Music Monday: The value of music

Instead of blogging about a musician or band this morning for Music Monday, I wanted to ponder the value of music in today’s mostly digital marketplace.

More to the point, I want to ask: Do you believe it’s OK to download music for free, without giving anything to the artist?

This is not a new discussion or a new issue – it’s one that’s been happening for more than a decade.

As music sales have moved from brick-and-mortar stores and physical music platforms like CDs to digital files, so has the ability to access MP3s and music files online. Napster was the first platform to encourage music trading, but even without it around, a thousand others have popped up in its wake.

And the concept of “owning” a piece of music vs. having access to it on a smartphone or computer is an increasingly gray area, thanks to new platforms like Spotify, which uses a mixture of music files and its own radio station.

I guess my debate is more of a moral one: why do so many people think it’s perfectly OK to take something without paying for it?

One argument that’s always put forth is that all record companies are evil behemoths and won’t miss the money. Yes, many record companies past and present have only a tenuous connection to the artistic side of the process, if they have one at all. Many labels have mishandled artists or mismanaged their money or made decisions that were good for business but bad for art. No doubt about that.

But if a record company is not paid for the product that it distributed, I can guarantee it won’t be their general ledger that takes a hit. The artist will. And that’s likely why artists are now consistently saying they make no money whatsoever on an album. Touring is their sole way to make money from the music they create and play.

The second argument is more troublesome to me, and the argument is essentially this: I’m [fill in the blank: unemployed, underemployed, poor] and can’t afford to buy this music, so I’ll just download it.

But that’s never made sense to me. The inability to pay for an item does not entitle you to have it for free. The fact that people think that it does just reeks of entitlement. (To be blunt, for many of the people I’ve heard this argument from, it’s also a serious case of white privilege and veiled racism.)

When people loot during a crisis, there’s almost universal condemnation of that action. And it is morally wrong. It’s often an act perpetrated by people who are poor and who may be looting for the basics of life to survive.

Downloading music and not paying for it? Is digital looting.

Is my own conscience clear? I feel that it is. I pay for files on iTunes. I think there’s been maybe two or three times that I’ve downloaded a file; in all those cases, it was a “leaked track” by one of my favorite artists. I knew the moment it became available I was buying the entire album.

For a few older albums, I “ripped” the album from a physical CD into my iTunes library. I bought those albums several times over (on vinyl and cassette) so I know that I’ve paid for the music.

And I still make mixtapes, so to speak (on CD now). So I do share songs with friends. But (a) I’ve paid for the song/album and (b) if I share it, it’s not going to be shared into infinity with thousands of users. And (c) I’ve introduced people to music which in many cases spurred them to buy the entire album and/or other music by the same artist.

Maybe it’s just me entering the hey-you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn phase, but it really troubles me that so many people see no issue with stealing music.

Because no matter how many ways we slice it, my final thought always comes back to this: How would you feel if you worked for a week, or two weeks, or whatever your pay cycle is….

….and on payday, the end users of your company’s product came to your office/store/widget factory and said, “Hey, we’re taking your paycheck. We appreciate your work, but don’t think you should be paid for it. Thanks!”

I’m guessing mass rioting would occur. So if it’s not ethical if someone does it to you, why would it be ethical to take the value (perceived or monetary) of someone else’s work and assume it as your property?


  1. What if you download a record with out paying for it then see the band live, or make a purchase later? In that case wouldn’t the download serve as free marketing for record companies?

    Not trying to split hairs, but I feel record companies are vastly overstating the negative impact of downloading. They didn’t gear up for the digital age and are now eating crow. As people download the more popular the artist becomes which in turn will result in the band making more money in the long run.

    People are still buying records and still attending concerts. I see downloading as taking the place of what radio use to do. It allows people to preview content before making up their mind on whether or not to purchase the product.

    If you download a record and that turns into a purchase down the road, something that happens more frequently than record companies are willing to admit, I don’t see how downloading is any different than borrowing it from a friend.

    One example from my personal life, I downloaded the Arcade Fire’s album The Funeral years ago and loved it. When their second and third album came out I purchased them both based off the initial download from 2004. Had I not downloaded that record in 2004, chances are that I would have never considered purchasing either of the next two records because I wouldn’t have had that initial introduction to the band. Thus the illegal download turned into purchases down the line.

    There’s something to be said about people who merely download with out purchasing anything, but I think it’s safe to say that these people would have found other ways to get the music with out paying for it anyway.

    Just a thought by person of the Napster Generation.

    Malcolm – thanks for the reply.

    I don’t care about the impact of downloading on the record company. They likely are overstating it to a degree, just because their sole goal is to up the profit margin. My concern in all of this is the ARTIST. And it should be the artists’ choice as to whether they get paid for their work or not.

    Some musicians are already moving towards the model you’ve described. Radiohead had its pay-what-you-want model and Prince gave away copies of his CDs. For Prince in particular it was a way to drive people to his live shows.

    I partly agree with what you say about downloading taking the place of radio. And I don’t disagree with the idea that hearing a band/artist can spur future purchases. It’s become harder to hear new music and sample it. I think Spotify is moving towards the more flexible model you’re describing.

    This was more of an ethics debate for me. I know a lot of people who bitch and moan about how underpaid they are, and yet they haven’t paid for ANY music, or movie/show, for years. And they don’t see the parallels there. Who sets the value of work? Whose work has value, and whose work does not?

    1. I see your point about the ARTIST deciding the value of their records. It seems like a bunch of acts are not saying much about the matter in fear of looking like Lars or Dr. Dre did when they tried to get all up in arms about Napster a while back.

      Yet, I’ve been to shows where artists literally tell the audience to download their records and keep seeing them live. Granted this was at Warped Tour and smaller venues, so these particular bands, Less Than Jake and The Offspring being the bands if I remember correctly, weren’t going to break the bank with record sales anyway. For bigger acts or older acts you make a valid point. Someone who has 30 years of music making experience should expect to make money off their work with out touring like they are still 20 years old.

      But, take the Beach Boys Reunion going down at the NOLA Jazz fest for example, with out downloading how many people around my age would even know who the Beach Boys are? Except for being that one band the guy from Full House worshiped. haha.

      I think Spotify could be the happy answer record companies, artists, and fans have been looking for. I’m not exactly sure how Spotfiy gets the rights to the music, or how it even works, but if this service can remain in tact and grow I can see the convenience of a service like this making downloading pretty unnecessary.

      Just some thoughts from the random black dude at Warped Tour.

      Later man.

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