For as long as people have been charging for music, people have also been trying to access it for free. Even before the internet gave us torrenting sites and streaming services, the world’s youth was recording their favourite songs from the radio onto a cassette tape. While there are laws aimed at stopping the piracy of music, it’s too difficult to monitor for anything to be done about it, at least on a large scale. Most people see it as a minor crime at most; while stories do exist of people being fined huge amounts of money for content they’ve downloaded illegally, the likelihood of it happening to you is very slim, so people carry on, choosing to believe that there are no consequences.
The thing is, there are consequences — you just might not notice them. When resistance to music piracy began (mostly surrounding the now-defunct file sharing website Napster), it was easy to scoff at the efforts. The people speaking out against it were giant bands and record producers or in short, millionaires. “Why should they care if I downloaded their album for free?” you might ask. “They make enough money as it is”. Even South Park got in on the insults; in an episode dedicated to the piracy debate, they mock Metallica (one of the bands blamed for having Napster shut down) for not being able to afford a second swimming pool because of the lost revenue.
I’m all for having a chuckle at the expense of some rich jerks, but that’s not really the whole story. These rich, successful people weren’t speaking out because they were the ones getting hurt; they were speaking out because they were the only people that had a platform. The truth is that they actually don’t lose much money to piracy; a band actually makes very little off of album sales, at least in terms of royalties. The bulk of an artist’s revenue comes from live shows and merchandise sales. But the band themselves aren’t the only people involved in making an album. To use Metallica as another example, their 1996 album Load credits an additional 15 people for things like recording, mixing, mastering and album art. Most of these are names you’d have never heard of, who probably got paid a very menial wage for working on a chart-topping album that sold 5,000,000 copies in the United States alone.
These are the people that get hurt when you download music illegally; however, they can’t speak out because no one is listening. The record companies themselves don’t have much of a public presence, but they actually do lose revenue to piracy which is why the people lower down the food chain make such a pittance in the first place. These people are just as important to the music you love, but they’re not the face of the brand so they’re easier to punish to squeeze a few extra pennies out for the people up top. This is only for big names, too. Any band below world-conquering superstar status is possibly paying to record, as opposed to being paid to record. Local bands and indie favourites often have a hard time making music for you; the least you can do is pay for their album.
The worst part is that the industry’s “solution” to the problem actually makes it an awful lot worse. Because people made it clear they didn’t want to pay for music, companies are providing music as cheap as possible. I’m talking of course about Spotify, where millions upon millions of tracks are available for free (or, at most, about $10 a month). Everyone suffers from how cheap this is; everyone except for Spotify, at least. You can’t make a living off of being on Spotify. At best, an artist can hope to afford a steak dinner, even for a hugely popular album. It might be easier than ever to get your music heard, but it’s harder than ever to turn that into a career.
I’m not trying to say that it’s all about the money. Of course it isn’t, but it costs money to make music. The next time you hear a song you like, give some thought to the artist that put it together (especially if they’re an independent or smaller artist). A lot of people will spend $3 on a coffee but won’t spend $1 on a single that they can keep forever or they’ll spend $10 on a movie ticket, but not on an album. Of course, if you genuinely can’t afford it, no one can hold that against you. But if you have the money to spare, please give a thought to the people that made your favourite music. Your support means more to them than you can ever truly realize.