21st November 2012

To buy or not to buy

Dan Jones weighs up the pros and cons of free downloading

Whether you agree with it or not, free music downloading has gradually become a part of everyday life over the past 20 years. Napster, Morpheus, Kazaa, Limewire and Pirate Bay have all come and gone, but the peer-to-peer sharing bug seems impossible to stamp out once and for all. With every attempted copyright crackdown, the file-sharing community reacts by evolving and multiplying. It’s a bit like fighting the giant Hydra out of Hercules; every time you cut off one of her heads, another three grow back in its place. You should soon realise that lopping off heads is not the solution.

One of the main problems with free downloading is that it compromises the ability of independent artists and labels to make a living from physical / iTunes sales. That’s a given. CDs, MP3s and vinyl are still an important source of income for labels and, to be fair, if you love an album that much then you should be willing to support the people who made it, in some way.

Spotify is another route; it’s alright for those who can stand the iffy catalogue but you can never really know how directly you are contributing to an artist’s cause. It’s a shame that the cost of new vinyl is so goddamn expensive because it’s the only format that you can truly get a sense of the tangible effort in production. You get the beauty of the sleeve, the guaranteed audio quality of each track and the knowledge that you are helping to sustain the career of somebody who genuinely inspires you, as well as the format itself.

But wait, if it wasn’t for peer-to-peer sharing then most up and coming artists wouldn’t even exist in the listening sphere of the average human being. In the technological age, free downloads are essential gifts at the beginning of any budding new musician’s path to stardom. They are an attempt to get the world to sit up and take notice, to persuade the listener to want to hear and see more. It’s not about being paid, it’s about being heard. Touring is the real money-maker (unless the artist is very old, or dead) and in that sense, free downloads are necessary to accumulate a global fan base. But as soon as popularity looks on the cards, free downloading becomes illegal piracy. There has to be a middle ground.

No surprise then that the problem has been met with a few interesting reactions from those within the industry. In Rainbows revolutionised the way in which artists can offer their work to the world by championing the pay-what-you-want template. Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter offer a service for musicians who are trying to raise money to subsidise independent projects, so there are possibilities available to those who value their music as a gift and not as a cash cow.

It’s not an overnight process, but the way music is financed, bought and sold is definitely changing. Gone are the days when you had to wait a month for your copy of the latest Motown 45’’ to come through the post. Technology has enabled artists like Radiohead and Amanda Palmer to set the wheels in motion, and there will undoubtedly be others who jump on the bandwagon. It is important to support the artists that you adore, but if can’t see them live and you can’t quite afford to spunk your loan on a wax copy of their latest album, I won’t judge you for using Mediafire for the time being.

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