The naked truth of how music piracy hurts working class artists
Let’s face it. “Piracy” is a loaded word. As Captain Phillips played in theatres last fall, the word “pirate” found itself in a very different context than it did right after any of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. Real-life pirates aren’t funny, quirky, eccentric characters based on Keith Richards. They’re terrifying criminals with a desperate bottom line. And while a lot of people may enjoy dressing up as Captain Jack Sparrow for Halloween, nobody wants to be mistaken for an actual Somali pirate.
So maybe it’s time we all took a second look at “music piracy.”
Defined typically as an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea, “piracy” was initially used as slang for copyright infringement because the “pirates” in question were trying to profit from the crime by reselling the product. As the recording industry evolved beyond vinyl, it became much easier for music to be copied for personal enjoyment, and as federal legislation dictated, a mandatory fee was tacked on to the price of blank audio to help account for the loss. What’s more, copying music—or anything else—came at a substantial loss of quality.
But with the birth of digital music, the Internet, peer-to-peer networks, and now the behemoth of social media, there is no such safety net. Digital copies don’t require a physical copy and are indistinguishable from the originals. Coupled with the fact that most people today listen to music on computers instead of stereo systems, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that even major radio stations play low-quality mp3s without anyone noticing.
When the “pirate” station Radio Caroline hit the airwaves in the UK in 1964, it did so with the rebellious attitude of rock n’ roll. They broadcast from a Danish ship just outside English territorial waters, but the metaphor stops there. Their self-perceived purpose was much closer to Robin Hood’s—to steal from the rich (circumvent the monopolies of popular broadcasting) and give to the poor (supply the people with great music from great artists they wouldn’t have heard otherwise). They were the rebel alliance, a small band of freedom fighters mounting a hopeless attack against a domineering and impenetrable station.
In a similar fashion, today’s exuberant supporters of “music piracy” are not advocating profiteering at the expense of artists and musicians. Today’s “pirates” see themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, fighting against corporate greed and the tyranny of the big bad music industry. They are fighting for a perceived right to access music and share it with their friends in the same way they share every other aspect of their daily lives. Their lives aren’t analog anymore—they’re digital, and for them, digital means free.
Sadly, today’s pirates may act the irreverent hero and plead the helpless victim, but in fact, they play only the hapless villain. In their minds they’re valiantly battling the same big bad corporate music industry, and though they’ve wounded their sworn enemy in a way pirate radio could have only dreamed of, the collateral damage for artists is just as bad.
To make matters worse, while these same so-called pirates are each saving the price of a few coffees at Starbucks each month, they’re unintentionally aiding and abetting a global army of parasitic digital King Johns who are collectively making billions each year by stealing from the rich and the poor—opportunistic vultures circling the battlefield, feeding on the dreams of digital freedom, and biting every single hand that feeds them.
Pirate radio wanted to make a point. These new King Johns—the true pirates of today’s music world— only want to make a profit.
In my life as a musician, I have encountered these true pirates myself. During my time with ECR Music Group over the past six years, I have worked together with the other artists on the label doing something that most musicians today have to do: everything. By and large we do all of our own marketing and promotion in house, and so every day we all collectively roll up our sleeves and just get it done. One thing that I used to do was deliver cease and desist messages to bit torrent sites to take down our music, something that our system of Google alerts still brings to our attention daily. But after a bit torrent site ate my hard drive a few years ago, we reevaluated the importance of this effort and decided that the cost far outweighed the altruism, and it didn’t stop the pirates from making a single cent of their advertising profits.
So “piracy” might not be the best word to describe what’s going on with music anymore—and perhaps it never was. Maybe it’s time for a new generation of music pirates to reclaim the word and take it back to its rock n’ roll roots . . . People of all ages who rebel against the powers that be, rather than mimic them and hide behind a thin veil of approval . . . Real-life Robin Hoods that can distinguish challenging unjust authority from simple petty thievery…
People who understand that free always has a price, and freedom always has a cost.
As artists, it is our responsibility to lead the way, and as a part of a record label where the artists run the asylum, I live that pledge every day.
Do I respect music? Arrrrrrrrrr, I do, matey.
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