This summer, an NPR intern blogged candidly about her life acquiring free music, and a few pious musicians and commentators protested her life of crime. (The exchange and surrounding kerfuffle was summarized nicely in American Songwriter.) It was only the latest flare-up in a long debate. For the entire time I’ve been covering music, music piracy/sharing has been the most sensitive, polarizing and exploited subject in the biz. Record people almost uniformly maintain that piracy blew up their business. There is some research suggesting the harm and good of "file sharing" net out economically. And there are no doubt way too many punk-ass jerks who cavalierly take whatever music they want off the internet just because it’s there.
The most honest and agreeable thing I’ve read in ages about piracy however is this mea culpa / memoir of a downloader (John Brownlee) that was posted at CultOfMac a few days ago. The takeaway:
As a thirty-three year old man, I’m ashamed of the piracy of my twenties, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it gradually helped transform me from a person who didn’t care about music into a music lover, an individual with a true passion for sound, and a fervent believer in buying music.
I liked the piece so much because it engages honestly with the process of becoming a music lover, a too-rarely discussed topic. There’s much more to it than you’ll ever hear about in a Grammy night speech from Neil Portnow. The journeys are as individual as people. But a thread runs through every musical biography I’ve ever heard, and I seek them out professionally. ALL of them encountered abundant and varied stashes of “free” music, in which they could wallow at critical stages of their lives.
Of course these experiences and accidental music collections were legitimately acquired. But to that young person, it was all “free” music. The lucky ones had parents with wide tastes and collections full of James Brown, Sinatra, Mahler, Beatles, Sarah Vaughan, etc. Others were the sons and daughters of people who had a small shelf stocked with Air Supply and Debbie Boone. What about them? Or the kids who have terrible parents or no parents? How are they supposed to hear what they will later learn to buy? Or hear what could save their lives for that matter? Those lucky enough to stumble on collections of others should stop and make sure they compensate somebody for it?
Let’s just be candid. Music enthusiasts are all pirates at some times in our lives. (And music creators are stealing all the time if they know their craft worth a darn, but that’s another topic.) I copied LPs to cassettes in my teens and discovered The Clash, XTC, The Police, Joe Jackson, the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello as a result. So sue me. I wound up purchasing many albums by all of them. And then there’s the other free music I had available to me. My folks listened to classical a few times a week and a closet full of fascinating recordings, so that fed my curiosity and passion for composed music. Later on, I regularly raided the library at my college, where you could order up any LP to be spun by an attendant for private listening on headphones in comfy chairs.
Moreover, perhaps half of the recordings I own in all formats came from used music stores or yard sales going back decades. That’s all legal, but ethically isn’t it exactly the same rip-off the artists, writers, labels and publishers as a BitTorrent download? And this doesn’t even touch the flood of legitimately “free” music being posted by artists themselves or the now legal and endless content at YouTube.
Of course most of the people who opine about the perils of free music are themselves in the industry and thus awash in free music, including exclusive early peeks at important stuff. Since I wrote my first music column I’ve been on multiple mailing lists and I get a dozen free albums a week. How did I get so lucky? I don’t take it for granted I assure you.
I truly think we’re near the end of the decade-long debate about music piracy, if only because the whole issue is now basically moot. And those who are still just grabbing music to keep and entertain themselves without ever paying the system back in some way, let’s hope most of them grow up like the guy in the article. I support and have always supported prosecution of the uploaders of copyrighted content. But we’ll never heal this weird wound until we just concede that if you had to purchase every piece of music that shaped you, you’d never get shaped.