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Music Piracy, Emily White, and the Ethical Debate over Music Ownership (part 2)

Last week, music industry artist and insider David Lowery posted a public response to a blog post by NPR intern Emily White on the issue of music ownership and piracy, which essentially caused both posts to go viral. If you’re late to the party, before reading on, I’d suggest you read part one of this series first—and also the two other articles that prompted this article. (Those links are below.)

http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with

http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/

All this past week, the Internet has been abuzz with ongoing conversations and comments and blog posts regarding this issue. In one sense, I think it’s good, because the issue of music piracy gets overlooked sometimes, and this gets people thinking about it again. At the same time, as I mentioned before, I’m a pragmatist. I believe in morals and values and ethics, but I’m not so much about trying to get the masses to be “more moral” as I am about helping musicians and artists deal with the situation as we find it. As I mentioned in the previous post, I see that people fall into four distinct categories on this issue.

  • CATEGORY 1: The music industry “old guard” that continues to try and fight the onslaught of piracy by hunting down and prosecuting offenders (while complaining loudly);
  • CATEGORY 2: The increasingly younger generation of music consumers who largely see no moral dilemma in getting their music without paying for it, and who know that the odds of being held accountable are increasingly slim;
  • CATEGORY 3: The “new music industry” thought leaders who are looking for practical solutions to adapt to a new market and help musicians get paid for their work again; and
  • CATEGORY 4: The musicians and artists (including many DIY musicians) who mainly feel caught in the middle.

Among these, I find myself mainly in Category 3. I’m looking for ways to navigate the new music market, such as it is, and want to see musicians find new ways to get paid for their work. I imagine most of my reading audience sits in Category 4—and as a musician myself, I dangle a bit in that category, as well.

That being said, in this post, I’m going to weigh in on a few key points in this music piracy discussion. In part 3, I’ll conclude with some practical tips for DIY musicians going forward.

 

POINT: MUSIC PIRACY IS WRONG.

Moral compasses today may be on the fritz, but right and wrong are not relative. It is still wrong to take someone’s property (intellectual or physical) without paying for it. The only exception is if the artist is giving it away freely, which does happen—more on that in a bit. On this point, I agree squarely with David Lowery. If you like a musical artist, you should do what you can to support that artist, including buying his/her music rather than just taking it.

 

POINT: ARE WE GOING TO CHANGE THINGS BY BELLY-ACHING ABOUT THEM? NOT LIKELY.

While I agree with David Lowery’s point, I don’t necessarily agree with his approach. He sounds a bit like he’s in Category 1—trying to uphold the status quo by reprimanding young whipper-snappers like Emily White who don’t see the world the way he does. While this conversation has been beneficial in raising awareness of the issue, I just don’t think it’s realistic to believe we can get an entire generation to start thinking about music in the same way the previous generations did. Downloads are just too convenient, and we’re not going to curb music piracy by preaching morality. There are far more practical things musicians can do to start getting compensated.

 

POINT: THE KEY IS CONVENIENCE.

David Lowery mentioned in his post that streaming services like Spotify were not the answer because they get away with paying too little. I have to disagree on this issue; here’s a post from Hypebot that specifically addresses it, and is worth reading.

Emily White said something very telling in her original blog post: “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.” I think the operative word here is convenience.

Looking at the trends nowadays, music piracy as a whole is actually on the decline—perhaps not so much with people swapping and ripping CDs, but certainly with illegal downloads. Why is this? Because streaming services like Spotify are making it more convenient to listen to music online. It’s actually more convenient at this point to listen to something instantly on a streaming Internet service than it is to go to the effort of downloading it illegally or ripping it off a CD. As for Spotify and their ilk underpaying for the songs, that’s not entirely accurate. At least they pay something, and the publishers are continuing to negotiate for better rates for their artists. Given a little time, I think any injustices in this system will begin to right themselves.

My point is that because popular culture values convenience, it’s more pragmatic to fight music piracy by creating solutions that are more convenient than stealing. I think streaming services are on track to do just that.

I think my overall goal in saying these things is to convey the idea that there is definitely hope here—that even though music piracy is a reality we must deal with, it doesn’t signal the end of the music industry as we know it, not by a long shot. Since my particular focus is on DIY musicians, in part three of this series, I’ll finish off with some tips for how indie musicians can creatively succeed in this uncertain market.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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