Five Ways to Justify Illegally Downloading Music

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The mostly valid reasons that help us sleep at night.

Downloading music without paying for it is stealing. And stealing is wrong — there are no two ways about it. And yet, we all do it. (In fact, some of us are doing it right now.) Today, the music industry is making another attempt to keep us all from downloading music, and to honor their futile, yet justified attempt, we thought we'd run through the reasons that illegally downloading music helps the world. It helps us sleep at night.

1. It takes power away from labels.

Even in 2004, $9 of a $15.99 album's cost went to marketing and various overhead costs — $1.60 went to the artist. Now, that's not to say that there aren't costs associated with making and distributing a major-label record. But downloading forced more artists to realize what bands like Fugazi have known for over twenty years: take away the middle man and suddenly you have a lot more freedom to actually make music and get it to your fans. Ian MacKaye has sold over two million copies of Minor Threat and Fugazi records with little more than a cult following. Sites like Bandcamp put artists back in control of their own art and open a whole middle tier of success to bands. Now it's possible for bands to tour, release records, and survive by making music, all without radio play or even mainstream exposure.

2. It makes bands get in the van.

Even in the heyday of the twenty-dollar CD, recording artists made most of their money from performing. These days, that percentage is even higher. Which means more bands have to get on a bus and up on the stage. That not only gives us more options to see live music, it also lets us sift out the Ashlee Simpsons of the world and replace them with bands that can get on a stage and tear shit up. The music scene is more interesting when bands have to hit the road to earn their keep, rather than holing up in the studio for a decade on the label's dime. In the past, this approach has often resulted in the creation of a dedicated fan base independent of any radio support (see They Might be Giants or Phish). We're likely to see even more of that in the future.

3. It exposes people to a wider variety of music.

The ready accessibility of MP3s means that more and more people are hearing whole genres of music that were once relegated to the bins at the back of the thrift store or record shop are now easy to get ahold of. How many genres do you have represented on your iPod? I'm willing to bet that you know a lot more about the wide world of music than your parents or older siblings do. This has trickle-down effects as well: a possibly apocryphal Brian Eno quote claims that only 10,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but everyone that did started a band. Imagine that same ratio spread out exponentially through ones and zeroes, across hundreds of different countries, and try to tell me the future of music is in danger.

4. It makes vinyl cool again.

Digital music has led to a backlash against the crappy sound of MP3s and their lack of a physical presence. And that's resulted in a huge market for reissued and vintage vinyl (vinyl sales were up fourteen percent last year), since in the end, people want their music to sound good and for it to occupy space on their shelves, and as a physical object, a record beats a cassette or a CD. Also, the act of sitting down and listening to a record — actually flipping it over — results in you listening to your music, rather than pumping endlessly through your ears all day, and as a result, turning it into so much white noise. Counterintuitively, the increased digitization of media raises the value of the record as an object of veneration, something to physically hold while you experience it. (That said, I should probably stop referring to my "vinyl fetish" at parties.)

5. It makes stuff free.

Who doesn't like free stuff? Free stuff greases the wheels of commerce — I'm more likely to see a band play live or buy a t-shirt if I've already downloaded their album and liked it. I'm more likely to buy a DVD for the extras if I've already downloaded it, and so forth down the line. People are inclined to take free stuff: think of how many free samples you have lying around. Although that might translate into a lack of willingness to actually pay for something, it can also translate into an awareness of something that you wouldn't have had if you'd had to pay for it from the get-go. That can lead to you actually paying for it later on. Artists seem to realize this — whether it's the realization that prosecuting their fans isn't going to earn them any new ones or simply a kind of defeatist situational pragmatism, they're realizing that downloading is the new norm, and they've got to deal with it.