The music industry would have the music-buying public believe that ‘illegal’ downloads are killing their industry. Yes, you there, poor student: by downloading MP3s, you’re bringing the fifty-year-old thriving British industry to its knees with a gun to its overgrown head by the mere stroke of an enter key. So while you hesitate over whether to download, stuck in a moral quandary over actively supporting gangsters and pirates, perhaps we should entertain a crazy idea and acknowledge the truth.
CD sales have, in fact, increased steadily since the late nineties. Our downloading has hardly dented the rapidly rising graphs that the labels’ share-holders read with delight; cigar in hand. Thanks to Tesco, Asda and the like, 80% of all CD sales now occur at the supermarket checkout at a cheap price that no record shop can compete with.
Major labels quickly realised that the music-buying public would never consider paying one pound for ‘You’re Beautiful’ when their nefarious neighbour was downloading Back To Bedlam for free next door. Ignoring the shareholders’ avaricious pleas, the labels went with their commercial sense and decided that paying full price for a single track, with no artwork, case or CD is short changing the customer. They were right. So don’t pay for it.
But as I hesitate over the enter key, thinking of the musical treats I can savour for free, I wonder who, then, pays the price? Are new and exciting bands not getting signed because of my piracy? Are musicians poor, tired and homeless as a result of my online theft? If anything, downloading has provided new bands with the much needed exposure that has boosted their profile earnings. As The Kooks return to Brighton as millionaires and Arctic Monkeys limber up for a Glasto headlining slot, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how exactly bands are being killed by our naughty, underworld stealing antics. There remains to be found an example of any band being killed by our collective piracy. Oh yeah, because no bands are. The Dead 60s debut album sales in fact suffered as the Copyright Protection built into the CD meant the songs could not be copied and therefore shared.
Maybe the labels just got their verbs wrong: downloading is killing/sharing music. Is this an easy mistake to make? Even our folks were sharing and copying music on tape cassettes, DATs and 8-Tracks in a pre-digital age. The debate over downloading seems to me to reveal a slow and reluctant reaction from an old fashioned industry to embracing a new and exciting time for music. Of course, my argument would collapse under a weight of hippy conjecture if CD sales and legal downloads had actually suffered because, as music fans, we don’t want our bands to suffer from our inbuilt student economising.
Downloading has re-invoked a punk rock ethic in music, spreading the word of many bands without the previously restricting need of major label support, and has bred a generation of over-zealous fans whose prolific music tastes threaten to surpass even the mighty Sir John Peel.