Illegal Downloads and the Music Industry


The music industry seems to be in a perpetual lather about illegal downloads, for example this piece from the Guardian seems typical of their views. It’s almost as if they’re stuck in a time warp – I remember back in the 1970s there was the slogan “home taping is killing music”. Well it can’t have done as here we are nearly 40 years later with the music industry still going (relatively) strong. I admit that there are problems, but there’s been a resurgence of live music and I think the industry is basically healthy – they just need to find a new financial model.

Recently there does seem to have been some more sensible arguments being raised and the issues discussed more rationally as these articles from the Guardian demonstrate:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/jun/09/games-dvd-music-downloads-piracy

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/05/ben-goldacre-bad-science-music-downloads

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/may/21/victor-keegan-music-industry

All of these chime with my views on the subject – basically a track or album downloaded illegally doesn’t automatically equate to a lost sale, which is the basic argument from the music industry at the moment. As Ben Goldacre would say – “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

This forum post which (as you’d perhaps expect) is sympathetic to downloading pretty much explains my thinking on the subject.

While there are a small number of people who will try to obtain music illegally – often simply because they can (category A) – regardless, there are a large number of people who do so because they feel that they have no alternative. These are people like me who download for the following reasons. I haven’t discussed category D downloading as that’s a special case of music that isn’t actually for sale or is a very special case of category C downloading.

Category B: Sample before purchase. I only have so much money to spend on music, so if there’s something people say I might like, I want to hear it before I spend my hard earned money. If I like it, I’ll buy it (though it might only when it’s on special offer – it depends on how much I like it and how good the quality of the download is) and more often than not I’ll buy the artist’s subsequent albums too – so that’s extra sales for the music industry there. This is really about cost. If the CDs were cheaper I’d be more likely to buy it – after all with the CD I’ve got a physical thing I can play at home or in the car. When it’s digital I’ve got to copy it between devices, and unless I burn it to CD I can’t (easily) play it in the car. In a previous job we could listen to music stored on our PCs. We shared the music and I was introduced to bands I wouldn’t have thought of listening to. I have subsequently bought CDs from these and other bands. So that’s extra sales due to music sharing – the opposite of what the music industry claim is happening. I know my anecdote is not data, but other studies have suggested this too though the correlation is weak and there are other factors involved:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4718249.stm (from 2005)

http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/2347/125/ (from 2007)

http://torrentfreak.com/why-pirates-buy-more-music-and-music-labels-fail-090428/ (from 2009)

http://arstechnica.com/media/news/2009/04/study-pirates-buy-tons-more-music-than-average-folks.ars (from 2009)

Category C: Access to music that’s either no longer available or the cost of ownership is too high. While I’d like to have the debut CD of an artist from the 70s I can’t justify paying £45 or more for it, if in fact it’s still available. Now this is a straight loss for the music industry. It would cost them next to nothing to make their back catalogues available through Amazon, Play or iTunes for a reasonable sum (£3 an album would be good) as there’s not the manufacturing costs to pay.

Category E: Access to music already owned on other media. This is a very grey area, and related to point C. It boils down to the question: Why should I have to pay ££s (or $$s, or €€s, or ¥¥s) for music I already have? Yes, I know that music is licensed, but if you have the physical product it’s hard not to think you own the music and it’s yours to do with what you want. I have bought, and will buy again, CDs of LPs that I already own if that CD is cheap enough or offers me something I don’t already have. The technology also exists for digitising vinyl and cassette tapes, and is getting easier to use all the time, but it still has its drawbacks.

As an example of this, at one point I started to digitise my music, but didn’t get very far as the technology wasn’t brilliant. I couldn’t easily connect my turntable to my computer so I bought a hi-fi CD recorder. This didn’t do a brilliant job of recognising the gaps between tracks so I ended up recording each side as one track. I then had to use the, not particularly user-friendly software to split this into the individual tracks manually. In fact in a couple of cases I have subsequently bought the CDs because the quality of my recording wasn’t good enough.  I’ve now got to the stage where if I see the CD of something I own on vinyl for less than a fiver I’ll buy it – it’s not worth my time recording the vinyl in real time and then spending another couple of hours splitting tracks and tagging them. If the CD is more than a fiver then I will consider downloading it. Illegal yes, but it saves me time and money.

So I haven’t downloaded for the sake of it, and I always buy where possible and within budget, as it is important that artists continue to make new music and even the small amount of money they get from CD sales helps.

So in conclusion, if the music industry made their back catalogues available online at a reasonable bit rate for a reasonable sum (think £3 an album or less) then I’m sure that they’d go a long way to eliminate music piracy. A large number of people who resort to illegal downloads for the above reasons would simply buy the music legitimately – it’s by far the easiest option. You’re not searching the murkier reaches of the internet exposing your machine to all sorts of dangers. You won’t stop some people – those that download to spite the music industry, but they’ll (hopefully) be a tiny minority.

The same argument applies to the film industry too (though that’s another post) as they appear to be making the same mistakes.

© 2009, Chris. All rights reserved. If you republish this post can you please link back to the original post.

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