Thoughts On Music Piracy… Gift, Copyright and Technology

One of the issues that people have immediately jumped on when I have told them I’m writing about piracy is the thorny issue of pirated music. I know quite a few people who make a living from recording music, and clearly this is a big issue for them because it gets to the heart of their ability to make a living. I try to deal quite extensively with this issue in Mutiny!, and I’d encourage people to buy it as things are limited a little in a blog post.

In summary of what’s below, I think this is a wider debate than about stealing music. It’s about the toxic effect of celebrity, the corrosive effect of record company profiteering, the historic place of music and performance and the way we value our art… Do read on.


I’m writing on this today because a good friend put me on to a piece that has gained a lot of traction the past few days: a letter to college DJ who claims to have only bought 15 CDs, but has a collection of over 11,000 songs on her iPod. It’s a powerful piece in defence of paying properly for music, and I agree with a lot of what it has to say.

Technological Change

One of the strongest arguments they make is this: you’re happy to pay a fair whack each month for broadband, and a whole load for the iPod, iPad, PC, laptop etc., but you’re somehow not prepared to pay for the music to put on it. The big corporations get your money, while you deny the musicians at the bottom of the pile and wedge. Good point.

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

They also powerfully argue that the reason we are in this position is because of mismatch between the evolution of technology and the evolution of our ethics in using that technology:

Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done.

It is this issue of technology that is at the heart of what I want to focus on here.

For the majority of human history, it has been impossible to make a recording of a piece of music. The only way to hear it was to hear it being played live… or to pick up an instrument and try to play it yourself. Music was performance. End of story. All of this changed in the past 100 years or so, but the key change happened from the 1950’s onwards where a number of things came together:

  • There was an explosion of ‘popular’ music
  • Music recordings were fairly affordable and widely distributed, but…
  • These recordings were difficult to copy.

Artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones found themselves in a completely unique moment in history: demand for their music was high, radio meant it was being promoted and heard, yet while the technology to distributed singles and albums cheaply was available, the technology to make cheap copies was not. In other words, they had it sewn up.

But, we have to understand, this was not normal. This was not how music had ever been before. It was an historic anomaly.

The piece I have linked to touches on this:

The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hundreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists.

It’s here that I think I have some problems. One of the reasons that I think people have felt ok about downloading music is because they have felt somewhat exploited by the music industry in the past. In the book I talk about Mick Jagger and the Stones, because I think it makes the point well.

Fair Reward for Fair Labour

Jagger has argued that the copyright for his music should be extended to 70 years, ‘so that he can keep putting food on the table for his family.’ Most people are derisive of this, because it seems to go against the principle of fair reward for fair labour. How much did it really cost him to write Street Fighting Man? The issue is complicated, because the Stones clearly ripped many of their tunes from the common waters of the blues. Can anyone truly say they ‘own’ the blues? Surely every song owes something to the rich song knowledge that comes before it, and for Jagger to try to enclose this for 70 years seems absurd. He has made millions – but is the music really worth that?

The key word here is ‘exploit.’ And I think music fans have felt rather exploited by record companies, churning out very expensive CDs and constant remixes, compilations, etc. etc. all to make that last buck out of listeners.

I think that the huge wealth that bands like the Stones have not only made, but massively flaunted, has been terribly destructive. The trashed hotel rooms, the Rolls Royces, the private jets, the drugs… it just doesn’t match up. Jagger sings:

Well now what can a poor boy do, Except to sing for a rock & roll band?
Cause in sleepy London Town there’s just no place for a street fighting man, no…

and it just doesn’t feel right. Is this what we pay for? So that these people can live outrageously off the music they effectively ripped from others? If you need some convincing, do watch the Everything is a Remix series here.

What Should Musicians Earn?

A key question is this: should musicians be able to live off their craft? Should they be able to live well off their craft? Is the labour they put in worth the lifestyle they demand? I mean that as a serious question, and I want people to reflect on that for the musicians and artists they know – big or small.

It’s a very important question: how do we value our artists? What is art / music worth? Clearly, the true artist would say ‘it’s not about money’ – but then they need to be able to eat.

In my view, we are in a time of transition. Neil Young has said that ‘piracy is the new radio.’ Remember: when radio was first introduced, some bands signed contracts saying that their music would NOT be played on the radio, because they were fearful that if people got it for free they wouldn’t come and listen to them live.

I think musicians are being forced to move back to the place that they have, in the long view, always inhabited: making money from performance…and perhaps not really making the super-bucks that Jagger and his very lucky generation did. I think so much has been made of celebrity culture that expectations for young musicians are very distorted… they want to sing a bit and live like kings.

Creative Commons: Encouraging People to Pay Up

However, in the book I do encourage people to reflect carefully on their habits. For some, they will need to start paying up – especially if they are listening to music from young, upcoming or fringe artists. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever ripping a friend’s iPod for music from huge acts that was released decades ago. But I do believe that artists should be able to recoup a fair amount for their work.

One label that is doing something interesting on this is Records on Ribs. Their mission statement:

  • To sell music for profit is to deny its worth. It is to reduce it to numbers, spreadsheets, targets. Desire cannot be quantified thusly.
  • Tapes, CD-Rs and the Internet give us the opportunity to distribute music for free without losing significant sums of money.
  • Anyone could do what we are doing. A free-for-all. Brilliance obscured by an avalanche of mundanity. There is an avalanche of mundanity already in the shops, and it costs you £9.99 a go. We only ask that you listen with open hearts and minds. And if one hundred, one thousand, one million people want to do the same as us then good luck to them. What a world that would be! A torrent of creativity freed from profit.
  • We accept donations, but do not expect them. What we do costs us little, but we cannot avoid making a loss. Nor can the artists who have to buy equipment and take time to rehearse, perform and record. Any money you give us will go to loosen these burdens and will be gratefully received.

They release music under a Creative Commons license, which allows people to share it… but also encourages them to make donations. This allows the musicians some freedom to record and release…but also, I feel, gives appropriate expectations.

I work full time, and write when I can. I’d like to be able to make a full living off writing, but I know that that’s unlikely. I try to be realistic about my writing, and the labour that goes into it. And that’s why I’ve decided to self-publish, so that when I’ve made a fair amount back, I can release Mutiny! into the public domain. Until that point, I do hope people won’t pirate the work and swap it for free. But at the same time, I don’t expect to make money of it forever. A couple of years, and then move on. Sure, people may still pay me to come and perform – to speak live about it – but my real passion is for the ideas to be out there.

Some of us need to value it more, and get on and pay properly for music, while others may need to adjust expectations around what they expect to gain from their craft.

Just remember though… if you got this far, you read all this for free, so if you’ve valued this site at all, go buy the book NOW!


2 responses to “Thoughts On Music Piracy… Gift, Copyright and Technology”

  1. I agree with all of the above. Another factor with traditional channels is that most bands never get a penny back from their label – even if you buy lots of their CDs, the label doesn’t pay royalties until they’ve “recouped” their expenses, which are huge. Only a few bands ever recoup. So buying music to support the artists doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you’re using a more direct channel (like CDs at gigs, or Bandcamp). If you like the music, pay for it – and make sure the artist gets the money, not someone else.

  2. Interesting words, some compelling stuff by Shaun Groves also if you’ve not read it yet –
    If I ever finish any of the books I am writing I may try to use the same model, it definitely seems a more honourable approach.