There Really Is No Excuse To Steal Music Anymore (Not That There Ever Was)

This post originally appeared on PropertyOfZack. That site has since gone under, so we decided to run the post here for posterity’s sake. Enjoy.

Confession: I work for a company that specializes in fighting music piracy, but I have definitely illegally downloaded my fair share of music from torrents and file-sharing sites over the last decade. I’ve never been busted by the police, nor have I ever had my internet service cancelled, but I will admit to my parents having received one or twelve letters from Comcast threatening to throttle our connection speed if said piracy should persist. Thankfully, things never came to that, but looking back now, they easily could have, and I would have almost certainly been at fault. Something changed, however, and it wasn’t my income or my parents’ willingness to support my addiction to new music. It was my understanding of entertainment not only as an art form, but also as a business, and it was at that moment I understood the true impact piracy has on the industry at large.

The first album I remember downloading illegally is Hit The Lights’ Triple Crown Records debut, This Is A Stick Up, Don’t Make It A Murder. There are probably hundreds of songs or records I’ve downloaded over the years without having much excuse for doing so — aside from lack of money — but this album I specifically remember because it leaked well over a month in advance of the official street date. At that time, I was just reaching the end of my time in high school, and Hit The Lights had been the pop-punk soundtrack that fueled my last few years. The town I lived in had a venue, and it was through interning there I was first exposed to working in the industry. I would book shows and promote them throughout the county, including more than half a dozen performances featuring a then-unsigned Hit The Lights. They were some of the first traveling musicians I felt were like family, and whenever they came through town, they were free to sleep on my parents’ living room floor. When they played thirty or forty miles away, calls and texts would be exchanged so that we could spend time together while they were in the area. We were, for lack of a better description, as close as people could be in this business without being contractually tied to each other.

I can still clearly remember the rush of excitement that swept over me when a friend informed me between classes that they had heard the Hit The Lights album leaked online. I ran home as quickly as possible and began downloading every track, one at a time, through our family’s 56k dial-up connection. I think it took over two hours for every song to complete, but when they were finished, I quickly burned two copies – one for home and one for my car – then sped off to find empty country roads to roam while blasting the record as loud as my speakers would allow. It was an incredible album, and even though several of the songs were updated versions of tracks I already knew, the entire experience felt like a first time encounter. I was head over heels from the first spin, and nearly a decade later I can still recall the way that love initially felt.

Thinking back now, I don’t recall anyone in my circle of friends saying anything negative about the fact I downloaded that Hit The Lights record. To be fair, most the people I knew had no idea who Hit The Lights were, and even if they did they certainly did not care enough to go to bat for them in a discussion over the legality of file-sharing services like Napster or Kazaa. We all knew piracy was a hot button topic — the news made that clear on a near weekly basis — but being from a small town that was at least thirty minutes from anything even beginning to resemble a city it was easy to feel like those issues had no real impact on our lives. After all, none of us were professional musicians, and those who did have a band would have given their left arm to have thousands downloading their material. They already weren’t making money, so what did it matter if a few thousand people downloaded a record no one was buying? To them, it was just free exposure.

When I entered college, I left my small town behind and moved to a slightly larger town with a school that helped to triple the area’s population nine months out of the year. Again, it was far enough from creative areas to feel disconnected from the entertainment world, which meant essentially no one gave a second thought to the idea of downloading media illegally. At this point, however, the crimes became slightly worse. As internet connections grew quicker, the demand for media on file-sharing services ballooned as well, leading to a boom in piracy across music, television, film, video games, books, and even computer applications. No form of creativity seemed safe outside of fine art, and even those images and sculptures were easily found through reference material widely available on torrent services. I didn’t care though, I just wanted to watch the latest episode of Scrubs without having to be in front of my TV at 8 p.m. every Thursday. Playback services like TiVo were still new at the time, so it wasn’t the type of tech the average college student could afford. We could, however, afford an internet connection strong enough to download whatever media we wanted to enjoy in only a matter of minutes. So, without any concern for the legality of everything, that’s exactly what we did.

I’m not trying to make an excuse for myself, but I do want to get across the point that few, if any, of the streaming services that simplify our lives today were active at this point in time. Though the digital age had no doubt arrived, bringing with it the rise of social media, access to streaming content online was severely limited. Even Netflix, who we now look to as a cornerstone of digital content, was still making the bulk of its money from DVD rentals. It sounds like ancient history, I know, but this was less than a decade ago.

Anyways, school continued and I slowly began to piece together the reality of life in the music business. Not just for professionals, mind you, but for artists as well. My entire life I had been under the assumption that creative people who made art for the purpose of generating income were somehow missing the point of being a creative person. I thought people like this were somehow ‘sellouts,’ or at the very least frauds because everything they did – every emotion shared – was done with dollar signs in the back of their mind. My inexperienced mind likened this outlook as one only corporate scum could possess and, for whatever reason, piracy felt like a reasonable way to strike back against the so-called man and his obsession with bottom line.

Looking back now, I was an asshole. Truth be told, I probably still am, but hopefully for different reasons. I thought musicians who created new works with money in mind were fools, but in reality they are often the most sane people in the industry. They understand that every band is essentially a small business. Their products are music and merchandise, their consumers are their fans, and the target market is anyone who listens to the type of music that particular act aspire to create. They don’t have a headquarters, but instead travel from town to town peddling their creations like traveling salesman hocking vacuums in the mid-1950s. They live and die based on the funding that keeps them active, and without keeping the flow of money in mind it can be very easy for your career to fall apart. Likewise, businesses that do not focus on improving their return on investment year over year are doomed to eventually collapse.

I know it feels like betraying everything punk has taught us by viewing things this way, but in order to fully grasp the realities of attempting to be a professional musician, you must first learn to see every musical project as a small business in need of consumer support. Piracy, on any level, is akin to walking in the door of your favorite store and walking out with any amount of products without paying a dime. It’s stealing, and whether you do it because you think labels are stealing from bands or because you believe it’s the only way to discover new music in 2015, you’re wrong. I know you think your intentions are good, but any artist will tell you good intentions rarely pay the bills.

My favorite excuse to hear from people today is the one that more or less argues the idea that going to shows somehow makes stealing music okay. As fans see it, bands are getting their money either way, and for whatever reason they believe the live setting will allow them to support the artist without ‘the man’ getting involved. Here’s the thing: If the artist in question is signed to a label or in any way working with a manager, booking agent, or other industry professional, the entity you call ‘the man’ is always involved. Someone else is always going to get a cut. If it’s a label, the artist you love was given money by people who believed in them to create a new album, tour, and so on. In order to continue being able to do these things, the artist is first expected to pay off that initial investment. If that doesn’t happen, it’s very likely the artist will get dropped, or at the very least neglected moving forward. As I said before, every band is a business, and labels are bigger corporations who essentially enter partnerships with those businesses. When deals go well, they continue to work together. When things go bad, deals are broken.

Furthermore, the majority of bands you see on tour are not making enough money to support themselves full-time. They may be able to pay off their road expenses, including buying merchandise in bulk, but when their time on the road ends, so does the flow of money. Headline acts are a different story, especially if you can fill venues with capacity over 500 people, but most artists never reach that point. Most achieve mid-level success at best, and there is very little money for people in that position. Eric Morgan of the band Bornstellar once called this ‘The $200 Hump.’ He said it’s very easy to climb through the ranks of road success with steady dedication, but until you have a reasonable hit to help with promotion it’s hard to rise above the title of direct support on any bill. As a result, seasoned bands are forced to rely on things like merch sales, and even that income must sometimes be split with management, merch guys, and/or drivers.

Let’s do a quick example: A band with five members performing a direct support slot on a three-band bill is guaranteed $200 a night, every night of a three-week tour. This is enough money to get them from city to city, and it allows each of them to receive a few bucks each day with which to feed themselves. In order to make additional money, they must first make merch, which comes with an investment. If they print 50 shirts on quality fabric they’re looking at around $7.50 a shirt. That’s $375 someone has to put on a credit card until money comes in. If they want physical copies of their music to sell, those cost money as well. They can find deals online though, so let’s say they make 500 copies for $500. Now the band has shirts and CDs, but they’re also $875 in the hole before even playing a show. If they’re lucky, they will sell everything they purchased while on the road. If CDs are $5 and shirts are $15, that’s $3,250 in gross profit ($2,500 from CDs + $750 from shirts). Subtract the $875 investment and the band is left with $2,375. If the band saves nothing and has no other expenses whatsoever, which is highly unlikely, they could each walk away with $475 to show for their work. If they played every night for three weeks, that’s an average of $22.62 per person per show. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t know any adult who can live on those wages, especially not those with any kind of family to support.

The truth is that there is really no excuse for pirating music in 2015. I’m not arguing that a good excuse ever existed, but even the shadiest of reasoning needs to be extinguished from our collective thoughts in the months to come. There are simply too many ways to access free music on legal terms, be it for discovery purposes or general enjoyment, for there to be any question over whether or not such actions can continue to be justified. We can all name the companies that make this technology available as well, like Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Rdio, Shuffler, and so on. The word is out about these services and those unwilling to buy entire albums can, at the very least, use these services to ensure the creators of the art they enjoy see some return for their effort. If you’re still downloading music you’re an asshole, plain and simple. You can preach on every mountaintop about the need to create out of a sheer drive to share your vision with the world and how money should never play a factor, but the harsh light of reality reveals that living with such beliefs will ultimately lead to ruin. You have to create with money in mind, at least to some extent, because your very livelihood depends on your continued success as a musician.

In 2015, I am going to do my absolute best to resist downloading any leaked music. If something leaks online through a streaming platform and sites begin embedding it at large, all bets are off, but when it comes to acquiring media for my personal collection without in some way contributing to the continued success of its creators, I am determined to make a change. You should too, and not just because I did all the math necessary for the example a few paragraphs above. You should stop downloading music because you respect the people creating it enough to access it by fair and legal means. If you want to try before you commit to purchasing an album there are plenty of platforms that allow for that kind of engagement with music, and if you simply don’t want to wait for the big record to hit stores that leaked last night, maybe it’s time to disconnect and do something else.

I get it. You just want to experience everything the artists you love can create, and you want it as soon as possible. Our culture is transitioning to meet those demands more and more, but as it stands, there are people working incredibly hard to plan release dates so the artists you love can gain maximum exposure, which increases the likelihood of them finding some semblance of longterm support in this often crazy industry. I beg of you to respect that system, and I would hope that as diehard music fans you can appreciate how much your actions set the tone for culture at large. You are the tastemakers. You are the trendsetters. You have the power to curb this rampant acceptance of digital piracy and I would give anything in my possession to have you use that power for good. Stop downloading, stop seeking leaks, and start truly supporting the creative minds you claim to love.

This is going to seem a bit callous, but it’s something you should ask yourself later this week: What is the value of a fan who does not support the artist they claim to love by financial means? Word of mouth is good, but only to an extent. If you’re still claiming your ‘word of mouth’ promotion is helping a band like Fall Out Boy, you’re lying to yourself and everyone you contact. You’re stealing music because it’s easy and you like not having to pay for every album you want to hear. That’s easy to understand, and even easier to implement, but I urge you – think about the consequences of your actions. Think about the bands we all knew were capable of big things, but due to a lack of proper support they faded long before they reached the heights of success they deserved. As a pirate, you are partially responsible for the deaths of those bands, and I would hope you wouldn’t want to cause such hardship on another artist again.

James Shotwell is the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records. Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.