I’m a huge music fan. I listen to hours of it every day, and a very significant chunk of the music that I listen to has been downloaded illegally. Whether I’ve ripped .mp3s from YouTube…or other online video hosting websites (who am I kidding?) or downloaded songs through peer-to-peer file sharing services and torrents, the vast collection that I’ve accumulated over the years is almost entirely ‘stolen’. I very rarely feel guilty about this and I’m going to tell you why.
First and foremost, most of the music I tend to listen to these days falls into two categories: Firstly, there’s the massively famous bands/artists who make a killing from touring, people actually buying their music on iTunes, merchandise and ad revenue on YouTube. Secondly, there’s the artists who don’t actually have any proper albums or singles released yet. The first category I don’t feel bad about stealing from because they simply don’t need my money. They could very easily stop making money entirely and live off the interest their accountant manages to make them in off-shore accounts and other financial instruments us mortals don’t know a thing about. Cheating them out of £7 for a shitty EP is not something that I will ever lose sleep over, and generally speaking, neither will they. It’s their record labels that care about the ‘horrors’ of torrenting and The Impending Death of Music, and those record labels are not doing anything even remotely creative that I deem worthy of shelling out my hard earned money for.
The second category, the very indie group, I download from because they haven’t actually produced anything properly yet. Almost all of the music I have from these kind of artists are demos and jam sessions recorded for promotional purposes, none of which is worth selling yet because it isn’t finalized or finished – I love the energy and charm in these kind of recordings though; all of that charisma is lost in translation when an EP or album is being produced, and it’s nice to grab hold of something organic when the chance arises. I don’t care if the vocalist didn’t quite reach the high notes in the chorus, because the sound of the bass accidentally echoing through someone’s garage is fucking magical.
If and when those sort of bands or artists do produce an actual album or EP though, I will always pay for it. Mostly because when their audience is that small they can genuinely tell the difference between selling 20 copies of an album and 21, and also because I feel like it allows me to convey my love for the work that they’re doing and the art that they’re creating. Album covers and inlay posters are a huge reason that I pay for physical EPs or albums too, and it just so happens that a lot of the time these kind of small bands have artwork created by someone’s girlfriend who is an unappreciated tattoo artist rather than a middle aged man wearing a suit sitting in front of a MacBook Air running PhotoShop CS6. It just isn’t the same, and you can tell.
Paying for digital downloads of music still does make me feel a little bit uneasy though, mostly because I think it’s outrageous that it costs the same amount of money to buy a physically printed CD with an inlay tray, album artwork and maybe even a poster if I’m lucky, as it costs to pay for a link to download the .mp3 files from BandCamp or SoundCloud or whatever. When these bands or artists genuinely need that sale to pay for their next Pot Noodle dinner (or weed), I’ll bite the bullet and go for it because I’m a nice guy. Wooden Dogs needs my business significantly more than Coldplay or U2.
But it isn’t really fair to compare these two types of artists, and I appreciate that there are a ton of other bands that fall in between these extremes. A lot of people that create music would love the chance to grow their audience via any means necessary, rather than purely going all out in their quest to earn as much money as possible. If you’re making music honestly and you’re proud of your work, ultimately you should be happy about having any kind of audience at all, even if they have essentially stolen from you. A lot of artists that create good music but don’t sell very much would appreciate any form of publicity, and a lot of the time people who end up downloading music will go on to tell their friends about a great album they stumbled upon, and that friend will then either go on to download it themselves (and tell their friends, and the cycle continues), or perhaps if it really clicks with them they’ll go ahead and buy the full album. I’ve been in that position many times myself and I know it’s a fairly common occurrence.
Record labels aren’t happy about this though, but it’s 2014, and frankly they’re not even necessary anymore. If you have access to the internet (which you do) and you own an instrument and a microphone of some sort (hell, if you have a smartphone you’re covered), you can make your own YouTube channel or SoundCloud account and upload your own creations for free online. Make a splash and maybe you’ll get a bit of a community going. If people love what you do, they will buy what you make, but not because they have to, because they want to show their support. Any form of publicity is good for the musician, and as long as you spread the word about any good music you chance upon, someone will end up buying it and you won’t need to feel like you’ve screwed anyone over.