On October 26, 2010, a federal court ordered to shut down the file-sharing program Limewire for copyright infringement, again bringing attention to the issue of illegal downloading that has plagued the music industry in recent years. Limewire is pretty outdated, so this hits only the tip of the iceberg on the issue. It’s reasonable to assume that many young adults have downloaded at least one song illegally, and not a stretch to say many do it regularly. Although on the surface people illegally download albums to save money, there are other reasons, at the fault of the music industry itself, that are responsible. There are also misconceptions about the effects of illegal downloading propagated by record companies, specifically its actual importance to artists’ revenue.
Consumers may be selfish and save themselves hundreds of dollars on music, but they are not entirely without reason. The industry is now geared to selling singles as opposed to make good quality records. Albums today generally have more “filler” that is certainly not worth $12.99. When people can buy singles separately on iTunes, album sales are simply going to die down. It’s not just illegal downloads that affect album sales today, but iTunes itself. Although illegal downloading is a problem, it’s not the only thing wrong with the album sales industry at the moment.
International music and the lack of accessibility domestically also influence people to download albums. In our digital age we have access to music of other countries that isn’t released here. While a CD may not be available in the U.S., it is certainly available online for those to download freely, unless they want to pay inflated import fees on Amazon. Furthermore, artists usually have different release dates around the world (ours is designated as Tuesday). Once a CD is released somewhere else, sometimes even a week earlier, it is available and the impatient have access. An extreme example is The Script’s new album Science & Faith, which was released in Europe two months ago and is not released here until January. Companies would benefit more if they set a world-wide release date, although that still won’t stop people from downloading music after it’s released.
However, there are some problems with downloading that still force even illegal downloaders to buy albums, namely quality. It takes a seasoned downloader to sift their way through various webrips, retail rips and bit rates to find true CD-quality. If there aren’t different sounds coming from each earbud of your headphones, the quality is not good enough. There are so many different quality versions of CDs out there that it can make your head spin and send you directly to stores. Of course, that’s a good thing.
The music industry also claims that illegal downloading is ruining CD sales and decreasing revenue for artists and driving them to stop releasing CDs, although this is not necessarily true. Artists and their management tend to blame early leaks of albums for decreased sales. The misconception is that because people get an album earlier for free, they won’t buy the album when it comes out. However, this does not make a considerable difference. Anyone that knows about early album leaks also knows that soon after the actual release date, better copies of quality come out. It doesn’t matter whether the album leaks early at all, but that it will come in downloadable form shortly. Of course, a bad leak will not persuade one to buy an album, but I doubt many people would buy an album blindly these days from a new artist. It provides unknown artists an opportunity to possibly sell records as people are inclined to listen them free of charge, and although people may not buy the album, there are always people that do.
Albums sales also do not “make or break” an artist. Singers actually make more much money from tours than they do on albums, gaining money from ticket sales while record companies gain most profits from the CDs. Live concert revenue is actually increasing now with increased ticket prices, so artists are arguably making more money. Of course, the labels don’t really want the public knowing that, so they make a big deal about illegal downloading as it costs them money rather than the artist in the long run. Although people may download albums illegally, those that truly like an artist will shell out money to see them in concert. I make it a point to see an artist in concert when I can, and in this way I feel like I’m giving back directly to the artist rather than the label.
In the end, illegal downloading is wrong — this is unquestionable. It is stealing money from someone, whether it is artists or the labels. That some people can get something for free while others have to play is inherently wrong, and there is no getting away from that. I’m not taking a stand on whether you should do it or not, but there are forces at play that give consumers reason to download music freely as opposed to buying it first and misconceptions about the exact threat it poses to artists that I hope I’ve brought to light. Some words of caution though — Big Brother is watching you (The Illuminati? Probably).