Essays on Technology and Culture

Why I’ve (Mostly) Stopped Pirating Music

Napster hit right as my adolescent self was finally developing an identity defined by music. The idea, then, that I could just pull down any song I imagined from the Internet as easy as searching Altavista [1] was a dream that instantaneously became an accepted fact of reality. That music was free was as obvious as needing to eat or sleep to live. When Napster collapsed under the weight of the RIAA, I moved to AudioGalaxy, then to SoulSeek, then to BitTorrent, and suddenly a whole decade—if not longer—had passed, and I’d accumulated more MP3s than could fit on even the largest of iPod classics. When I started, if you wanted to listen to MP3s on the go, you had to burn them to CD. [2]

Though I’d bought digital music from legit services—Amazon MP3 and iTunes, though my first “legit” digital music was the 10 free MP3s from eMusic—illegal downloading was just… easier. Either that, or the workflow was ingrained in my head, like a clueless user searching for Facebook on Google. I bought music when someone gave me an iTunes gift card (pre-App Store), or in those rare cases when something was so new and obscure as to not show up on the torrent sites for a few days. Sure, it was easy now, but illegal downloads had just become my personal default. Until I decided it wasn’t.

Earlier this year, I decided to stop pirating music. Mostly. Partly because I’d accumulated a gigantic backlog of music I’d downloaded and not listened to, and partly because I had friends who were in the music business and figured if I was going to support them, I should support the musicians who weren’t my friends, too. I would also try, when money allowed, to buy legit versions of the albums I’d acquired illegally—because I have too many illegal MP3s to use iTunes Match.

I said that I had mostly decided to stop, however. There are exceptions in my quest to legitimately purchase all my music. I have two qualifications for something that’s okay to pirate:

  1. The album is not in print, digitally or otherwise.
  2. Acquiring the album legitimately would be prohibitively expensive (i.e. import CDs).
  3. Bootleg recordings. [3]

This is a fair set of exceptions. If a record label wants to get upset that I’ve downloaded an MP3 of the B-side of an out of print single from 1987, they should provide a way for me to give them—and the artist—money for it. For artists with large swaths of their discography out of print, tracking down MP3s is often easier than finding a legitimate copy. The cost to a label to digitize and distribute this back catalog stuff borders on nil, but they still sit on vaults of recordings they won’t make money on, for reasons.

I created the second exception, however, because import CDs are often painfully expensive, and I’m not in a place where I have a lot of room for piles of physical media. If I’m just going to rip the darn thing to a bunch of MP3s, why should I have the piece of plastic? Let’s skip a step. The distribution deals that lock albums and artists to specific parts of the world are frustrating to me as a music fan in the global age. I never would have discovered the incredible Japanese rock band Polysics had it not been for illegal downloads. I’d happily give them more money, if I could. [4]

That’s an argument some people don’t buy. Fair enough, but unlike with TV piracy, there’s often no legitimate way to get ahold of some of these recordings, short of squatting on eBay and GEMM, or pouring desperately through the stacks at used record stores—all of which I’ve done in my desire to get ahold of something particularly important to have a physical copy of. I don’t feel as though I’m taking money away from an artist when I download an out of print album. I feel like the label is taking money away from that artist. Odds are, they never even recouped the advance before that album was taken out of print anyway. I am a completionist, and someone who doesn’t have room in his life right now for stacks of old CDs and records—or, for that matter, time to spend crawling every used record store for this or that obscure record that may not have even been released in the United States. Not everyone is going to have my mindset.

This only makes it more important that I pay for the new music out there. I’m buying these albums and supporting these artists now so I will have more music of theirs to hear in the future. It’s an investment in my own enjoyment, and an investment in making sure that artists I’ve fallen in love will stay in my heart and others, and won’t have to face the fate of the bands I’m illegally downloading. Conveniently, this also gives me a good moral excuse to justify the one new album this year I did illegally download, Kanye West’s Yeezus. He’s not really going to miss that couple bucks from me.

I kid. I really should go and pay for a legitimate version of that album on principle. I think I’ll do that now.

  1. Yes, it was that long ago.  ↩

  2. Let us pour one out for the long obsoleted MP3 CD Player, that transitional step between the CD player and iPods becoming affordable and ubiquitous.  ↩

  3. Another exception occurs for albums we talk about on Crush On Radio. The rationale is that one of us likely bought the album, and we’re listening to it for critical review purposes, and so forth. Also, some of the stuff we discuss is out of print, so it falls under exception 1.  ↩

  4. Polysics had a handful of albums released in the states, and recently had a few albums released on iTunes. Most of their material, however, is only for sale in Japan, and it seems unlikely that they’ll try to make it in the States again after two attempts to gain a following.  ↩