I’ve made a lot of comments in interviews and online about file-sharing/music piracy in the past, though it occurs to me that I’ve never really made an all-encompassing statement about my thoughts on the matter. In some regards, I’ve never really felt like I needed to explicitly outline my position on the issue. But with Ghost Beach’s recent Times Square piracy billboard, I started thinking about how adding to the dialogue is important. As someone that’s been making records for 18 years, I figured it might be time to get all my thoughts on the matter down in one place.
First off, I’ve stolen music. I do it less and less these days, particularly now that Mediafire and Rapidshare are pretty much out of the equation. Still, I have no shortage of music on my iPod that I did not pay for. Here’s the catch, though: most of the music I stole fell into one of four categories:
- Music I already owned on vinyl but was too lazy to convert to mp3s.
- Music that was out of print and unavailable elsewhere.
- Music I was checking out for an article I was writing.
- Music recommended by a friend that I wanted to investigate before buying.
In each instance, I’ve felt ethically comfortable downloading these songs because I had either already paid for the recordings in another format, intended to pay for them later, or was accessing recordings I was not interested in keeping because it was strictly work-related. Granted, there are still mp3s on my iPod I listen to regularly that I have not paid for; I’m still trying to track down a copy of Craft’s Fuck The Universe on vinyl, but those mp3s I ripped off from a friend’s laptop also prompted me to pre-order Craft’s Void LP when it came out last year.
I first started buying music when I was 9. I bought Chicago 17 on cassette. I had already dubbed the album’s hit singles off the radio onto my boombox, but I wanted the actual album. In junior high, friends would pass around mix tapes and I would run out and grab albums by all the new artists I was discovering. A lot of friends would borrow my tapes and make copies for themselves, but I never felt satisfied by owning a dubbed copy of a record. It felt half-assed, non-committal. Pardon the juvenile reference, but owning a dubbed copy of a record somehow made me feel like a “poser.” It’s an issue I still have to this day; I don’t feel like a true fan until I buy an album.
I remember buying Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust on cassette in 8th grade, and there was a little blurb in the liner notes about how side two of the tape was left blank so you could copy music onto it. On the tape itself, side two had a skull-and-crossbones with the skull replaced by a cassette tape, and underneath it said “Home Recording is Killing the Record Industry.” I think about that statement a lot. The music I’ve been drawn to since adolescence has never really considered itself part of the record industry. The artists I’ve admired have done their best to circumnavigate the major label world. Even in my own time making records, my bands have always worked with labels that were our friends. We made records on small budgets so that we could make sure the records were profitable. We split profits with the label 50/50. We made the best products we could on these budgets. These records meant everything to us, and to get those physical copies back from the pressing plant with our names on it is still a rush. All my bands make proper albums, not a couple of “hits” with a bunch of filler to round it out. It is a labor of love, not a career move. I remember when the second Botch 7” sold out, Phyte Records-owner Mike Mowery sent us a statement showing the net profit of the pressing. It was around $30. All parties involved were fine with that. A few years later when Botch released We Are The Romans, I remember a friend of mine who owned a record store mentioning that the wholesale price on the album was so low he was stunned that Hydra Head Records could turn a profit on it. I bring these examples up to reinforce the distinction between the recording world we lived in and the recording industry most people in Western culture are familiar with. It’s not to say that we were against making money; it’s just to say that we preferred to create a microcosm in which the band, the label, and the folks buying our records were all getting treated fairly. It was a system that valued art over business.
Going back to the Dead Kennedys, I interviewed Jello Biafra recently and we talked about how file-sharing has impacted indie labels. Even Jello conceded that this new era of sharing is hurting labels like Alternative Tentacles Records. His biggest complaint was with the contingent of people that felt like artists shouldn’t get paid for their recordings at all—a contingent he saw being largely composed of people in the tech industry. I’ve seen these kinds of complaints posted online before: why should we have to pay for an album with only a couple of good songs on it? Why should we have to pay for an album when the artist doesn’t even get paid royalties anyway? Radiohead and Foo Fighters are okay with file-sharing, so why isn’t everybody else cool with it? Piracy helps promote artists.
I’ve already touched on a lot of these topics already. First of all, if you’re listening to albums with only one or two good songs, you’re listening to the wrong albums. Quit listening to the shit you hear on the radio or saw on TV. Secondly, it’s true; most artists don’t see royalties. But I would again argue that most artists worth listening to are probably smart enough to negotiate a deal where they get a fair cut of the profits. I know my bands always did. If we weren’t seeing royalties, it was because the label wasn’t making a profit either. So you’re not “sticking it to the man” when you rip an indie artist’s album from your friend’s computer. Artists like Radiohead and Foo Fighters see the overwhelming majority of their income through touring. I’m sure they don’t give a fuck if Capitol Records makes a dime off their records. They’re more concerned with keeping their fans happy than keeping a bloated, outdated major-label afloat. I do agree that piracy helps promote artists. We live in an age where it’s so much easier to learn about and access new music. We Are The Romans sold more copies than any Russian Circles album. Yet Russian Circles draw far more people when we tour than Botch ever did. I credit that to the internet. Do the increase in ticket sales offset lost royalties? They certainly do. But again, this isn’t about money as much as it is about entitlement and maintaining a sustainable underground infrastructure. “Punk” principles were never profit-driven. I’m not concerned about lost royalties; I’m concerned that my friends that own or work at independent record stores, labels, and distribution companies are going to go under. I’m concerned about the costs involved in making a record in a world where people don’t think they should have to pay for anything. I’m worried that the only people that will make money off of music recordings or sustain a distribution enterprise will be tech companies like Apple and Spotify, who pay an even smaller cut of their profits to artists than any major label.
Fortunately, I feel like things are balancing out. In years past, I knew a lot of people who scoffed at the idea of buying music. Why pay for something that’s free? But recently a lot of these people have come around to the idea of being patrons to the arts. The success of Kickstarter projects and experiments like Radiohead’s In Rainbows demonstrate that people aren’t necessarily opposed to paying for music, they’re just tired of the old business model. And that’s fair enough. Botch didn’t like the prevalent practices of the music industry when we made our first 7” in 1995 either. I think most people are able to distinguish between an artist that needs patronage versus an artist that’s bankrolled by a relic of a bygone era of rock n’ roll excess. Or perhaps folks are just realizing that a vibrant music community where no one pays for anything simply isn’t sustainable. As Ian Mackaye noted, if you don’t want to pay for music, “enjoy the past, because it’s impossible to make music now without money.”
In short, am I opposed to music piracy? Well, yes and no. I don’t oppose people sharing music with each other. But I don’t think there’s any justification for arguing that you shouldn’t ever have to pay for music. Perhaps if I had been in a band signed to a major label I would have a much different take on things. You want to share music with a friend? You want to check something out before buying it? By all means, go for it. As long as there is still the acknowledgment that you need to give back in some capacity.
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