It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll But I Like It…

In the first entry of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl, one James Norrington says to (Captain) Jack Sparrow “You are without doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.”

Sparrow’s response is simple, “But you have heard of me.”

Indeed, record companies would undoubtedly label someone that illegaly downloads music as a pirate, and probably even the worst pirate they have ever heard of, but the point still remains: The record companies have still heard of them. The record companies are aware of the threat that illegal downloaders (‘Freetards’, as many a pundit seems to call them) pose to their business, but are so far doing little to combate them.

All this talk of pirates brings me to my original point of this article: Is pirating music really that bad for bands?

The simple answer is “No”. The complicated question that follows that simple answer is “Why?” – a question that requires the digging up of information and graphs and numbers…etcetera, etcetera, so on and so forth. I’ve always been a firm believer that as long as the music gets out for people to listen to it doesn’t matter where it came from. It is common knowledge that bands frequently get dicked over (and there’s really no nicer way to put that) when it comes to record sales.

There are plenty of artists that have said publicly that they don’t care if their music is illegally downloaded, so long as people come out to support their shows. The Huffington Post, while being somewhat of an iffy news source is a “source” nonetheless, published a list of ten different musicians that don’t care about pirating – and they all seem to have a common point: Pirating music is not bad for the musician, it’s bad for the record label.

Neil Young said pirating music is “the new radio”, Lady Gaga said there’s more money to be made in touring, and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien said that while people might not buy his albums, they’ll still support them by buying shirts or concert tickets. So why the big fuss over illegally downloading music? Well, fellow reader, if you’d please direct your gaze to the chart to your right…

According to the chart, out of the sales an album makes (or receives, or whatever), the band itself – the talent, mind you – only gets a measly 13% of the total sales, which is to be cut up and distributed between the band and the team. It should be noted that the producer is oftentimes works for the label, so that’s another portion to the label’s pocket. In some instances, with the larger record shops and of course, iTunes, the retailer can get up to 49.5% of the royalties, a ludicrous share for doing little of the work, hence why schemes like Pledgemusic are getting bigger everyday, as it works on a direct-to-fan basis, letting the consumer ‘pledge’ as much as they want to the artist, in return for merchandise, goodies, signed exclusives, and various other packages that include meet-and-greets, backstage passes, and even a gig in your own living room! And of course, let us not forget Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want scheme for the ‘In Rainbows’ album. Yeah, plenty of people downloaded it for free, but the average price that people paid was just below the normal asking price for a CD anyway, with one guy even paying over ten times that, according to reports. And that money will have gone straight to Radiohead, the artist who after all, did all the work.

A few of you may recall an event a few years ago, when EMI/Virgin sued 30 Seconds To Mars because the band supposedly owed them 1.5 million USD, even though the album went Platinum and earned the label mass amounts of money. The funny thing, friends, is that EMI/Virgin refused to pay the band their royalties even before they planned to sue. Why? Apparently the advance they gave the band was actually just a loan, and the royalties were used to pay back all the money owed to the label. Musicians like Courtney Love and Lyle Lovett have suffered similar fates. The latter of the two, Mr. Lovett, sold over 4.5 million albums. How much did he make off of those sales?

Not a single cent.

Some people claim that the rising costs of albums, digital or not, is the biggest contributing factor to pirating. It seems reasonable, as $10+ (£6.36 – currency Ed) is a decent amount of money to shell out for songs that you might listen to a handful of times and then forget about completely — which brings me to my next point: The disposability of songs. The charts these days are littered with new songs almost weekly, songs that – while catchy – are oftentimes cheap and forgettable (one hit wonders, they’ve been called in earlier days). Even though they’re played over and over again, beaten to death by the radio, they tend to cost upwards of $1.29 (79p – currency Ed) per song on everyone’s favorite music library system, iTunes. Cost and disposability – perhaps the two largest contributing factors to illegal downloads. Why spend twelve bucks (£7.63 – tired currency Ed)  on an album on iTunes when I can download it for free?

The same question can’t be applied to concerts and shows. You can’t illegally download a live performance (okay, you can, but you’d be watching it instead of experience it…and where’s the fun in that?).

A lot of people take it on principle. Morality, if you will. Even if the record label makes the most money, that’s still paying their salaries. Salaries pay bills, and bills need to be paid in order to live, right? But come on, even that’s a shit argument. Do labels really need to make millions of dollars in order to pay six-figure salaries, while the actual talent they need to make the money gets stuck with only the money they make from tours – tours that oftentimes have little to do with the labels themselves? That doesn’t seem fair. Without the bands, they labels would be (and please, excuse the language) fucked.

I’ve been asking around. I’ve asked co-workers, friends, and people I hardly know. They all seem to agree that illegally downloading an album is seemingly harmless to the musician, as they hardly make a cent off album sales anyway. They all seem to agree that, while illegally downloading music should be okay, people should still support the bands by going to shows/concerts and buying merchandise. They all seem to agree that as long as the music gets out there for people to listen to, it doesn’t matter how it gets out to people. This all brings me back to my opening statements, when Captain Jack Sparrow replies to Norrington, saying “But you have heard of me.”

That’s the important part. Most musicians don’t get into music to make money; they get into music because they love it and want to share it. They want to be heard.

I will neither openly admit or deny illegally downloading my fair share of music, mostly out of sheer cowardice (I wouldn’t last long in prison and I think the government knows that) – but I will openly support protesting rising album costs and making free online album sharing legal. The rising costs of albums aren’t helping the pockets of musicians, especially smaller and lesser known bands – they aide the pockets of the record labels.

So we’ve reached a fairly simple conclusion here, folks. Pirating, as it’s called, hurts the record labels more than it hurts the musician – as the label oftentimes makes loads more money than the actual talent they “own”. Do what you have to do to listen to your music, just be sure to support them in some way (big or small).

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Dale Lavine

About Dale Lavine

Features Editor by day, heartbreaker by night. I enjoy bands like The Black Keys, Matchbox Twenty, and The Coral. Sleeping, writing, and drinking root beer are on the short list of things I love. (@misterlavine)