Wednesday, June 13, 2007

An Ethical Question Regarding File Sharing

Full Disclosure: I may be trying to justify all the stolen music I've downloaded over the past two years.

The argument for file sharing is something I've been looking into today. The idea is major record labels end up hurting musicians more than helping them. Here are the top 6 reasons to boycott them (which generally involves downloading music for free if you want to hear music put out by major labels) according to Downhill Battle, "a non-profit organization working to support participatory culture and build a fairer music industry:"

1) Music diversity will grow. The major labels' business model requires them to have a steady stream of consistent products. The very nature of their operation produces homogenized music designed for specific radio formats and scientifically honed to hit-making models. Artists are signed and promoted based on the opinions of individual A&R executives, not the popularity of the music.

When the major labels crumble, the diversity of mainstream music will blossom. It will be a revolution in pop culture. People will decide what's popular, not marketing.

2) Pay-for-play radio will end. For decades, the major labels have controlled what's on the radio by paying radio stations to play their songs. Pay-for-play radio (aka "payola") means that independent labels can't get their music on mainstream radio and mediocre major label music gets on the radio just because somebody's paying.

Legislative efforts to end the practice have failed consistently. Payola is illegal, but labels simply skirt the law by paying third-party "independent promoters" to pay radio stations. As long as the major labels continue to have huge amounts of money to throw into radio promotion, we'll always have pay-for-play. But we can take the money out of the system. If we stop paying for major label music, we can stop payola.

3) Independent music won't be marginalized. The major labels use their monopoly of distribution and their control of radio to prevent independent music from competing in the mainstream. Pay-for-play happens in print media too: if a record label places ads, they'll get reviews. Many in indie music circles have grown so used to being marginalized by the majors that they just accept it. Some even become proud of their own obscurity--after all, in this system obscurity is where you get when you stay true to principles. But it doesn't need to be that way. With the record industry in disarray, the media and the public are trying to understand what's happening. If independent labels and musicians speak out against the majors' unfair business practices, they can shift the debate and change the system.

4) The lawsuits will stop. The major labels hit a new low when they started suing fans this fall. But the million-dollar filesharing lawsuits are hurting hundreds of families, many of whom have young children. We've spoken with dozens of the people who've been targeted, and these lawsuits are literally driving families into bankruptcy. The risk and expense of fighting the suits rather than settling means that of the over 400 people targetted by the RIAA, there may not be a single case that gets decided in court. The only way to stop these suits is to stop buying the CDs that fund the lawsuits.

5) Artistic freedom will expand. For artists on major labels, label bureaucrats hijack the sound and control the final product. The label picks the producer of the album and they can always refuse to release it; sometimes labels even trash entire albums. And at the end of the day the label--not the musician--owns the copyright to each song.

The major labels have also made it illegal or prohibitively expensive to make sample-based music. They own all the copyrights and, unless musicians pay to 'clear' each sample, the musical equivalent of a collage becomes illegal art. Hip-hop and electronic music suffer the most from this restrictive, legalistic atmosphere. But if we take down the copyright cartel, the problem is solved.

6) Musicians will make a better living. The major label system is the biggest barrier to musicians making money off CDs. Major label artists only start getting their tiny share of royalties (5-10%) once they've sold over 500,000 units. Independent musicians can get a bigger cut, but thanks to major label payola they can't get on the radio and won't reach a large audience.

All the things the majors do to manipulate the music business cost money. Millions of dollars in payola, 8 figure executive salaries, poor choices of new artists, overpriced studios--this money comes from musicians and fans, but benefits neither. If we cut out the waste, fans will be able to support more musicians while spending less.

If you buy all that, the RIAA Radar might be a good way of finding out if all that music you are going to buy is released by a Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) member.

I have a few problems with these reasons, though.

Firstly, musicians still deserve compensation for all their work, and there needs to be a good system in place to make sure that happens.

But People have researched that too. The proposed solution is called Voluntary Collective Licensing. This means people would pay a small fee (something like $5 a month) in order to legitimize all the file sharing they are already doing. This idea has actually worked before via societies like ASCAP, who got the radio to pay fees in order to be able to play whatever copyrighted material they wanted. From my understanding, these fees go to the person that owns the copyright to the music (generally the musician's themselves). The EFF proposes ways to collect this money, which could involve listeners paying the websites they are downloading from or the file sharing software they use. It's also suggested that the listener's ISP could be in charge of collecting the money.

I guess the question is, do you think it's alright to force the issue by downloading music before something like that is set up?

Also not to be overlooked is the fact that all my favorite record stores would go out of business.

I am pretty torn on this issue. This would be really sad to me, but to be honest, I am generally on the side of change and technology and everything else. I might be convinced this is just the wave of the future.

What do you think, Jake?


Ben said...

Seems to me that a system where compensation is based on limiting supply is not going to work anymore, given that files multiply far too easily and, heck, music wants to be free. And that's what copyright is all about -- you can't copy unless you purchase the right to do so. But music wants to be copied, shared, and experienced. It's the in the nature of sound, and art, and the art of sound.

Too flowery, but maybe it makes the point?

MCW said...

I think file-sharing, if legal, would help the lesser known bands/musicians and hurt the big names. Lesser known bands will get the exposure they greatly need while big bands will only lose the profit of which they don't need anymore. It will probably be squandered on alcohol and other forms of debauchery.

Speaking of music, is anyone else pumped for the new Smashing Pumpkins album due out in early July?

Karen said...

I liked your comment, Ben; I didn't think it was flowery.