: the free stuff that product distributors give you outside train stations or public events. Normally, I wouldn’t try an organic soy mocha green tea energy drink; but give me a free sample, and I’ll give that bad boy a whirl. This option obviously works with music, as labels wouldn’t do it unless it was effective. Which is where services like Spotify and Rdio will again be a powerful tool in the fight against piracy, as they offer a free sample of albums. Want to check out the new Hives album? Search it on Spotify, take a few listens, then decide whether you want to shell out your cash. Like it? Buy it. Don’t like it? No worries. You’ve still had a listen, which bumps up The Hives’ listening stats on Spotify, gives them a (albeit fairly tiny) bit of money, and doesn’t grow the piracy industry. Everybody wins!

Of course, this isn’t going to be representative of everyone. With music so easily accessible, free (legally and illegally) online, many people do not feel the obligation to support artists. Not every person I know goes to the same amount of concerts as me, buys the same amount of vinyl as me, feels the obligation to “pay the artist back” as much as I do. But many people do. It’s why concert attendance is going up all the time. Festivals sell out in a matter of days. Why bands are going to great lengths to put together crazy pre-order packs for fans who actually buy the physical copies of the album (more on that below). Why vinyl is up and CDs are down.

More on page 2


kevmanbob says:

I totally agree with you as to the reason why vinyls are up and CDs are down. A shiny piece of plastic just didn’t cut it any more. However, i highly recommend you read this article and see if that changes your mind about anything. Why are we recommending we change our morals and ethics for the music industry, depriving our artists of the money and respect they deserve, while demanding they keep making more! While i used to be in your camp of thought josh butler, I know this article has certainly changed my mind!

Millsy76 says:

Wow, that’s 5 minutes of my life I won’t get back. says:

I’m not sure how you can justify illegally downloading music for free because that is all you know and have grown up with it. That doesn’t make an illegal or unethical action valid. Sure the industry is undergoing a massive revolution and everyone (artists, labels, distributors, retailers and consumers) have to adapt but that doesn’t give the individual the right to decide that it is OK to take music freely. Just beacause you have bought concert tickets or merch doesn’t justify you taking their music, what about the artists that can’t get to a country
like Russia with a massive population and a reputedly high piracy level?
Defences like this feel like justifications for actions that people know are wrong.
I do agree about the added value that artists/labels are building into physical releases and the resurgence of vinyl sales and production.
The argument that people need to or should be able to ‘try before they buy’ bugs me. Surely music reviews from trusted sources, friends recommendations and natural curiosity are enough? Paying for a digital download is the equivalent of a couple of schooners of beer, hardly high cost/risk transaction. If you really can’t afford it then save up, since when has one’s financial position been an acceptable justification to steal any property (unles you are physically starving perhaps).
I read a good comment on a similar post which raised the issue of individuals’ large scale accumulation of music via illegal downloads and the resultant inability to either listen to it all or gain any real depth of experience via repeated listens. The connection with the art becomes shallow and fleeting like reading a synopsis instead of the actual book.