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What should be done about illegal music downloading?

Recently, David Lowery of The Trichordist penned a thoughtful, impassioned and well-reasoned response to NPR’s All Things Considered intern Emily White, who stated on her employer’s blog that she engaged in illegal downloading and filesharing. Lowery laid out the anti-torrenting argument as well as I’ve seen anyone do it, highlighting its negative impact on the future of the music industry and the devastating effects it has on the >99% of music artists that aren’t dominating the radio waves. That said, I’m not sure any quantity of cogent arguments will be enough to fix this problem. Here’s why:

Simply put, people are motivated by incentives and disincentives. The incentives to download illegally are obvious; it’s free, easy and fast. The disincentives, which include a (very remote) chance of legal ramifications, poor audio quality and a moral tangle, are not always strong enough to overcome the incentives. In order to affect behavior on a large scale, one must manipulate incentives and disincentives.

This brings me to the practical side of this debate: assuming the goal is the elimination of illegal downloading, which disincentives should be magnified, and which incentives tempered? Just as crucially, whose job is it to do this? Looking at the dis/incentives laid out above, those who are losing money due to illegal downloading (i.e. the entire music industry) have a few options. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, but without all the cool dragons and stuff:

Option A: Reduce the incentive to download illegally by making it harder. In other words, take away the widespread availability of illegal mp3s by targeting filesharing sites. This option has been explored by the government as well as the music industry; Metallica (followed by large record companies and other industry leaders) famously sued filesharing platform Napster in 2000, while the US Justice Department brought Megaupload to its knees in January of this year. Alas, this hasn’t stopped illegal downloading, and new sites will continue to crop up as long as filesharing continues to be profitable (i.e. forever).

Option B: Increase the legal risk of illegal downloading. This has been tried too; according to the New York Times, the industry sued thousands between 2003 and 2008, but ended up losing money due to litigation fees despite collecting handsome fines. Plus, making an example out of a few did nothing to stop the many; illegal downloads continued, and the industry gave up this approach in 2009.

Option C: Bring morality to the forefront. This is what David Lowery does masterfully in his article, and it’s what ads such as the one below attempt to do. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the message hasn’t really hit home on a wide enough scale to make a difference. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of money trumping morals, and the reality is it would take, at the very least, a much more well-funded campaign of these ads to make anyone feel genuine remorse for their torrenting transgressions.

Option D: Add a new disincentive. Surprise: the industry’s trying this one too. As of July 2011, internet service providers such as Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have joined the fight by threatening noncompliant customers with numerous warning notices and slower service (info via NYT). I personally know someone who’s been on the receiving end of one of these warnings, and so far it does appear to have made an impact on her. Still, it remains to be seen whether this will be effective enough to save the bottom line of the music industry. I’m personally not very optimistic. Unless these warnings are consistently backed by more concrete consequences, which they aren’t as far as I can tell, my guess is they won’t have enough clout to overcome the allure of unlimited free music.


The moral of the story is this: the industry has explored a wide variety of avenues in its attempts to eliminate illegal downloading, with largely discouraging results. Maybe the next step is to look for a new revenue model. This would be a dramatic and painful paradigm shift in the music industry, but those happen all the time in response to new technology and consumer activities. Instead of fighting the tide of illegal downloading, the music industry might do well to evolve new ways of monetizing its product. For instance, artists can preempt illegal downloads by offering name-your-own-price high-quality MP3s on their own sites, generating a high volume of site traffic (which can be monetized with ad revenues). Also, while Kickstarter success stories aren’t the norm, the site can still be a powerful way to get projects off the ground. Finally, while touring revenues for smaller artists aren’t very profitable in their current form (as David Lowery explains), live music in some form might prove to be a better source of income if the model is reexamined.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m inclined to think the onus of change will ultimately fall on the shoulders of those who stand to lose the most money. And the sooner the music industry embraces the tides of change, the better its chances of remaining relevant–and therefore, profitable.


Benevolent Siren


About TheBenevolentSiren

Hi! I’m The Benevolent Siren. I’m a connoisseur of fine vegetarian cuisine, a TV fanatic, an organization enthusiast, and most importantly, I’m in the throes of a passionate love affair with music. There are some songs that play in your bones, veins and guts, not just your ears; those are the ones that keep me going. I guess you could say my heart beats to an 808 drum. A side effect of my musical preoccupation is that most of my posts will probably relate to music in some respect—you can expect album reviews, playlist creation advice, and concert stories, among other things. Of course, I’ll deviate from music every now and then, but I’ll come back to it time and again.

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