Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Price of my Piracy

I'm not one, in a lot of ways, to "speak for my generation."  It's said that nowadays, nobody pays for music anymore, yet I sit on a pile of CDs I bought with my own cash.  I sift around for aged music I can forge a connection to, rather than chasing the latest sensation.  But I do display one of my generation's vices: I own a lot of music I didn't pay for.

Recently, a pair of articles made me think about this in a way I've usually avoided.  The first was a short post by Emily White, an intern at NPR, describing her history of collecting music without paying for it: essentially, the recording industry's worst nightmare. White doesn't flaunt her piracy, but she doesn't exactly apologize for it either.  What she does do, however, is lament the system that asks her to choose between paying into an antiquated model, or simply breathing in what seems to float freely through the digital air.

The second was a response post by David Lowery, a musician and member of the rock bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (don't worry if you've never heard of them, I hadn't either).  Lowery's open letter in particular is a fascinating and extremely well-informed read, and brought home some truths that many people in these modern times, myself included, have preferred to ignore.  It's essential reading and I won't try to duplicate or summarize it here, but I do feel like I have something to say about it.

Despite his stated intention not to shame or guilt Ms. White or others like her, after reading Lowery's essay I was seized by a moral concern over the contents of my hard drive.  Most days I can't be bothered to think about the issues surrounding illicit digital distribution, accepting that it's just something that exists among my peer group.  I've participated in it, both directly and indirectly.  Most of the time, it's not a part of my daily life, but sometimes it is.  If taking music for free is wrong, I want to know just how wrong I am.

I have a lot of music in my iTunes library; not as much as White (who keeps 11,000 tracks), but a substantial amount that keeps me listening to a wide variety of sounds all year: altogether, 5,831 tracks of music and other recordings.  Some of it I love, and some of it I like a lot.  Some of it, I keep around largely for novelty value.  Since I can still remember where just about every album came from, I decided to do a quick count of how much of it I could rightfully lay claim to, and how much I could be blamed for stealing, and how much I might reasonably be held accountable for should the RIAA ever succeed in tracking me down.

I decided to divide the music into two categories.  The first included albums that I had bought myself (either as a CD or download), plus albums that I had received as a gift (i.e., from someone who had paid for it, or from the artists themselves).  Category One is, therefore, all the music I obtained ethically.

The second category included all the music I had personally clutched from the internet (whether it was offered freely or not) and music I might term as "illicit gifts:" either received digitally from a friend's hard drive, or copied from a CD owned by a friend or family member.  Category Two is, therefore, music which I should have paid for, but did not.

After running a quick tally (as quickly as I could, anyway), I came to these totals: Of my 5,831 tracks of music, comedy, and various other sounds, I judged that 3,297 of them (Category One) were properly paid for, while the other 2,534 (Category Two) were not.  Applying the standard iTunes rate of ninety nine cents a track, I deemed the value of my ill-gotten goods at roughly $2,508.86. For all the rhetoric about the freedom to share culture on the internet, you have to admit that's kind of a lot.

It's not really a definitive number, however.  A small handful of items in Category Two were albums that had been made available by the artists as free downloads (at least at the time that I downloaded them).  I also had a certain degree of difficulty in distinguishing, in some cases, between albums I could consider "gifts" and albums I had simply copied from friends or family.  After all, I built much of my initial iTunes library, back when I was a teenager, on CDs that belonged to my parents.  I counted the vast majority of these in category two, but it certainly didn't feel like stealing at the time.

Hedging aside, there's a lot of audio on this hard drive that I simply did not pay for.  And honestly, I feel kind of bad about it.  Not in the sense of depriving starving musicians of income: because my tastes tend to run in the direction of classic rock, most of what I didn't pay for was produced by older artists (or even dead ones) who made their money long ago.  Not all of it; I have plenty of tracks by contemporary artists who ought to have been compensated.  Most of them, as far as I know, are doing alright in the financial sense.  That isn't really the point.  The point is, I took something off the market that should have been paid for.  I enjoy most of this music far too much to delete it on principle, but I would very much like to stop stealing it.

Nowadays, I listen to a lot of Spotify.  It's a fantastic concept, putting just about all the world's recorded music in one instantly accessible archive, paid for by ads and subscriptions.  It's also not perfect: Spotify "compensates" artists and labels at cutthroat rates, while sitting on massive profits that it hasn't fully earned.  But it has effectively killed any real motivation for me to use file-sharing to hear free music.  I hate Spotify's ads like I hate most ads, but I'm willing to sit through them if they represent even a trickle of money flowing in the right direction.  Spotify and other "internet radio" sites represent the best possible future for music: everything paid for, and everything instantly available.

I like CDs, because I honestly love the album experience.  I still listen to the ones I own (and as you can tell from my stats, I own many).  But I've always believed they cost more than they should.  I'm not likely to buy many more that aren't discounted or very, very special to me.  I shouldn't have to pay more than about ten dollars for an album.  And in this brave new world, I really shouldn't have to pay a premium for a physical medium unless I choose to.  Ad-supported streaming looks like the best option for me: I want to call on services like Spotify to do right by musicians and make sure they get the money they deserve.

One of these days, when I'm able to be freer with my money, I'll try to make up for that $2,508.86 that I owe.  For now, I'll focus on making sure my tab doesn't grow.

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