Music Piracy: A Double-Edged Sword for the Record Business

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    Here in California, a 29-year-old man has plead guilty in a U.S. District court to a single count of conspiracy to commit willful copyright infringement.
    The man was part of a group that made records available on-line via warez (an Internet slang term for “contraband”) sites. The record in question that got Richard Montejano in trouble, facing up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine was the 2007 Kanye West album “Graduation.” Uploading that record, and allegedly dozens or even hundreds more records has landed Montejano in extremely hot water.

    Since the advent of the MP3 file the record industry has been in a panic. Shutting down sites like Napster, they claimed they were acting in defense of the artists and their paychecks. They never mention their own sagging sales even before the advent of MP3s and file sharing. Instead they blame, just as they always have, the nefarious consumer who thinks it’s okay to distribute copy-written material gratis. It’s a story as old as recorded music itself.

    Radio Ga-Ga

    When radio stations first started broadcasting recorded material, the recording industry was up in arms. Claiming it would hurt their sales and the artist (does that sound familiar?), they sought to keep radio stations from broadcasting recordings. However, it was eventually realized that radio is a tremendous marketing tool, allowing for direct-to-consumer advertising in the form of the music itself. If you like the song you hear on the airwaves, you’ll go buy it in the store, right?

    Maybe that doesn’t happen as often as radio stations would like you to believe. In 2008, record industry leaders once again sent some harsh words and even some snarky symbolic gifts the way of the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB represents the interests of AM/FM radio stations. The record industry heads were trying to cajole radio stations into paying royalties for the songs they play. So it seems that the record industry has never really quite made peace with the radio stations playing music for their listeners free of charge.

    Who Really Profits from On-line Piracy?

    The paradigm of intellectual property piracy is not new. There’s a reason every sports broadcast includes warnings to viewers to not rebroadcast or retransmit the games. Art as commercially viable assets is a sticky situation. As artists we want to get recognition for our work. That recognition comes in man forms, the most scarce of ways being monetary.

    The record industry may be looking our for our well being, but the truth is likely more that they are protecting their own profit margins. Record label executives by now must know that for the most part consumers have caught on. They aren’t content to spend more than ten dollars for a CD of music that they’re only interested in a single or two from. The real risk in a CD purchase is not with the record label. If a band or album tanks, it’s a write-off for them. The risk rests on the artists and the consumers themselves.

    On-line piracy is real. There are literally millions of songs available for illicit download in every nook and cranny of the Internet. However, how much money are these on-line pirates really getting? You could argue that if their torrent or warez sites have advertisers, money could be garnered that way. The truth though, is that if consumers are using torrent sites, they’re not paying those who publish the material to the Internet.

    The final result is that the same people profit from music as have in the past: the record labels, retailers and artists. What on-line piracy does is make a much wider catalog available to consumers. Some argue “I’ll download it, and if I like it, I’ll buy it.” This is much like the argument about radio listeners going to the stores to buy the songs. It probably just happen like that.

    The truth is that it’s an ethical or moral decision whether to pirate or download music. If this country can’t effectively prohibit the sale of alcohol, and is losing its “war” on drugs, how can the record industry hope to effectively police morality?

    So What’s the Answer?

    Artists need to get paid. Their lives depend on being supported financially. So how does an artist ensure they get paid in world where everything is free on the Internet? The answer is in embracing the changes in the wind rather than trying to spit into them. By accepting that anyone and everyone can “steal” your art at any time, it will become necessary to get creative on how one is paid for their art.

    Artists without a major label distributing them can make their music available on a popular platform like iTunes. The music is then directly available for a much smaller price point, and artists still receive the majority of the 99 cent sale price of the individual track, or of the full album sale.

    Artists can leverage social media like Twitter and Facebook to push traffic and interest in the direction that they want it to go. It’s true that no matter what consumers will find a way to get what they want as cheaply as possible. Mix tapes and CDs are a tradition, and in a lot of ways personal MP3 collections are the same.

    The bottom line is that record labels, retailers and artists alike will have to change the business model to fit the lifestyles and habits of consumers. Maybe profit margins will shrink, and record labels will then claim they can’t take on as many bands as they could before. However, is it not better for there to be more independent bands and labels with a wider variety of content, then to have the same pre-packaged and generic material shoved down the throats of the music-buying populace?

    Let Him Go

    Richard Montejano broke the law, this much is not deniable. However, with California jails as overcrowded as they are is it really wise to put yet another man behind bars for a non-violent crime? Any fine levied against him likely won’t get paid for years and years, as it’s not likely he has hundreds of thousands of dollars at his disposal. The reality is that when he gets out of prison, or even out of the courtroom, it wouldn’t take much work for him to create another torrent or warez site to host more pirated material.

    Maybe the best punishment for Montejano would be for him to work as either an artist’s assistant or as a record label intern for free. Let the punishment fit the crime, and maybe an actual lesson could be learned, rather than an overly harsh sentence for what will always be perpetrated by many more people after Montejano is sentenced.

    Sources:

    TorrentFreak Article

    2008 Wired Article

    Personal Knowledge

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