File Sharing and its Effects on the Music Industry
If you told the average Joe on the street that stealing was wrong, he would almost certainly agree. To his conscience, activities such as robbery and burglary are absolutely sinful. Other acts, however, may not fall directly under the category of theft, but have similar motives – cheating on a test and plagiarizing come to mind immediately. If, similarly, the meaning of the word “steal” is expanded too far, its meaning is corrupted. This degradation of moral definition is occurring today in the music industry. The dilemma is that millions of songs are being downloaded, for free, using computer programs in conjunction with the internet. Should copyright laws prevent such acts? Are listeners responsible for the decline of a multi-billion dollar industry? If you download, are you committing an atrocious deed? These are the questions posed by file sharing and its surrounding controversies.
Upon examining these issues, it becomes evident that the music industry has irresponsibly used the advent of file sharing and the meteoric rise of certain peer-to-peer networks to explain their financial troubles. In fact, downloads have scarcely effected the profits of the biggest record labels at all. If anything, the digital revolution in music has aided the industry by opening up new possibilities for listeners, which is sure to stimulate a renaissance of sorts for music lovers. In short, file sharing is more beneficial than harmful for music as a whole; it gives listeners a wider range of musical choices, makes it easier for smaller artists to gain recognition, and provides the record labels with a useful tool for marketing.
File sharing’s detractors must be addressed before one can address the positive atmosphere digital downloads foster. Opponents argue that file sharing has contributed to the recent recession in the music industry. Research, however, suggests that these claims are unfounded. For example, one of the most heralded studies on file sharing was “The Effects of File Sharing on Record Sales” by Felix Oberholzer and Koleman Stumpf, professors respectively at Harvard and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In researching the issue, they found that file sharing had a completely negligible impact on the number of records being sold. Through hundreds of surveys done with a sample of the downloading populace, they found that many users of p2p (peer-to-peer) networks actually buy more music than they would without having the opportunity to sample it before purchasing, which file sharing allows for. In fact, this sampling has led the average user to buy a total of eight extra albums (Oberholzer 3). This finding shows that, if anything, the claims of the record labels are completely opposite of the real economic climate.
The theoretical decline in record sales can be attributed to other factors besides illegal downloaders. One important factor to note is that of the CD-replacement cycle. For a while, most people bought their music on vinyl records, and then cassette tapes. With the advent of the compact disc, people felt the need to replace their old copies with a supposedly more reliable format. For awhile after the compact disc was introduced, some people were buying albums in their favorite format, being vinyl or cassette, and also on the new, unproven compact disc. This caused an increase in sales in the 90’s, and is commonly referred to as the “2 sales” phenomenon (Park 73). Thus, when people stopped replacing their old albums with CD’s and buying in multiple formats, sales were negatively affected. Other potential influences on slow sales ******* the popularization of used compact disc sales, increased prices, and the economic slowdown caused by the attacks on September 11th.
Some say that file sharing hurts artists who depend on the sale of their works for well being. This claim can be debunked at least in part by the research of David Blackburn, who determined statistically that the bottom three-fourths of artists in terms of popularity actually sell more albums than they would without the help of file sharing. The top fourth sold less, though probably a negligible amount, according to the previous point (Pollock 1). In plain English, this means that the bands who need money most, who are struggling with advertising, publishing, and other means of exposure, greatly benefit from file sharing and p2p networks. Only a small percentage of artists suffer, if at all, and these are the same bands who make millions of dollars through other means of cross promotion, such as appearances in television, movies, and video games.
Even so, these performers can still use the internet for their own advantage. Two examples spring to mind immediately. The first is that of the band Radiohead, who have recently put their latest album “In Rainbows” on their website using a unique “pay what you want” system. This means that fans can own an MP3 copy of that record for free, or if they choose to do so, they can provide a monetary value and help the band out. A survey taken by the magazine NME revealed that the average price paid by downloaders was around ten dollars. All things considered, the band has made a lot of money from this type of promotion. One other band that used file sharing for their own interests was Arctic Monkeys, a then up-and-coming British rock band. Their music ended up on peer-to-peer networks even before their first record was completed. Through word of mouth, the band garnered millions of fans. Even before some songs were available for purchase, the entire crowd was shouting along to the lyrics. Critics of file sharing typically ignore this type of grassroots exposure when they bash digital downloads.
Finally, in the rebuttal of file sharing’s opponents, it is necessary to point out the hypocrisy of one of its greatest critics – the music industry itself. David Park, a PHD from the University of Wisconsin, put it aptly in his book Conglomerate Rock: “The irony with the music industry’s policy and war against file sharing services is that the industry also uses them to its own gain.” (Park 66). He goes on to point out that labels spy on downloads in order to catch wind of certain musical trends, deciding on which bands or specific types of music to spend money on promoting. Using this tactic, the Big 4 music conglomerates, being Sony-BMG, Vivendi/Universal, Warner, and EMI, can push artists using radio stations, television, and other platforms. This all leads to more profit for the very people who hold seventy-two percent of the global market shares in music (22). Perhaps these companies are subscribing to the motto that if you can’t beat them, join them. Nonetheless, their claims of financial loss are haphazard.
With the false accusations against the digital revolution sufficiently debunked, the great rewards inherent in the downloader’s culture must be discussed. Most importantly, free access to music provides a fertile ground for artistic expression. The library system provides a perfect parallel between music and literature. If someone wants to try out a different style of writing, they don’t have to pay for it – they go to the library and check it out. This is precisely the concept that many downloaders adhere to. Anyone who has a computer with internet can educate themselves about every genre of music on the planet. Without file sharing, many people would never find their favorite band, or become inspired to start their own musical careers. Also, without a relatively easy way to discover new styles of music, people have to rely on television and radio for free exposure to new artists, making for an increasingly conformist and bland music culture. As David Park notes, “…increased commercialism further blurs the line between art and advertising in addition to cultivating an environment that subverts musicians and their music…” (Park 52). This is why file sharing will be vital to our cultural identity in the years to come – it takes music back from the advertisers and gives it to the people who truly love it.
From an artist’s standpoint, peer-to-peer networks are a fantastic way to gain recognition without submitting to the will of a powerful record label. Whereas labels use their influence to get bands played on the radio, marketed on television, or cross-promoted with food chains, the artist themselves can do a lot to further their careers by simply making their music available on the internet. All it takes is for one person to find a band’s songs and enjoy them, and for that person to tell someone else about the band. From there, the number of fans can only multiply. Even well-established bands can use similar tactics. Another parallel may be made here, this time with government and politics. Sometimes news leaks occur involving political issues without the authorization by proper officials, with the intent being to gauge the public’s reaction to the information. The most obvious example of this was the leak of information by a source known as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal. Moving back to music, popular bands can do the same thing; releasing songs for free online and monitoring fans’ reactions can help the band effectively craft music that is both satisfying for them and commercially viable. Another benefit of this is that hype can be generated by strategically leaking an album weeks or even months before its release. Radiohead provides another good example, proving that a hugely successful band can utilize the internet to their own ends. In the year 2000, their album “Kid A” was leaked onto servers well before its official release date. While some thought that this would hamper its eventual sales, “Kid A” went on to be hugely successful despite hardly any advertising, including the lack on any singles or videos.
File sharing opens up such promising artistic and commercial possibilities, and yet it has a bad reputation because of a bitter industry in need of a scapegoat. Ever since Metallica sued the peer-to-peer giant Napster and effectively outlawed file sharing, a digital revolution of sorts has taken place. Today, millions of users download music for free every day. These people are not thieves; they are simply curious fans with a serious interest in music. Research has shown that their downloading does not significantly affect record sales, and the benefits that most bands and their fans can reap from the online distribution of music far outweighs any criticism that can be levied against file sharing. It’s up to the record labels to accept that free downloads can’t be stopped and that they aren’t the scourge on music that they claim. The rest of us, meanwhile, can enjoy listening to some tunes and hope that the internet can free music from the ties of commerce and present it as artfully as it once was.
That's from a paper I did a few years back. Recently, this guy has been sued 4.5 million dollars for downloading. (How it feels to be sued for $4.5m | Music | guardian.co.uk
I personally think that this is unconstitutional. An excessive fine - cruel and unusual punishment for such a petty offense. Thoughts?