Should You Download Music For Free?

Home Taping Is Killing Music

Picture by World of Oddy

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a bit more about free downloads. Specifically, the ethical issues involved when downloading music for free. The wide availability of free music online is no secret. File-sharing networks and BitTorrent technology have made more music available to more people than ever, but how does this really effect the artists, the labels and the music industry as a whole. The average music consumer may not lose much sleep when large corporations report a decline in sales, but what about the smaller record labels and independent artists.

A better understanding of these issues can be found by looking at the brief history of piracy and its relationship with the music industry.  Robbert van Ooijen’s blog ‘Have You Heard It’ has been an invaluable resource in this respect, shedding light on some of the common misconceptions involved when talking about music piracy. The music industry is shown to rely on rhetorical devices and a good-guy bad-guy narrative to fuel its anti-piracy campaigns. The message of these campaigns is always the same, warning us how piracy is killing music. The counter to this claim, being that piracy provides the consumer with an alternative. Cutting costs when products are felt to be to expensive, and making them available when consumer demand is not met by the industry. This can be seen by a pattern that emerges throughout the history of music piracy, whereby music piracy is at its lowest when consumer demand is met, and also when the reproduction of music is very expensive.  Before home recording, the photocopier enabled people to distribute sheet music freely. This, coupled with an increase in demand lead to a wave of piracy in the late nineteenth century. Vinyl, cassette tape, and then the Compact Disc made recording and copying music easier and cheaper. Over time piracy shifetd from an industrial to a domestic phase, where copies could be made by the individual and piracy became ever more difficult to track. It is worthwhile to remember that before music became an industry, there could be no music piracy. Before copyright there could be no theft of music. It was only when music became a commodity that it was protected in this way. Before this music was freely copied and distributed. It is only in the modern age of the music industry that artists can expect to make money from their back-catalogues. A luxury that was not available to the likes of Chopin or Liszt.

Money bag

Picture by dolphinsdock

It can be seen from looking back over the last century or so, that record labels have had to constantly re-assess the way they protect their investment. This is true now, more than ever. New recording formats have opened the door to an ever increasing availibility of music. Now, in the digital era, with Mp3 and online streaming of music the challenge for record labels is even greater. The music industry is reliant upon copyright, and as it is becoming more difficult to enforce, record sales are dwindling. How much of the recent decline in sales is due to free downloading is hard to say. Figures provided by record labels may be unreliable in this respect. It is also difficult to say how much the artists themselves are affected by free downloading. Record companies always depict the artist as needing their protection from piracy, but this is largely a social myth constructed by the companies themselves. Copyright is what the record companies depend on more than anything, and they continue to use moral rhetoric in order to persuade people to buy their product.

It is clear that the current situation is not one that the big record labels like. As in the past they will have to adapt with the times. In the 2010 Gallo report industry bosses seem to agree that online streaming is the way forward. It is realised that today’s music consumer is used to having music when and where they want it. With online streaming this is possible, sites like Spotify and Deezer having access to millions of songs online. These services can be paid for by subscription, or without payment, by adverts between tracks. Some of the biggest labels have already signed deals with streaming sites, and it seems as if this may be where the future of online music is heading. If this is the case then it signals a departure from music being seen as a product, to being packaged as a service. This involves a big shift in the way we think about music. It is a move that has been influenced by sites like you tube, that have given the consumer instant access to a large selection of media at no cost.

all rights reserved

Picture by no3rdw

Although a return to the free for all days before copyright doesn’t seem likely, it does seem as though we are entering an age where music will become a lot more accessible. Initiatives like Creative Commons enable artists to promote their music online in a less restrictive manner. Musicians can upload their music so it can be listened to for free, but still retain certain rights over their work. This type of initiative realizes that people are not willing to spend money on an artist just by looking at the CD cover. Consumers nowadays want to listen to a number of different songs before they decide to make a purchase. Creative Commons also allows artists to use the massive marketing potential of the internet in a more positive way. Something that is not possible under the traditional copyright label of ‘all rights reserved’.

Returning now to the question posed in this blog’s title, should you download music for free? Well, no you shouldn’t because its illegal, but hopefully the above discussion should make the whole issue a little clearer. It is interesting to note that both Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have made massive profits on material they have first released on a free download. The fact that these artists are already very well known obviously makes there job a little easier, but it does show that the general public are willing to pay for something if they value it enough. The fact that the music industry is having to adapt to fit the consumer’s needs is a good thing, and hopefull this will lead to better value for everybody involved.

For more information on Creative Commons follow this Link,

For Robert van Ooijen’s complete blog article/thesis ‘Home Streaming Is Killing Piracy’ Look Here,

And for quotes from artists and bands on how they view this debate go Here


About Gary Skinner

Second year music student interested in composition
This entry was posted in Music Copyright and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Should You Download Music For Free?

  1. 2ButtonSwag says:

    Great article! I do have to say that some of the biggest bands have actually supported and encouraged piracy to a point. Artists hardly make any money off of a CD. I recall a particular platinum selling artist saying that he makes about $0.13 per CD sold. It is $130,000.00 if they sell a million, but think about the average concert ticket, then add merch onto that. Where the money comes from is concerts. I think it is in an artists best interest to create an audience by allowing free online downloads. I can not count the number of artists who’s music I fell in love with because it was free. I can think of one artist in particular who I downloaded via pirate bay, and now I have purchased every single vinyl he has. He may have lost a little money with me not buying the album, but because it was free, he’s made 10x as much off of me. I also can’t count the number of artists I passed on getting to know because it was $9.99 and I could not find it on pirate bay.

  2. Hana Alireza says:

    Interesting topic. I haven’t downloaded any free music for years, but had a voracious appetite for new (free) music during the early days of Napster, and I too made all kinds of great discoveries along the way that I subsequently bought proper, official versions of. It will be interesting to see how the music industry evolves – good post!

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