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A Pirate's Life For Me
By Carley Baer - 07/07/2008 - 01:39 AM EDT

Piracy is a very real concern for the music industry.  Executives of the RIAA still can't say the P-word without bursting into shaky fits.  They wake up screaming in the night, terrified that there's a teenager downloading free music in their closet or under the bed-- so much so that the lawsuits nabbing someone's grandmother for downloading the entire oeuvre of Porno for Pyros are still being fervently pursued.  Music is secondary to money, after all, and money's why anybody gets into this business in the first place.

Perhaps you can detect my sarcasm.  My feelings for the RIAA aside (because that's a whole column unto itself), I hardly think piracy warrants the kind of heebie-jeebies it elicits from industry professionals.  But first, let's look at what it is.

Piracy is essentially taking what does not belong to you.  The office stapler that is now in your home junk drawer?  That's booty.  You, my friend, are a pirate.  But it's not just you.  It's everyone around you as well.  Everybody helps themselves to something they believe they are entitled to, whether or not the rules dictate that it is for the taking.  Just because there's now less swashbuckling involved does not make it less of an act of piracy. 

Now let's talk about the music industry.  For decades, the major labels had it all.  They got to call the shots, monopolizing an artist's output on their own terms.  Musicians were only allowed to play with other musicians that their label approved of, and had to list the collaboration as a "courtesy" of that label.  The majors were in total control of their profit margin, and as soon as an artist failed to bring in the Benjamins, he or she got the axe and a more lucrative artist was brought in.  Label executives were fat and happy, and the industry was content. 

Then came the Internet, and its implications for the industry were ominous.  Suddenly vast amounts of information were being transmitted in nanoseconds across the globe.  With the advent of services like Napster, music began slipping like sand through the fingers of the major labels.  It had to stop.  Profits, glorious profits, were being lost.  Their answer, of course, was reactionary and not at all logical: trace the files to the IP address to which they were directed, and sue whoever's on the other end.  While it is admittedly likely that the owner of an IP address would also be the one illegally downloading the music, that line of thinking is hardly foolproof, and suddenly there were more and more instances of old ladies being sued because their grandchildren downloaded Hoobastank on their computers without their knowledge.  But the profits, people!  The profits!

And yet a funny thing happened, as a result of all this file-sharing and music-swapping: more music was being heard.  Musicians from all walks of life and all corners of the Earth, who had been making music the entire time, were suddenly being discovered by people who had no previous way of being exposed to them.  Once one person discovered something new and unusual, the tendency was to pass it on.  Word of mouth has always been an invaluable tool for musicians, but the Internet multiplied that power by thousands.  It was almost unfathomable how quickly the file-sharing movement exploded, and what riches were being brought to light.  (Bear in mind that when Napster really got going, it was 1998-- the year of Britney and the Boy Band invasion-- just to remind you of what the majors were offering at the time)

It is now a decade later, and Napster, the piracy scapegoat, was thrown into the stocks and made an example of, and now charges for music just like iTunes and all the other RIAA-sanctioned download services.  And, to their credit, the new pay-per-song services make it slightly easier for indies to get on board-- so long as you're a promising indie who could end up making them a lot of money.

Now, with times hard and getting harder, nobody has an excess of spare change with which to buy every song that tickles their fancy.   If the majors had anything to say about it, the flow of music would stop once the money stopped, but I think that's a bleak way to live life.  There's no reason that all joy should be shelved until the dollar gets stronger, which is why I think piracy is less of a crime than most.  Don't get me wrong-- I do enjoy getting compensated for my work, and piracy prevents that from happening at first.  However, if my music gets out for free, and people like it and tell their friends, who in turn tell their friends, who then are more likely to buy new CDs or come out to see a show, I now have a fan base that is far larger than I could've hoped for if I had made every single person shell out their $.99-per-song.

It is the self-righteous "my-music-is-worth-all-the-money-in-the-world" attitude that will kill the independent musician.  Already it reflects poorly on established acts like Metallica, who already have all the money in the world, but feel they need more of it.  Make music for the love of the music, and the money will come.  Conversely, if you steadfastly demand that everyone pay you for every song every time, that will restrict the amount of people who will discover you, which will then restrict how much money you make in the future.  The Internet can be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy; it's all in how you look at it.

Just remember, music is meant to be heard.  And to that end, it is a pirate's life for me.



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