Illegal Downloading Is Wrong, But I Do It Anyway

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

Question: If you were in the middle of a riot, streets overrun with people freaking out, smashing windows in shops and nabbing whatever they can carry by hand, would you partake in the looting?

I'd like to think I wouldn't. Theoretically, my conscience would stop me before I took the physical steps toward the theft; actually, I would likely be more afraid of being trampled than caught. This scenario makes me a hypocrite, because I need only to look at my iTunes library to see the spoils of my looting.

The current wave of debate over the morality and consequence of downloading began with Emily White's article on NPR's All Songs Considered Blog entitled "I Never Owned Any Music To Being With," which inspired a thoughtful reaction from David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. White's article is honest and relatable. Lowery's is so spot-on that it rubs my nose in the mess I've made on my hard drive, although I will say his angle of implicating piracy in Vic Chesnutt's suicide is more than a tad sensationalist. I won't reiterate their articles too much, but I encourage you to read both.

Theoretically, I agree with Lowery's main points -- that the industry is not the evil warlock it's made out to be and that artists rely on compensation for their efforts -- but I find myself more in the Emily White camp in my actions. Here's the difference: I know I am doing something wrong when I download an album from Mediafire, and I know Mediafire is doing something wrong by hosting the file and looking the other way.

What this debate is changing for me is my self-righteousness. I have used every excuse to justify my illegal downloading. "I'm just sampling it before I buy." (I rarely ever buy). "I'll make up for it by seeing the band when it comes to town." (I don't go to as many shows as I'd like to, and when I do, I usually use my RFT Music powers to weasel my way on to the press guest list). "The artist would be okay with it." (I do not know these people and cannot speak for them). Truly, I have the justification of a looting rioter; there are so many of us stealing that the likelihood of getting busted is minimal.

Now, if somebody asks me why I download music illegally, I might respond, "Because I'm a dick, but I'm working on it."

Certainly the system of music delivery and consumption is broken. Labels still haven't mastered digital distribution and the artists' royalty rates for iTunes and similar download services are far too low. The industry side didn't help out by suing its own customers during the Napster scare. But this is no excuse for piracy; if the issue was the artist's cut, I could pull a My Name Is Earl-esque stunt and send $1 per song to every artist I listen to via PayPal in exchange for permission or forgiveness for downloading on the black market. On both sides of the argument, the subject is money. Artists need money for gas and gear and studio time (or, if the artist is a home-recordist, way more gear). Labels need money to give advances to the artists and pay the employees to promote the artist. You wouldn't be listening to Japandroids' awesome Celebration Rock album right now if it weren't for the paid hype machine technicians spreading the word about that awesome record (seriously, how awesome is it? [so awesome]). And the consumers need money to qualify as consumers, to pay into the system that spoonfeeds more music to anyone with an Internet connection than any human can possibly digest.

And this might be the underlying problem, the aspect of modern music culture that encourages the underbelly of illegal downloading. There is so much music being made, and there seems to be a great expectation that everybody who cares about music knows every new band as well as every previous group who helped shape the context.

Occasionally, I will make an effort to keep up with the current stream, and it's exhausting. If I wanted to listen to one album a day -- not that intense if you consider how many albums are released each week -- I could do so via MOG or Last.fm or Grooveshark or other free quasi-legit music streaming services. But that assumes that I have an album's worth of time to devote to streaming an album at my computer. If I wanted to listen to the album on my iPod or car stereo, I would have to find a way to get the files on my computer first. This would mean paying $10 or sneaking around on file-hosting sites.

No, this does not make it okay. At the same time, anorexia is not okay. Now, eating disorders and downloading sprees are not at all equitable, but both can be viewed as reactions to overbearing social expectations.

There is more merit to the old-timey model of buying CDs and records than the fact that money exchanged hands. Consumers' ears weren't bigger than their wallets. You bought a disc, listened to it, listened to it again, and truly absorbed it, if only because you had a financial obligation to be a fan. These days, we listen to more music, but we listen to it less than ever before. In December of last year, I ranked The Waiting by Glenn Jones as my seventh favorite album of 2011. Last week, I listened to it all the way through for the first time.

My solution to the legal versus illegal consumption of music is this: listen to fewer albums and listen to them more. You will know them better, understand them more deeply, and be more willing to shell out a few bucks in exchange. A monogamous relationship with your records, digital or physical, will be more satisfying than a Dionysian orgy with whatever 160kbps hussie walks into your RSS Feed.

I will do my best to retire from my life of piracy, bury my eye patch and peg leg at sea. The bounty is always sweeter when it's earned rather than stolen.

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