The impetus for this blog post was a statement a friend made when visiting me earlier this week. The friend shall remain nameless. She saw my rack of records and said “Wow, you still buy music? Why buy it, when you can get it for free? I’ll never pay for music.” I wasn’t shocked. Attitudes like that aren’t the minority unfortunately. In fact, it’s the norm. Whenever the narrative of low record sales is given, it’s always given from the POV of a major label, rarely is it given from the POV of the artist. On the rare occasion that it’s given from the POV of the artist, a big name, chart topping musician is usually the example, as if most musicians are rich. It completely ignores the reality that most labels are independent and aren’t full of fat cats, and most musicians are struggling. If you want to be rich, get a job on Wall Street. Most musicians I know have day jobs.
Anytime illegal downloading is brought up, I usually hear several reasons defending it. I’ll address the four I hear the most.
Reason 1. I don’t want to buy an entire album if there are only one or two good songs on it.
Then you’re listening to the wrong album and/or music. Find better music. Imagine if I said “Man, I hate this restaurant, everything on the menu is terrible. I only like one appetizer on the entire menu. The food here sucks.” The logical question that should follow is, why would I frequent a restaurant if I know almost everything is bad? Don’t support it. Go to a restaurant that suits your tastes. Apply that logic to music.
Reason 2. Record labels & execs make too much money, and they rip off the musicians.
Sure, this may be true for the major labels, but most labels are independent. They’re not rolling in money. Nevertheless, it’s still not a valid reason to pirate music. The argument is that if you paid for music, the musician wouldn’t be fairly compensated. But by not paying for music, the musician isn’t compensated at all. That’s a worse scenario.
Reason 3. Music is expensive.
No it’s not. Music is the cheapest it has ever been. I lived through the CD explosion of the 80s and 90s. CDs were typically $16 to $20 at Sam Goody’s, Cocunuts, FYE, The Wiz and most retailers. In fact, the high price of CDs was what made joining clubs like Columbia House so appealing. You mean I could get 12 CDs for a penny??? I remember paying $5 for cassingles. Youngsters reading this, feel free to google cassingle. In a society that doesn’t think twice about spending $60 on videogames and $200 on the latest Air Jordan sneakers, it rings a bit hollow for people to complain about CDs that sell for $5 to $10. How much did you pay for those IMAX movie tickets for about an hour and a half of entertainment? Music can last a lifetime. What’s the better value?
Reason 4. It’s free promotion. They are getting their music out there, and if people like it, they will buy it.
This one really makes no sense. Since when do consumers decide the marketing techniques for musicians? The end user should not be the one who gets to decide whether the music should be free, that should be up to the artist. Musicians have given away free music before, it’s nothing new. Trent Reznor does it all the time. Let the musician decide that. Deciding what’s best for a musician is the height of hubris. It takes balls to say that with a straight face.
I’m simply illustrating that these “reasons” aren’t reasons at all. They are just things people say to legitimize not paying for anything. Expecting something for nothing is endemic in today’s society. It’s innate and cultural. Art at large is not valued or appreciated by a lot of people. NPR and PBS continue to struggle. People don’t feel like they should pay for music. It’s something that they think is free. I see entire albums being shared on Tumblr, as if the musicians didn’t compose, write and put in hours to create it. How are they compensated for their work that everyone is enjoying? People don’t seem to care about that. Just like they don’t care that their $200 pair of sneakers was made in a sweatshop for pennies. They just want the end result. How it got there is of no significance. The irony is that people will spend top dollar for something that costs pennies on the dollar i.e. a pair of sneakers, but will bemoan spending money on something that takes time, effort and talent i.e. music.
There is a new generation that grew up on Limewire, Napster and Torrents. They never bought music. A former coworker had never bought music in his life. Music to many people is just something they load up on their computers and iPods. This has made music disposable. It has very little value to many people, so why would they pay for it?
The reality is that musicians are hurting. Most musicians are not on big labels. They aren’t moving Eminem and Lady Gaga numbers. Most musicians have day jobs, because the gigs they play can’t cover basic living expenses. As a jazz fan, I know this very well. Jazz musicians are barely making it. Ultimately, we are shortchanging ourselves. The less time musicians have to create is to all our detriment. You can’t expect art of any kind to flourish if you don’t support it. C’est la vie. You want good music to survive? Pick up a damn CD or record and support the artists trying to make it. That’s as rudimentary as it gets.