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Music Piracy, Emily White, and the Ethical Debate over Music Ownership (part 1)

Within the past few days, a discourse in the blogosphere has truly underscored the ongoing ethical debate over music piracy, downloading (both legal and illegal), and how artists are or are not fairly paid for their music. An NPR intern named Emily White sparked the conversation with a blog post in NPR’s All Songs Considered in which she declares herself to be an avid music lover and ally to musicians, and yet she herself never purchased most of the 11,000 songs in her library. Her original blog post is linked below, and is worth reading through, in order to get a full context:


This morning, David Lowery at The Trichordist posted a lengthy reply to Emily White, sparking a flurry of shares and Tweets across the Internet. While the reply is long, it is also very informative and well worth reading:


For me, the most poignant part of the discussion is regarding one point Emily White made:

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and t-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

To which Lowery replied:

Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly.  Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops.  Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China.  Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples.  On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation.  Except for one thing. Artist rights.

I think this transaction brings up a very interesting point, and that is that the issue of music piracy is largely one of moral/ethical confusion. A few decades ago, it would never have even been questioned whether it was wrong to steal music from artists by obtaining it without paying. Of course it’s wrong. But in recent times, our culture’s moral compass has gone on the fritz, to where we are not entirely amoral, but we sort of pick and choose which issues we will be moral about—or more specifically, we choose to be moral/ethical based on popular issues at the time. At the moment, it’s popular to be concerned about issues like fair trade coffee, green practices and marriage equality. But stealing music from starving artists? Meh.

There is no doubt that the music industry is in a huge place of transition, brought on by the advances in technology that make it easier (and cheaper) to produce music, and easier still to distribute it to the public. It’s all been made more complicated by the fact that it’s so easy to bypass the traditional channels and obtain music without paying for it, and even more complicated by the fact that we now have a flexible moral standard that says if you can get away with it, it must be okay. I can easily see that this issue places the interested parties into four basic categories:

  • The music industry “old guard” that continues to try and fight the onslaught of piracy by hunting down and prosecuting offenders (while complaining loudly);
  • 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;
  • 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
  • The musicians and artists (including many DIY musicians) who mainly feel caught in the middle.

As one who tries to coach and encourage DIY artists, my main focus on this issue has been to take a pragmatic approach—to deal with music piracy as a reality of our culture, rather than focus on its moral ramifications, and try to encourage young artists to find fresh ways to gain an income in the meantime. But this discussion actually deserves a deeper look, and I’ll have some more thoughts on it in the next post. In the meantime, your assignment (should you choose to accept it) is:

  1. Read the two posts I linked to above;
  2. Think about where you stand personally on the music piracy issue, and how you feel about it; and
  3. Try to discover which of the four categories above you most identify with.

Also, feel free to comment below if you have anything to say now. We’ll continue this thread in the next post.

About the Author


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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