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Music Piracy: Resist Or Adapt?

The article below was first published on The Developing Artist. Given the recent reports that music sales have finally started to become profitable again (suggesting that the effects of music piracy are on the wane), I thought it was a good time to brush the dust off this one, especially considering that some of the things I discuss in this post seem to be coming to pass. Enjoy!


Music piracy has been the topic of much discussion in the past number of years. It’s been an issue ever since we had the ability to record our vinyl records onto blank cassettes (remember those?), but it has come to the forefront with the advent of digital music.  It’s just so easy now to make and share mp3 files, and people do it without even thinking about it.  Even “nice” people who aren’t trying to be pirates. Someone once estimated that for every legal music download that occurs, there are at least six illegal downloads–and many think that is a conservative estimate.

What, exactly, is music piracy? Well, as the name suggests, it’s theft. When someone writes, records or publishes a song (or book, or poem, or movie for that matter), it’s considered “intellectual property”, and it is copyrighted material. Basically, anytime you obtain a copy of that person’s music without permission (and without paying for it), or anytime you make a copy and share it (not even selling it, just giving it away)–anytime you use that music in such a way that the author cannot make money from it, and the author hasn’t given you express permission to do so–it’s stealing. And it is illegal. (Listening to the radio doesn’t count, because the artists do get paid royalties for that.)

That being said–there’s almost no way to police music piracy. The record companies have tried. They’ve caught a few people and made examples of them to try to frighten everyone, but mp3s are just too easy to trade–and like I said, people do it without even thinking that maybe they are stopping their favorite artist from making money.  You simply can’t prosecute the entire population.  By now, most people have at least a few pirated copies of music on their computers or ipods, and they don’t even know it.  That’s not really a sign of massive criminal activity–it’s a sign of CHANGE.

When change of this magnitude happens, there are really only two ways you can deal with it: RESIST or ADAPT.  We see this pattern through history; every time real change threatens the status quo, the powers that be tend to RESIST (usually to no avail), while a few smart folks ADAPT, and find themselves riding the wave.  Even as I write this, massive change is happening in the Middle East, and you can see who is resisting and who is adapting.

When the record companies began going after music piracy legally, they were resisting–but as we’ve seen, resistance has been futile, to say the least. The corporate bigwigs still pretty much have a stance of resistance–and they are still losing money hand over fist.  It just isn’t working.

Now, with all this rambling, I’m not suggesting that music piracy is okay.  It’s not.  It’s not okay to steal, and people who do it are hurting the artists they claim to love.  If you’re a music lover, you should buy the music–it doesn’t cost that much for a legal download these days, anyhow.  Support the arts.

But if you’re an indie musician, this isn’t a question of right and wrong for you–it’s a question of whether you will RESIST or ADAPT.  You simply can’t stop music piracy by trying to control the distribution of your music files–that makes about as much sense as trying to catch the wind. You might reel at the injustice of it, but the truth is, there are far more constructive things you can do with your time and energy that will go farther toward helping you make a living.  Consider the following:

  1. If you’re an indie musician reading this, piracy is probably not hurting you that much. Why? Because not enough people know who you are! Your music isn’t well-known enough to be a commodity. Even if people are pirating your music, the amount of money you’re losing isn’t worth going after.  Again, there are more constructive things you can be doing.
  2. If you’re an indie musician, piracy is probably helping you. Why? Because it’s getting your name out there!  The more your music gets shared, the more people start knowing who you are–it’s a kind of twisted form of free advertising. (That’s why lots of indie musicians are giving away free music–they are using the free flow of mp3s to their advantage. And that’s a form of ADAPTING.)

The fact is, like it or not, digital music has forever changed the way people access music. Yes, it has made music piracy much easier to do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for musicians to make money.  It just means we need to re-think how we can do it.  We can spend all our time trying to RESIST piracy, to try to stop losing money (which probably doesn’t amount to much, anyhow), or we can get creative and ADAPT to the changing musical landscape, and look for ways to use the change to our advantage.  Smart indie musicians are already thinking outside the box, finding alternate ways to make money–live gigs, merchandise, music licensing, etc.  Many even encourage fans to share their music.

What will things look like in a few years? I don’t think anyone really knows; change is still happening so quickly in the music environment that your guess is as good as mine. I can’t give you a formula here, and if I tried, it would probably be obsolete in a month. But what has been true for years is still true today–it still seems to be more productive to ADAPT to change rather than RESIST it.  My advice is, stop worrying about music piracy and look for ways to adapt.  Those who keep thinking outside the box will have a better chance of success than those who spend all their time just trying to put the box back together.

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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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