The Paradox of Pirate Logic : Music Versus Music Software – Full Post

by Chris Whitten
(Copyright in the Author, Posted with Permission)

The bottom line for many in the often heated piracy debate is this: “Give us a good product at a fair price, make it convenient and easy to obtain and we’ll buy it”.

There is a digital product that ticks most of those boxes. So by comparing two products I wonder if we can learn anything about the chances of reducing music and movie piracy by making it better quality, more affordable and easy to download?

I’m of course talking about music production software.

About 7 years ago I was involved in creating a virtual drum instrument in collaboration with a Swedish music software producer Toontrack. Our product has been critically acclaimed, is a best seller, but is also unfortunately a favourite with software pirates. The pirate’s ‘advice’ to “adapt or die” appears then to ring hollow. As a performance musician I added music software creation to my resume by adapting to new technology, but all that happened was the pirates followed me.

With a foot in each camp, music technology and music performance, I’d like to take a look at the claim that “if you build it they will come.” Let’s see if the available evidence supports that idea.

Straight away we need to acknowledge two things: firstly, no one has ever suggested music software has gone backwards in quality over the last few years. It’s also pretty easy to obtain, including plenty of free alternatives, often offered by new companies trying to build a customer base, or by hobbyist’s happy with the kudos of creating a popular plug-in. Secondly, music software is heavily pirated.

So the signs don’t look good, and the more you look at music software piracy, the more the excuses and arguments made by movie and music pirates seem questionable. Let’s look at a couple of them:

Entertainment pirates claim they are fighting corporate greed. Movies and music need to be liberated from the clutches of billionaires who remain powerful by buying political influence.

This rhetoric may sound compelling, but the reality is that most music software companies are small privately owned businesses, and/or collectives of young innovators and entrepreneurs. Most were founded no earlier than the late 1990’s and still retain the same management and design teams that started the business in the first place. In fact, many music software producers comprise one or two people working from home.

The biggest and longest established names like Spectrasonics and Native Instruments employ between 50 and 270 staff, but those are the exceptions. Even so, we are hardly talking ‘megacorps’ here. For example, one of the hottest names in computer sequencing and recording software, Cockos (producers of Reaper), has a staff of three. Cockos has an instant download demo of Reaper available. They also offer a discounted purchase price of $60 for Reaper, if you declare earnings of less than $20,000 from its commercial use each year. So you could be Donald Trump and buy Reaper for $60 as long as music is your hobby. And yet Reaper appears prominently for free download on piracy sites.

Entertainment pirates claim movies and music are overpriced.

Music software users though have many free options. Apart from the new producers and hobbyists mentioned above, many established software producers offer free products.

For example, Elysia’s Niveau Filter:

And Sonimus’ SonEQ:

One of my own offerings, a sample pack for Toontrack’s EZdrummer, has a retail price of $89.00, but regularly sells for $39.99 from certain online retailers.

To use these software plug-ins you need a computer audio workstation, known as a ‘DAW’. Technology giant Apple give you one free with every computer; Garageband.  Audacity is a multi-track audio recorder and editor that is also free. And as mentioned above Reaper is $60.  Even the more expensive DAW’s like Logic Studio (Apple) and Live (Ableton) come bundled with a host of free software instruments, fx plug-ins and audio loops – something not dreamed of 10 years ago.

So can we still claim music software is over priced? No, not reasonably so.

Entertainment pirates cite what they see as false barriers to access as a major factor driving them to pirate sites.

So is music software easy and convenient to obtain? The answer surely has to be yes. Most music software is available for instant download. Some music software can even be used immediately as a demo without payment.

I was working on some music a few months ago and realized late one night I needed a certain FM synth sound resembling a Yamaha DX7. Not having the keyboard to hand, I went to Native Instrument’s webshop, bought and downloaded FM8, a virtual instrument based on similar architecture to the DX7. Granted it’s quite a large program and I have a basic broadband connection, but I was using FM8 in my project about one hour later.

By the way, FM8 cost me a fraction of the original price DX7’s sold for in the early 80’s. And smaller programs like plug-in EQ’s and compressors are much quicker to download and even with anti-piracy security, you can be using them within minutes. Modern musicians are drawn to music software exactly because it is cheap and convenient.

Music pirates claim digital music has no value.                                                                                  

 MP3’s for example are just ‘1’s and 0’s’ that can be infinitely reproduced at zero cost. Well then I guess digital music software is the same, just 1’s and 0’s, something that can be copied endlessly at no cost. Music pirates say they expect free digital music because it is free to produce, but they will support music by buying concert tickets, which directly fund true performance.

If you superimpose this claim on to music software, the logic falls apart immediately. Would the people who pirate EZdrummer be likely to pay $40 to see EZdrummer live on tour? What form would that tour take? I’m imagining a ‘technerd’ onstage for 12 hours coding the software, or maybe 12 hours of me sampling drums, one drum hit at a time, both of which are akin to paying good money to watch paint dry. What about merchandising? Well I must admit there are some cool Ableton Live t-shirts, but I still feel it’s the incredible music tool I should be valuing, not a Hanes in XL.

And what about the zero cost of reproducing the product indefinitely? Well I don’t agree with that either. Music software has to be maintained, developed and supported full time by a team of workers. Like many things these days, customers demand answers within hours of contact, even if they’ve emailed their query at midnight on Easter Sunday.

Then there is the initial investment in the creation of the software. If a hobbyist doesn’t count their man hours, a basic software plug-in like a softsynth, or compressor can be produced at low or no cost – but only IF they don’t count their man hours. However, sample based music software is much more costly to produce. For example, my most recent EZdrummer sample pack was recorded over four days at a commercial studio in New Jersey. I don’t live in New Jersey, the recording engineer doesn’t live in New Jersey, the Toontrack production team don’t live in New Jersey. My drums and cymbals aren’t located in New Jersey.

So why work there? Well because it was the right studio for the product we wanted to create. But let’s be clear: the costs involved are significant. To produce the included midi content alone, I recorded my own v-drum performances over two days. Then I spent two weeks, working ten hour days editing that midi. So again, are we working for free, for the ‘fun’ of it, or is it a job, or better still a career? The answer according to the pirates is it’s up to me to decide, but don’t expect to be paid. They say if I don’t like the work conditions and lack of pay, someone else will, or at least be more flexible and accepting than me.

But there are no free equivalents to EZdrummer. Why? Because it costs a lot of money to record several drum kits over several days in a decent recording studio, and hobbyists, or the free software evangelicals, aren’t prepared to spend that kind of money, or work that hard, then give away the end product without recompense.  So I guess you can argue that digital copying is zero cost, but when people pirate music software, they aren’t just taking 1’s and 0’s without payment, they aren’t ‘paying back’ by contributing anything towards the production cost of the original product.

Put another way, our first EZdrummer customer could pay $25,000, then all subsequent customers could take it without payment. More fairly however, I’d suggest the first customer and every customer subsequently should pay the same small share towards the production costs, say $39.99?

Entertainment pirates claim Hollywood and the music industry have failed to innovate and failed to listen to their customers.

They go on to state they’ll pay for movies and music if the content industries offer “a good product at a fair price, while making it convenient and easy to obtain”.

Meanwhile, the music software industry has responded to customer demands. While continuously improving their products, they’ve priced them competitively and fairly, many producers encouraging customers to audition products freely first. Almost all music software is available for instant download, wherever you are and at whatever time of the day or night.

Those customers who buy their music software are funding new ideas from young innovators and entrepreneurs directly, not giving money to middlemen who keep most of it for themselves while passing on a pittance to the creative employees, as is claimed happens in the music industry.

And yet music software products like Live (Ableton), EZdrummer (Toontrack), FM8 (Native Instruments) and Omnisphere (Spectrasonics) all appear on unauthorized file sharing sites for people to download without paying. Are the pirates therefore sincere in their promise to buy if the product is right and the price is fair, or is the only ‘fair’ price no price?


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