Piracy Guilt


It’s hard for me to justify the amount of music I steal. Occasionally I feel it makes me a bad person. Most of the time I’m completely disconnected from the damage I’m doing. Like a solider launching cruise missiles at an enemy depot from some remote location. Ok, maybe I’m not blowing Grizzly Bear to bits when I pirate Veckatimest, but the consequences of my actions are not part of my immediate reality. I’m not sure how much damage I’m actually doing and it’s fairly easy to not care. Though one could say I’m simply costing the band the price of the album on iTunes, it seems more complicated than that. Earlier this year, some house mom in Minnesota was fined $1.92 million for 24 songs she pirated and shared over the Internet. That’s $80,000 per song. Is my copy of Veckatimest really worth $1,040,000 in damages? Or is the whole thing worth $9.99 (less than $0.99 per song) via iTunes?

It seems the answer lies somewhere in between, though it’s hard to say. I like taking comfort in the fact that there is no simple formula for determining the monetary loss (or profit) caused by piracy, especially on an individual basis. For example: how do you account for a pirated copy of an album that gets sent to a person who never would have listened to that band in the first place? What if that person becomes a big fan, doesn’t buy the album, but pays $20 to see their show? Would the original pirate be doing the band a “favor” in that case? If the album sells for $10, did the original pirate just “break even” with the band by the sale of that one concert ticket? These are the sorts of things I think about when pirating begins to wear at my conscience. Though I know such occurrences are rare, it helps to imagine that I’m somehow “making it up” to the band by some rather complicated string of events, however improbable they may be. For the large majority of albums in my iTunes library though, I know the damage is a fairly simple calculation: I downloaded the album. I more or less enjoyed it. I never saw the band in concert, never sent the album to anyone, and have no plans to. I will probably never give the band a single cent, either directly or indirectly. I think I’m ok with this most of the time for two main reasons:

1) My perception of the music industry: People who pirate music tend to separate the artist and the industry very clearly (and conveniently) in their minds. Conversations about piracy among pirates tend to start and stop with a cheeky “fuck the RIAA!!” and never get into the relationship between the RIAA and the artist. Though this view is admittedly flawed, the state of the music industry and the attitudes of current artists can make the it seem very real. A decade ago, you might have thought bands would be “going out of business” along with their labels in the future. Instead, the two seem to be on opposite trajectories. The music industry is dying, while there are probably more new bands flourishing than ever before. This inverse relationship makes the separation between artist and industry seem real, even if it’s just an illusion. Bands are finding new ways to survive while the industry reports losses every year. This is mainly due to the fact that bands, as completely sovereign entities,  don’t have rigid “bottom lines” or “profit margins” so they’re capable of being as flexible as they want to be. As a matter of fact, I can’t name a single band that’s met it’s “unsustainable point” and stopped putting out music. It seems bands continue to produce regardless of how much is coming in, which gives the impression that piracy isn’t hurting them that much, if at all. I don’t think this is a good thing for bands to be doing. I think if a band I really liked came forward and said “we can no longer support ourselves because of piracy so we’re breaking up” I would seriously reconsider my downloading habits. It seems strange this has has never happened (at least publicly). The RIAA makes the separation even more attractive when it sues house moms and college students into oblivion. It’s quite easy to get fired up about screwing the RIAA while forgetting who they represent.

It’s often hard to tell how bands really feel about piracy. All bands must feel like they have to embrace it, less they be compared to old school, out of touch bands like Metallica. At most, bands are allowed to jokingly call their fans “fuckers” at a concert when they sing along to songs from an album not yet released, or tell an interviewer they were “totally bummed’ when their album leaked. Most bands never even mention it. The whole thing makes for rather mixed signals. The only camp really showing outrage is the middleman. I don’t know if bands just don’t care about being rich anymore or if they’re stifling their anger and punching their pillows every night. Either way, artists need to get on the same page as their middlemen (or get rid of them entirely) and send a clear message about piracy to people like me so we can’t demonize one to feel good about robbing the other. I wish bands would just be honest about how they feel about piracy. Some bands totally embrace it, but most seem afraid of offending the people that are stealing their work. Or maybe they think any effort to combat it is ultimately useless. But if they don’t feel like fighting it, why should I?

2) My relationship with the Internet: Just about everything I do on the Internet is free with my subscription. I don’t pay for access to The New York Times, Youtube, Pandora, Facebook, or any other cite I visit regularly. Everything is carte blanche, and in the spirit of capitalism, it’s my job to get the most value out of my dollar. Music simply comes with the Internet. As a consumer I don’t really feel like it’s my responsibility to regulate the marketplace or set limits on my consumption. I just get as much as I can, however scary or immoral that thinking may be. Even more enabling is the general, somewhat unspoken consensus that artists  expect me to pirate. Some even admit to pirating themselves. No one is really trying to make me feel guilty other than the richest guys at the top and some metal band my dad’s friend really loves. Needless to say, their views have no impact on my consumption habits.

Over the last decade, piracy has transformed the relationship between an individual’s level of interest in music and the amount of money they spend on it. In the 90’s, the correlation between the two was rather simple. The greater the interest, the more you spent. Now it seems those who spend the most are the casual music fans. They’re probably older than the average fan and might feel that “old school guilt” for stealing music or just don’t know how to. Those with little to casual interest probably spend slightly more than their 90’s counterparts due to the immediate access of online music stores and the rise of the digital single, but anything above casual interest in the 2000’s means you probably spend significantly less than you would have in the 90’s. I imagine a decade comparison looks something like this:

music interest

(no real statistics here, just my opinion)

There’s an obnoxious “too good to be true” feeling that comes from once being in the far right blue column and now being in the sliver next to it. It’s a feeling that practically necessitates guilt. I know that somewhere, someone is suffering for it to be true, but hen I try to find that person or group, the search can be rather difficult and misleading. All the wrong people seem to be screaming about it. Perhaps I’m too ashamed to look in the right places as well. At this point I feel like artists are saying “the ball is in your court, we can’t stop you” while I’m trying to throw the ball back at them. They don’t understand that I can’t stop myself so they’ll have to be the ones to set the terms, because ultimately, they’re the only ones who can. I just wish some miracle technology would come along already and fix all of this. Something that makes everyone a winner. I think a “real job” and a salary might somewhat fix my moral dilemma. I guess we’ll see.



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2 responses to “Piracy Guilt

  1. i disagree with your chart

    • mttmcgrgr

      did you ride your bike across the USA? how long did it take? nice blog. yeah the chart contrast is probably a little exaggerated

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