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Downloading Pirated Music: Pros and Cons

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With all the file sharing and BitTorrent sites out there, nobody pays for music anymore, do they? Well, they should, argues Michael Miller, author of The Ultimate Digital Music Guide. In this article, Miller addresses both the appeal and the perils of illegal music downloading, and comes down on the side of playing by the rules — for the sake of the artists who make the music.

Music piracy is nothing new. Back when I was in college, way back in the Godforsaken 1970s, it was not unheard of for someone in the dorm to pass around the latest hot album for our listening pleasure, and some of us would make audiocassette copies for our own use. Even before that, in the hippy dippy 1960s, I’d connect the cheap microphone to my even cheaper cassette deck, hold it up to the speaker on my portable AM/FM radio and record songs right off the air. And once recordable compact discs came on the market, I wasn’t above burning a copy or two of a favorite CD for select friends.

Throughout all this, however, I remained a heavy purchaser of music – on vinyl, initially, then later on CD and downloaded (legally) from the Internet. In fact, I often purchased those very same albums I copied illegally – if I liked them, that is. If I didn’t like them… well, I considered that a free trial. I always figured that I needed to support the musicians I liked, and that meant paying them for their work by buying their LPs and CDs and digital downloads.

But not everyone who pirates music ends up buying it legally. And, thanks to the Internet and today’s digital technologies, it’s become easier than ever to obtain music for free that you ought to be paying for. In fact, some would argue, it’s so easy to download music in this unofficial fashion that there must not be anything wrong with it; everybody’s pirating music today, so why shouldn’t you?

I’ll tell you why, although you might not like what I have to say.

All About Downloading Music—Legally and Illegally

The history of commercial music distribution is a recent one. In fact, there really wasn’t a way to mass distribute music until the advent of printed sheet music in the late 1800s. From then through the 1930s or so, most middle class families had pianos in their living rooms, and you’d go to the local music store, buy sheet music for the latest popular songs from Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, or whomever, then take it home and play it for yourself. Kind of a do-it-yourself aesthetic, but it got some great tunes into the hands of the masses.

That changed with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, which let recordings from professional musicians be widely distributed on wax cylinders and (later) vinyl discs. By 1920 there were more than 150 companies making records or record players, and the modern music industry was born.

Over time, the record industry evolved from 78 RPM discs to 45 RPM singles to 33 1/3 RPM long playing (LP) albums, and then to 8-track tapes (remember them?) and prerecorded audiocassettes, and then to digital compact discs and finally to downloadable and streaming digital tracks. Playback quality improved with each stage of this evolution, as did portability. Today, we’ve become accustomed to taking tens of thousands of songs with us everywhere we go, stored on our phones or portable music players. Couldn’t do that with vinyl discs or magnetic tape, but it’s the way we roll today.

Now, any of these recorded media could be copied – although it didn’t used to be so easy. Back in the dark ages, home wire recorders and disc cutting machines were known to exist, although they were only for the affluent and the technically adept. Reel to reel tape recording became somewhat affordable during the 1950s, and audiocassette recorders reached the mass market in the late 1960s. The audio quality of copied music left something to be desired, however, until we entered the digital era and could make bit-perfect copies of CDs using our personal computers. And now, thanks to the Internet, one can download digital versions of just about any track ever released, without any additional expense and virtually no technical expertise needed.

In fact, illegal music downloading preceded legal downloads, in part because it took so long for the music industry to recognize and embrace the changing technology. It was Napster, the first major illegal file-sharing site, that first offered downloadable MP3 files to the masses in 1999 – a full four years before the launch of Apple’s iTunes Store. Those were a long four years that firmly established the viability of pirated music downloads. Let’s face it, if you couldn’t download music legally, what else could serious music lovers do?

Napster, of course, got shot down by the music industry’s legal beagles, as have dozens (if not hundreds) of similar successors. But illegal downloading continues to thrive, whether through P2P file-sharing networks or the newer BitTorrent technology.

How big is online music piracy? Pretty big, if you believe the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Of course, that’s the official lobbying group of the big recording labels, and they may not be the most objective observers. Still, the RIAA claims that 95% of all downloaded music today is illegal, that fully 22% of all Internet bandwidth is consumed by the delivery of pirated items (not just music, but also videos and ebooks and software programs), that the average iPod contains $800 worth of pirated music, and that, all things said and done, online piracy costs the music industry $12.5 billion each year.

Personally, I think a lot of those “statistics” are dubious; the music industry tends to blame all their woes on kids sharing music instead of buying it. There’s no denying the fact, however, that physical music sales are rapidly declining; CD sales peaked in the year 2000, and have declined more than 60% since then. I don’t think that’s all due to Napster and BitTorrents, but it would be hard to argue that pirated downloads didn’t have some impact on this phenomenon.

As far as who’s doing the illegal downloading, it’s who has always been “sharing” music illegally – kids. Fully 71% of illegal downloaders are between the ages of 16 and 24, which means high school and college students, the folks who don’t necessarily have lots of money to spend on purchasing music in the first place. This belies the argument that every single illegal download replaces a legal sale; it can actually be argued (and has been) that most tracks downloaded illegally would never have been purchased in the first place.

The Arguments in Favor of Downloading Pirated Music

Just because the big music labels don’t like people downloading their music for free doesn’t automatically make pirated music bad. I suppose some would say that pissing off the big labels is an acceptable if not desirable side effect of the whole downloading scene, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

The reality is, lots of people seemingly don’t have any problem with downloading pirated music. In fact, 70% of online users say they find nothing wrong with online piracy, and 63% of users admit to doing some illegal downloading. So, while music piracy may be illegal, it’s socially accepted – just like some recreational drugs.

What do people like about downloading music without paying for it? Most obvious is the not paying for it part. Whether you’re an avid music lover on a budget or just a total cheapskate, there’s definite appeal in building a digital music library at zero cost. If you download a hundred tracks a month, that’s $100 or more you’ll save by downloading from a P2P network instead of purchasing from a legitimate online music store. That adds up.

Additionally, there’s the selection – which, I admit, sometimes tempts me. Unlike iTunes or Amazon, which can only sell those tracks that the record labels give them to sell, file-sharing networks offer just about everything that’s ever been recorded. We’re not talking about just 15 or 20 million tracks; we’re talking hundreds of millions of tracks, including a lot of music that has never been officially available in digital format[md]even on CD. (And, yes, there are a lot of old LPs that have yet to be reissued on CD. A lot.) We’re also talking about music that’s sold in other countries but not available in the U.S., because of the label’s geographic restrictions. In other words, just about every song and album ever released is likely to be found on one file-sharing network or another – assuming someone, somewhere, has taken the time to rip it and upload it.

So these are the reasons so many people download so much music illegally – you can get more stuff for less money. That’s difficult to argue against.

The Arguments Against Downloading Pirated Music

Unfortunately, when you download music from unauthorized file download sites, you’re breaking the law. It is clearly illegal to make copies of copyrighted music without compensating the copyright holder(s). As you might suspect, the music industry takes a dim view of such activities, and has been known to file the occasional lawsuit against illegal downloaders. At a possible fine of $250,000 per track, this is probably something you want to avoid – or at least avoid being caught doing.

It’s also an iffy proposition, content and quality wise. The tracks you download from these sites are uploaded not from legitimate sources but from other users, who probably ripped them from their own CDs. You don’t know what bitrate these rips were made at, but it’s a good guess that they’re not the highest possible fidelity. In fact, you may not even be getting the tracks as advertised; you have to rely on the best nature of your fellow miscreants to provide the actual content they say they’re providing. Not always a good bet.

Additionally, in many instances what is advertised as a specific digital audio file turns out to contain malware – a computer virus or piece of spyware. This is actually quite common, and a major source of malware infection for a lot of younger computer users. The result is seldom pretty.

The strongest argument I can make against illegal downloading, however, concerns the musicians who make the music you download. When you download a track without paying for it, you’re depriving your favorite musicians of hard-earned income. That’s stealing, and it hurts the very performers you love.

Downloading music for free also devalues the work of these musicians; you’re saying that the great music they produce is worth nothing – zero, zilch, no value at all. As a former musician myself, I find that insulting.

Here’s the bottom line. Forget the big music companies, forget the RIAA, forget the legality of it all. What’s important is that every piece of music downloaded from one of these pirate sites steals money that should be going to the musicians who created the music. And if the musicians don't get paid, they'll eventually quit making the music. Let's see how everybody feels then.

Do What You Like – But Support the Artists You Love

Look, I can’t tell  you what to do. If you want to download some music from a P2P or BitTorrent site, you will. Nothing I say can stop you.

I’ll even admit that a little bit of sharing is to be expected. As I admitted right up front, I did my share of taping friends' albums when I was back in college. But that was small scale stuff – an album here and there – and I still bought a lot of music, including many of the albums that I'd previously taped. You'll get no argument from me that passing a CD from friend to friend is a great way to sample new music, and often results in legitimate purchases from new fans.

That said, building an entire digital music library without paying for it is a big problem, not just economically but also socially. I don’t want to make too big a thing of it, but what value is working for a living if you don’t get paid for it?

Think about it. When you go to work each day, you expect to be paid for your labor; I don’t think you’d appreciate the rest of us “sampling” your work for free and expecting you to pay the bills by selling t-shirts on the side. If you do your job, you should be paid for it – just the way hard-working musicians should be paid for the job they do. Musicians have bills to pay, too, especially the indie musicians that suffer most from pirated downloads. You probably don’t have to worry about Beyonce or Toby Keith starving to death, but lesser-known performers need every dollar they can get.

Bottom line, downloading music for free is stealing, and puts the musicians you love out of work. Don't do it. Instead, support the artists you love by paying for the music they produce. That means buying CDs and paying for legal downloads from the iTunes Store or CD Baby or even direct from the artists’ own websites. Stop the stealing, and start putting real value on the music you listen to.

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