The Twitterverse today is full of links to David Lowery’s articulate post regarding the morality and ethics of stealing music. This post was prompted by a blog entry by Emily White on the NPR All Songs Considered site. Twenty-one year old Emily claims to have 11,000 songs on her iPod, but has only ever purchased 15 CDs. Wow. Emily cites the sources of her music as mixtapes from friends, and ripping CDs from her college radio station’s library. David Lowery’s response is well worth reading and he says it better than anything I will say here. This issue seems to ignite opinions from the “music should be free” camp to the “it is stealing” end of the spectrum. Of course you know my two cents are coming, and hopefully they tread a more middle of the road approach.
Of course the bottom line is, it is stealing. Lowery brings up morality and ethics and really this is what it comes down to–can you live with being a thief? Is it okay to shoplift something because you can’t afford it? There is no way that someone on the pro-free side can whitewash what is happening. It–is–stealing. Anyone who doesn’t believe me should go check out the copyright laws.
I write and record music. I put it out there. I spend money earned from my day job to do this. I get about a negative .05% return on my investment. But it is not about investments, it is about loving music. Music, or any art, should not be solitary. Yes, for the artist there is some catharsis in the creative process but the end result should be shared. I put out the songs I have made (that I like) in the hopes that someone else will like them too. I don’t expect to earn a living from this, but it sure would be nice. My day job is in health care and it is not uncommon to see signs in lobbies that say “The greatest compliment you can give us is the referral of your friends and family.” As an artist, I think this extends to music as well–if you like me, tell someone. But, I would add that really the greatest compliment you can give me is to support me. If you like an artist, put your money where your heart is. You can buy a latte that will give you enjoyment for 15-20 minutes, or you can buy 3 songs from iTunes that will bring you enjoyment for a lifetime.
As a music fan, I have never been too ardently opposed to home taping. Generally when I have dubbed a copy of something I go on to buy more by that artist and attends their shows as a result. But the home taping problem was miniscule compared to the digital dilemma we have now. That cassette you dubbed from a friend was second generation and it sounded like it. If you really liked it, you wanted the original. Shared music files have no loss in fidelity, no matter how many generations removed from the original. That is a big problem. Emily got some of her music from mixtapes made by friends. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. Friends turn friends on to new music. But the idea of a mixtape is that it is a collection of songs, a greatest hits if you will. The hope is you will discover a new band and go out and buy the whole album. But, my dear Emily, do you really think bringing your laptop into the college radio station and ripping a bunch of CDs is okay? She mentions that they were “free” promos sent to the station by the labels as if this somehow justifies her actions. Yes, they are free to the station but I can tell you that with the cost of the CD, the mailer, and the postage, it cost the label anywhere from $3-5 to send your station that “free” CD and they didn’t send it so you could copy it. It is for promotional use…probably says so right on the CD. That means, you play it on the radio so people can hear it and want it.
I’m not 21. Far from it. When I was a tween and buying my first non K-Tel LP’s it was a risk to buy an album because chances were there was a radio hit or two, and a bunch of filler (case in point, some of my earliest purchases J.Geils Band’s Freeze Frame and REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity). I soon made a personal rule that I would not purchase any album that I did not know and like at least two songs from. This rule, to by dismay, prevented me from buying R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction sooner than I did because I had only heard one song. Without trying to sound like an old person here, you kids have it easy. Between Spotify, YouTube, and artists websites there is hardly anything that you can’t try before you buy. You can make risk free purchases.
So lets get down to that promised middle ground. There are laws, ethics, and morals. Laws are black and white. Morals and ethics have grey areas. The law says thou shalt not steal. Copyright laws mean that the creator of any given work has the sole right to decide how it can be used. This means, if the artist isn’t giving it away, it is not free. If you have it, and did not in some way pay for it, you stole it. Period.
Morality and ethics are more of a personal code of right and wrong. If you believe stealing is wrong, you shouldn’t do it. If this is your personal morality, refer to the previous paragraph. If you think it is okay to steal music, then how about placing some parameters on your criminal activity? The following work within my ethics and morality, but you can adapt them.
If your friend makes you a mixtape. I say, “cool.” Enjoy it. (Moral justification: this is free promotion for the artist…potential new fans)
If your friend lends you a CD and you really like it, buy it, don’t copy it. With all the sales Amazon is constantly having, you can almost always buy a download of a whole album for under $10. Same goes for borrowing a CD from the library. Try it out, if you like it, buy it.
If you want an album that is out of print, never to be in print again, and it is nowhere to be found except that one guy on e-Bay and the bidding is up over $45 already…if you can get a copy of it, go for it. (And here the moral justification would be the band is not offering the album themselves and would neither gain nor lose from this action)
If you don’t want to buy music, subscribe to Spotify and listen often. They pay a fraction of a penny per play but it’s better than stealing.
Finally, if you still think it is okay to take music for free, I suggest you re-think your priorities. If you are a fan of music you will want to ensure that it continues. In the past artists needed patrons. Today, we, collectively, are the patrons. If you are unwilling to support music, you cannot call yourself a true fan. If you can’t “afford” to support music 100% of the time, how about most of the time?