It’s hard not to feel guilty when, after reading a news story or listening to a class professor rehash the Illegal Downloading Debate, you sit down at your iTunes library (or whatever Zune equivalent you’ve got going on) and try to determine how much of your music you legitimately purchased. If you’re like most kids I know, the answer is pretty close to zero.* There are some bands you really love and want to support, but according to your library, you have all seven of their albums but didn’t shell out a cent for any one of them. It’s kind of a problem. The thing is, at about a dollar-per-song, your library would be worth three or four grand by this point and you never, ever could’ve paid for all that.
With LimeWire shut down and the Beatles’ entire catalog now available on iTunes, it’s never been a more appropriate time to take a look at your options. We’re here to counsel you through your ethical impasse and help you sort out all the pros and cons of getting music illegally or taking the high road—and the hit to your bank account.
1. Most artists don’t make a substantial amount of money from album purchases, anyway. The majority of their profits come from touring, ticket sales, and merchandising.
If you’re just seeking some justification for downloading without paying, you might take solace in the fact that record labels are notorious for skimming off the top of album sales. Although you should keep in mind the fact that contracts vary greatly from artist to artist, according to ASCAP, they tend to take home ten to twenty-five percent of the sale price of a CD. However, labels deduct fees for things like the amount of studio time used to record an album, and paying the producers who worked on the record and for the costs of packaging and promoting it. The figures get even more difficult to understand when you start to consider paid digital downloads (although this infographic might help your case if you can follow it). If you take this information to heart you might be able to keep downloading without your conscience nagging at you—only if you make sure to support your favorite artists by buying posters or a tee shirt and seeing them live in concert.
2. Buying the music can be more rewarding, especially if you have a physical copy rather than digital.
In addition to the fact that downloading illegally is … not legal, it’s also not as gratifying. There might be something comforting about knowing you paid for the music you’re enjoying so much, especially when you know that at least in some small way the musicians are getting a piece of the money you’ve paid. While that fuzzy feeling could happen for you if you pay to download a digital copy, there is something even stronger to be said for not downloading at all, opting for the all-but-forgotten record store route. If you’re one of those people who haven’t bought a physical copy of an album in years, you may want to think about it sometime. You don’t need to invest in vinyl and a record player, but just having a CD can be a better experience than shuffling through a digital library. Having the music, reading the liner notes and looking at the album art up close is an experience and something that gets lost with downloading MP3s, legally or otherwise. So, go ahead, spend the $20 on that CD. You’ll feel almost righteous for doing that as opposed to downloading. Plus, if appearances count, you might look like a slightly more authentic fan for actually owning a tangible copy of the album.
3. There are some pretty awesome free and legal ways to download songs and listen to full-length tracks.
Not all downloading is bad. Although calculating the cost of your whole library might be astounding, the legal download that costs 99 cents a song really isn’t that bad. You might need to download at a slower pace to figure it all into your budget, but it is possible. In addition, Napster (yes, the same Napster that the RIAA hates has returned, albeit under legal restrictions) and Rhapsody offer monthly subscriptions to download with them, often with trial periods you can use to make sure the monthly fee is worth it.
You can supplement all the expensive legal music with free downloads as well. Both websites and artists themselves offer music up for free and it’s still legal for you to have. Hip-hop heads know all about this idea, as up and comers often put up links to their own free mixtapes to get themselves heard. (Lil Wayne, Wale, and other well-known rappers do the same thing, but the legality of their mixtapes is often disputed if they have used the music from songs that were recorded and released by other people without paying royalties). Free downloads from sites like Last.fm and Fuse.tv come from the same idea, music made free by bands that still want to make names for themselves or just want to put out some music for fans, free of charge. Sites like Pandora, Stereomood, and 8tracks also have free streaming music and, although they lack the benefit of free downloads, they have bonuses like ready-made playlists and other features.
4. If all these legal options still haven’t satisfied you, the end of LimeWire isn’t the end of the illegal download.
It would be nice if all the free, legal options could sway us from breaking all the rules, but if you still need to stand up to the Man—or are simply incredibly cheap—you can download without paying in other ways. There are always methods of music piracy that the record industry has yet to defeat, most lately the MP3 converter. Torrents and other peer-to-peer software are so 2003, but converting Youtube videos of popular songs into MP3s is the newest way to do it. Plus, the RIAA says its finished suing individuals for pirated music. We’re not encouraging you to go illegal, but if you’ve decided on taking the low road, at least you don’t have to live in constant fear of litigation.
As a college kid or just a serious music junkie, downloading illegally is always going to sound like a better option than paying exorbitant fees for music when the artists typically don’t receive much of the revenue from album sales. Even still, we know its “bad,” if only because it’s not the legally acceptable way to get music. There are other free, legal ways to hear good music, you just have to use them. Of course, not every song can be found for free, and in that sense you’ll eventually have to pay for something. Maybe using free sites to soften the blow of buying songs can keep you up to date with new music without the expense of going illegal, feeling guilty that the musicians didn’t get their cut. If not, at least you have some talking points next time you have to debate your way out of the issue.
- Olivia Yankey
*Disclaimer: If you’re reading, RIAA, of course this statement doesn’t include myself. I really don’t need one of those $1.5 million lawsuits on my hands because back in 2005 iTunes didn’t have those three Gloria Estefan jams I needed to hear.