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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Piracy v. Villainy? Whose Side Are You On?

Audio Overflow was founded on piracy. Were it not for the advent of the internet, of BitTorrent, this blog would probably not exist. If it did, it would hardly be what it is today. All of that music that I reviewed back in 2006 was mostly downloaded from P2P networks and file-sharing sites. In fact, it wasn't until mid-late 2007 that Audio Overflow started receiving legitimate advance copies of albums from artist, labels, and other sources. No surprise there. Most music blogs operate the exact same way.

But that is not what I will discuss today. Today I will ask you, the reader, to pick a side. Are you on the side of the pirates? Or do you you side with the villains? The RIAA? The big-business cronies looking to secure their fortunes for their trust fund babies? Both sides are at fault here. Who do you sympathize with?

Two days ago, I had no clue what I would write about today. But I knew that I had an advance copy of The Faint's new album, Fasciinatiion, in my "to-review" box and that I would probably go ahead and knock that one out if I had the time. Now, keep in mind that this is a legitimate advance copy with an FBI Warning and everything! I go to pop this CD into my laptop with the intention of transferring the songs to my MP3 player so that I can listen to it wherever I go. I do this with all my reviews, as i just don't have the time to sit at a desk all day and listen intently. To my surprise, an error message flashes across my monitor, informing me that my laptop cannot read this CD. Odd. I grab the CD case to find this message emblazoned across the back.
0 out of 10 Stars

Think about this for a second. Even though I legally obtained a copy of this album, I am unable to use it in a legal and fair manner. Discouraged, I humbly walked over to my stereo system and put the CD in. Guess what, my stereo can't read it! The same goes for my car stereo, my game consoles, and my dvd players. What I have here is a useless piece of plastic, at most, a 5 second microwave light show! Notice the second sentence of that warning. If, say, I were to have this CD in my vehicle and someone broke in, stole it, and uploaded it to the internet, I would be punished!

How did we get to this point? Every month, we're bombarded with PSAs, FBI Warnings, and news of the latest RIAA out-of-court settlement. The RIAA has reported declining sales over the last decade, coinciding with the increase of P2P networks. Their reasoning, their explanation is piracy. But is it?

To an RIAA suit, this graph shows that piracy is affecting the music labels' bottom line. To me, it just looks like the high album sales that the RIAA was experiencing was a short phenomenon and that things are leveling back off. But what do I know? Well, I know that according to this study, that pirates actually buy MORE music. But how can that be? Well, it's simple.

Before the advent of the internet people had just a few ways to discover new music (television, radio, etc.), and all of those ways involved being told what to listen to by the record labels. MTV doesn't go out and find obscure artists. Clear Channel isn't browsing through hole-in-the-wall record stores. They're just playing what they're told to play, what they're PAID to play. But with the internet, people are actually able to hear as much music as they want to, and not just from RIAA artists. Sites like MySpace, iMeem, and Pandora are allowing music fans to hear music that they want to hear, not what they're told to hear. P2P networks offer the same freedom, and the same opportunities. As a result of hearing more music, couldn't it just be that these same people are choosing to buy more music?

I know that's true for me. I buy more CDs than anyone I know, so much so that I'm often lampooned for spending so much damn money on music. My personal collection is now over 225 individual albums. And guess what? Most of those were bought within the last 4-5 years as I started getting into indie music and downloading it illegally on the internet. You see, I do my downloading by a code. If I like what I download, I buy it. If I don't, I get rid of it. After all, there's no point in clogging up your hard drive with music that you won't listen to. Honorable as it may be, it's still quite illegal and I'm smart enough to know that not all people can say the same thing.

However, I'm also smart enough to know that I am never going to be prosecuted by the RIAA simply because I haven't downloaded an album from a major record in years. But far be it for them to reach out and help independent labels who are "struggling" (strange how you ever hear about that, ain't it?). The bottom line is that the big whigs at the RIAA don't care about their artists or their employees. They care about themselves, about their pocketbooks. Personally, I don't. Do you?

Sources + Additional Reading:


Anonymous said...

PIRACY IS WRONG!!!!!! You wouldn't want someone to come into your house and steal all of your things would you. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, and WRONG. Just because you by an album after you downloaded it doesn't make it right. I know before the internet it sucked to by an album for one song and the rest of the album was terrible. Now, you can download one song for 99 cents on itunes or something and then get samples of the rest to see if you like it. That is part of discovering new music. Risk and reward.

Cale said...

Of course piracy is wrong. But isn't fining Jamie Thomas $220,000 for sharing 24 songs equally wrong? The RIAA is busy trying to make examples out of people like her, meanwhile file-sharing is increasing at roughly 60% a year. Obviously, if we want to be black and white about it, piracy is wrong.

But so is placing rootkit DRM on a CD so that when users upload it to computer, it tears through their resources and is almost impossible to uninstall. So is making me watch a 30 second PSA every time I PAY to see a movie that tells me that not paying is wrong. So is ruing my album artwork with big giant warnings telling me not to steal! And of course, there's the whole making a CD unreadable so that no one can use it, even fairly.

The above article isn't about pirate-advocacy. It's a rant inspired by the fact that the RIAA has gotten so out of control that I can't even play a CD I legally obtained. Piracy is wrong, but it is here to stay. If the labels were smart, they'd come to some sort of agreement, some work-around rather than demonizing some of their best customers.

Tawriffic said...

Cale, Not sure that I am buying your theory. You want to be able to illegally download music to see if you like it, and if you do, there is a good chance you will buy it. Then if you do buy it, you do not want any protection on the product that you have purchased. Do you think that the reason that the protection and warnings have been introduced in the first place might be because of your illegal activity?

Try and find a department store today that does not have some sort of protection against theft. Is what the Record Companies doing just an extension of that protection?
Interestingly, I think the Faint record is released through Saddle Creek records which was started by Conor Oberst. Not sure what his impression of the DRM protection would be? Saddle Creek are distributed by Sony so that might be where the annoying copy protection would come in.
Finally, blaming RIAA is an easy out. They have a right to protect the businesses they represent which are not just the major labels. Promoting piracy because you dont like the RIAA because of the steps that the RIAA take to control piracy does not make any sense.

Cale said...

I think a lot of people are misunderstanding the rant. Again, it's not pirate-advocacy. I clearly state that piracy is illegal, but oftentimes, so are some record labels' actions (particularly SONY).

That being said, I think my main point of the article (if one can even be drawn) is that piracy can contain some positives, and that the flat-out demonizing of people who illegally download music might be a bit misguided. Studies have shown that pirates buy more music, and are not necessarily related to the decline of album sales. Piracy allows people to experience a wealth of music that they wouldn't be able to experience otherwise, and that is a good thing.

Just a few days ago, Duffy (you know, the singer) was quoted in The Guardian as saying, "[Downloading is] amazing. It basically gives people access, what's the harm in that?" And while that may be short-sighted of her, she's right in that it does allow people who can't afford to buy albums the chance to enjoy music that they couldn't before. (Link to full article below)

And just so we're clear, I think the record labels could do more to curb illegal downloading than just going out and attacking random downloaders. How about offering 100% free album streams from your website? What about limited-play DRM downloads that allow people to download music for free with the knowledge that it will only play 3 times before it becomes useless (it works on the Zune)? This whole lawsuit thing is silly, and studies have shown that it's not working (kind of like the war on drugs). People want to hear music for free, but they're also willing to pay for what they enjoy. Labels should realize this, and give people an opportunity to do both.

JD said...

I agree that the record companies are a bit behind the times when it comes to sampling music. Now that it is so easy to listen to an entire album for free before you buy it you would think that the record companies would do something about it.

I think offering free streams of it is a good idea. That way you can know if you really want to buy the entire album or if you just want to buy one or two songs from itunes or none at all. It is very naive of them to think that people will not want to sample the album before they commit to the purchase and 30 second clips just are not enough these days. People want to know what they are getting. So, they go to a source to find that out. They are just doing research to make sure they are getting a quality product. The record companies should be a little more helpful to their customers instead of trying to make examples of people.

I am not saying that piracy is the way to go. I am just saying that I understand why people do it and that I think record companies should work to catch up. You would think this would be a wakeup call to them.

Cale said...

Well, to me it's simple. Illegal downloading has increased since they began their attempts at thwarting it. It's time to try a different solution, and one that gives people a decent free alternative to piracy. From my experience, people aren't afraid of buying music, just afraid of buying BAD music.

Tawriffic said...

If there was a simple answer, I am sure we would have it in place. there is no simple solution that will stop people stealing music.
Both Amazon (where I first read one of your reviews) and iTunes offer 30 second samples of most music so there is a free option. Add in myspace, Hype Machine, Elbows, the artists own website etc and there are places where you can hear free music before shelling out for it.
Buying BAD music is horrid - you feel ripped off. Too many times I have bought an album because of 1 song only to find out that the rest of the album is just crap. Alternately, I have also discovered some incredible albums so i am still prepared to take the risk. Using tools available just helps to minimise the risk!

Stimulating discussion point. Got me thinking about reducing my pirating ways.

Cale said...

You're absolutely right. The internet has given us a ton of legal options for discovering music. I use iMeem a lot on this site to stream new music to my readers, and it's a great resource for listening to new music in its entirety. But even with that, and in some cases, Myspace, labels will only allow 30 second clips a lot of the time.

The downside with streaming music is that you HAVE to be at your computer to listen to it, which isn't really optimal. That's why I think a limited download, like the 3-play one I mentioned above would be a good solution. It would allow potential customers the ability to preview music at their leisure, where they want, when they want. It would be difficult to implement, but I definitely think it could take a chunk out of illegal downloading.

I don't think it would end it, nor will anything else. But it at least sends a message that labels are listening to their customers and giving them other viable options to piracy.

PoliticianRock said...

Hi Cale!

I love your site. Anyway, I understand what you are saying. Let me explain how I obtain (most of) the music that I review in my blog; I am a college student at ECU, and as such we - as well as many, many other universities - have a deal with, a site that allows you to download music for free. If you are a student at a school that is in compliance with Ruckus, all you need to do is sign up using your email account.

Now, the catch is that you can download it to your computer, but it is impossible to burn it to CD's or to an iPod. And after thirty days the license of the music you downloaded expires, forcing you to renew it (a fairly simple method), delete it off your computer, or simply let it sit there without any activity. I believe a site like this would help the music fan on a budget (such as myself) by allowing us a listen or two before we go and buy the album.

Sure, a site like this on a larger scale would need a few revisions, but overall I think it's a great idea. Your thoughts?

- Stephen

Cale said...

Not bad at all, Stephen. I don't like the fact that it can't leave your computer, but a free alternative to illegal download is a good thing. If they had that at my college, I would've torn it to shreds.

My only complaint with it is that it's not something where EVERYTHING is available. Of course, that's virtually impossible, but I tried to find some popular indie artists on less-popular labels and came up short. Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond are some of my favorites, but aside from Suf's worst album, nothing is available.

I think as the site grows and expands its content, something like this could work. Perhaps, not on a large scale, but it could at least curb some of the illegal downloading problem.

PoliticianRock said...

Well, the reason I bring Ruckus up is because it can't leave your computer; like we both said, it's an alternative to illegal downloading, my point being that if this were available to the general public, it would allow the average joe to truly preview an album before he bought it, and at the same time would not allow him to put it on his iPod illegally.

Still, I need to start planning how I'm going to listen to music once I graduate. I'll be even poorer then than I am now. :)