Insight: MiTunes


This isn’t something we’d usually blog about, but last night on SBS Television, the discussion program Insight screened their episode entitled MiTunes, focusing on the multifaceted issue of illegal downloads – should music be free, how much is it costing artists and the music industry, and what should be done to curb the phenomenon.

In a time where the debate is so convoluted, Insight did their best to sift through the issues and devise some interesting and creative solutions. There were a slew of special guests on the show including Phrase, Tim Levinson (a.ka. Urthboy), The Audreys, Sharman Network’s Markus Kern (responsible for KaZaA), and respresentatives from ARIA, Australian ISPs, record labels and the downloading public.

So instead of checking out some new music today, head to the SBS website and watch the show online. (The episode is divided into three clips you’ll find on the right-hand side.) I think the resounding message from the episode is that there’s no one fix for the problem, a range of solutions need to be implemented to stop people downloading. To me, the first step needs to be eliminating any avenue by which people can download (well, let’s say “steal” shall we?) music, and I personally vote on the side of warnings from ISPs. If people have a way of downloading music for free, why would they pay for it? To me, that’s the crux of the problem. Secondly, a system needs to be set up to encourage people to purchase music at a resonable price, and the idea of a subscription-based initiative (which is discussed in the program) bodes well with me.

One billion songs illegally downloaded was the figure bandied around by ARIA. If that’s true, it won’t be long before music is no longer a viable career for individuals, and then there’ll be no more music to download. (Then we’re screwed, right?) And while we may look at international superstars and think they don’t need anymore money, they fall in the miniscule minority of musicians, many of whom struggle to make a living doing what they love.

Check out Insight and wade into this pressing debate. It’s an issue that the Australian govenment seem nonplussed on, but as a music devotee, I feel illegal downloading should be something we tackle urgently.


6 Responses

  1. rob

    June 4, 2008 7:49 pm

    You’re serious, aren’t you?

    “If people have a way of downloading music for free, why would they pay for it?”

    Well, I presume from the fact that you contribute to this blog that you have access to a computer and to the internet. Consequently, you have a way of downloading music for free, yet presumably you choose to pay for it. So, instead of treating the above question as rhetorical, how about you answer it yourself? Or by “people” do you mean “other people” who, unlike yourself, are all selfish, greedy, immoral bastards who are always on the look out for a way to rip off “struggling musicians”?

    Better yet, why not ask a different question? Why not resist the moralistic compulsion to assume that people who download music do so indiscriminately and purely for selfish reasons? Why not ask why people choose, and in what particular circumstances they choose, to download music through channels that some people have an interest in depicting as “illegal”?

    Could it be because people are sick to fucking death with forking over precious dollars only to be stung with a mediocre album, and so they prefer to “try before they buy”? Could it be because people are getting rightly pissed off at record companies that continually release singles/albums in different formats with different tracklistings, and nowadays with multiple remixes of the same song, so as to extract every last penny from the record-buying public? Could it be because record companies have been so successful at commodifying music for their own financial gain (at the expense, mind you, of artists as well as of punters) that music “consumers” have become very used to treating and have every right to treat music as a “product” simply to be acquired at the lowest price and there’s no price lower than nothing?

    There are plenty more questions to ask, but in this “pressing debate” , in which it’s already been decided that music is a commodity, that downloaders are freeloaders, and that record companies are “only looking after the interests and income of artists”, is it at all likely that any of these questions can be raised, let alone answered?

  2. Dom Alessio

    June 5, 2008 9:37 am

    Hey Rob,

    Thanks for your comment. Well to answer your questions: define people however you see fit. Let’s use the word “people” as the section of the public who have a penchant for downloading music.

    I’d argue that there are a large majority of people who aren’t trying before they buying, and are downloading albums or songs of artists they already enjoy, and if they do enjoy said song or album, I don’t believe most of them would then go out and buy it.

    I’m totally with you that CDs are overpriced, which is why I think the subscription-based system discussed on Insight, which has been trialled in the States, is a great idea. $10 or $20 a month to download as many songs as you want, that’s a great idea. It’s true that record labels (and ad agencies too) have turned music into a commodity, but let’s not forget that artists deserve the money too. What about an independent act who’s devoid of a major label act? Are they not entitled to some money for all the hard work they’ve put in to creating a record?

    By using the word illegal in inverted commas, I’m assuming you don’t feel as though it’s an illegal practice to download music for free that you should be paying for?

  3. Ed

    June 5, 2008 11:53 am

    I love how the youth of today does its best to absolve itself of any complicity in illegal downloading.

    “Try before you buy”? is there any band that doesn’t have a myspace with some songs from their latest album? If it’s mainstream you can listen to 30 second clips on places like Amazon to get a feel of what it sounds like .

    I feel sorry for people that illegally download and miss the thrill of paying your hard earnt cash and actually hearing an an album in full for the first time, whilst looking through the artwork/lyric sheet. They’re missing out on so much of the experience and the emotional attachment. Mediocre albums? Sure we’ve all bought our share but that’s life. Are people unable to take risks these days?

    And the notion that albums are too expensive is so wrong. $20 – 25 for a new album that could bring you a lifetime of listening pleasure is a bargain. And I think i could probably go the rest of my life buying up $10 albums from places like Dirt Cheap. What’s $10? Doesn’t even get you in to see a film at the cinema, it’s a couple of drinks, it’s probably what lunch costs you each day.

  4. rob

    June 5, 2008 3:44 pm

    Hi Dom

    Thanks for the restrained response to an inflammatory comment.

    I don’t have a problem with artists receiving money for hard work, etc. (though I do think that talking about the issue without considering the non-monetary benefits and privileges that artists/musicians may receive is to fail to appreciate the way the music business works., but let’s just bracket that issue for now). Indeed, it would be pretty unlikely that anyone would have a problem with artists receiving recompense for their work.

    And that’s precisely my point: the debate is framed in a way that disguises (1) the many different reasons why someone might choose to d/l music for free rather than buy it; (2) the possible forms of calculation or discrimination that inform their decisions to d/l this song/album/artist, but to pay rather for that song/album/artist; (3) the relationship between given individuals’ downloading habits and purchasing habits; (4) the changing yet consistently commercial nature of the distribution context; and (5) most importantly to my mind, the inconsistent and strategic nature of industry campaigns against and persecution of downloading.

    My main beef is with the way the debate is constructed to depict downloading — and music distribution generally — as a two-party system. There’s the artist, on the one hand, and the buyer/downloader, on the other. In this image, the artist is always the “struggling artist” and the downloader is just a thief, someone who has never bought an album in their life (never will) and is simply out to deprive the “struggling artist” of his/her income. There’s a challenge for the moralists: show me a single discussion of “illegal downloading” that doesn’t wheel out the old chestnut of the “struggling artist” in order to depict anyone who has ever downloaded anything as a selfish prick.

    What’s the ratio, I wonder, between downloads of “struggling artists” and downloads of chart toppers? Do you really think “struggling artists” would actually be struggling if their material were in such high demand? Is it possible that a significant percentage, at least, of people who d/l music distinguish between “struggling” and established artists and modify their downloading behaviour accordingly? Are there other reasons, besides a desire to get something for nothing, why someone might seek to download a “struggling artist’s” song? Are there, in any case, ways in which “struggling artists” nevertheless benefit from the fact that people download their stuff? Isn’t it the case that a good majority of “struggling artists” are simply happy to have their music being listened to and that it’s possibly only artists who are not “struggling” as such but only struggling to break into the business who really care if their music is being pirated?

    In fact, I’m not convinced that the bulk of artists — even those struggling to break into the business — really give a toss whether someone paid for their CD or not. The moralising over downloading tends to come from two main sources: (1) cashed-up “music aficionados” who can afford to buy lots of CDs, or better yet get heaps of promos because they run a music blog or write reviews, and (2) the industry players.

    Now tell me: in the image of music distribution as an exchange between artist and music “consumer”, where is the record company in this picture? What role is the record company assumed to play in this exchange? To put it another way, do you think record companies really give a fuck about “struggling artists”? Do you think that at Board meetings they say, “My Chemical Romance’s latest album, which has sold umpteen million copies, has been illegally downloaded umpteen million more times, but really it’s poor old struggling John Hobo and his band of struggling artists that we really need to take a stand for”? To put it another way again, do you think record companies and industry performing rights groups would be so active in campaigning against piracy if piracy didn’t hit the sales figures of albums, etc., that have already sold extremely well? And what does this say, again, about who is really being affected by music piracy and about the financial circumstances of those affected?

    Anyone who actually cares about “struggling artists”, I would suggest, should be rightly outraged by the self-interested use of that image to spearhead campaigns to protect record company profits.

    As for independent acts being affected by piracy, try this reasoning (admittedly, speculative) for size: people who download music for free rather than for paying for it generally don’t care about and for music. People who don’t care about or for music generally have neither any contact with nor any interest in independent acts. Those people who download but nevertheless do care about music and are interested in independent acts generally either show that care and appreciation by paying for music by independent acts and downloading only mainstream artists, or support independent acts in other ways (e.g. by regularly paying to get into their gigs, by hyping them in music press, blogs, etc., and by dedicating what spare money they do have towards purchasing at least some independent releases).

    Now, if all that seems to be pure speculation, it’s worth recalling that the advent of mp3 files and downloading doesn’t mark the first time in history that the “problem” of piracy has emerged. So much of the current debate simply repeats the same statements I used to hear back in the 80s about “illegal copying” of songs using blank cassettes. (Oops. Sorry, Ed: did I just burst your “youth of today” stereotype by suggesting that the issue has a history and that I might be old enough to remember when music came in multiple physical formats?). Studies at that time showed that for the majority of music “consumers” access to and circulation of copied music increased rather than decreased their overall expenditure on music. There’s a complex argument to be drawn from this fact, but the point is that it lends some support to claims that, while at specific times in their careers given independent acts may suffer what might be calculated as a “loss” of income due to music piracy, generally speaking the independent music scene benefits from the circulation of “pirated” material. One need only look at the embrace of myspace as a distribution site and network to see the logic in this point.

    Which brings us to the fourth of the points I referred to when talking about how the terms for debating “illegal downloading” obscure several relevant factors. The rise of new media technologies is inescapably changing the music “business”. The record industry’s campaign against “illegal downloading” is just one sign of how reluctant the industry (especially in Australia) is to adapt to these changes. Like you, I think the idea of a subscription system is a good one: it keeps buyers engaged with the “culture” of music, it allows buyers flexibility with regard to what they download, etc. and it keeps costs low for buyers, which matches what should be the decreasing costs associated with pressing (now largely obsolete) and distribution. The thing is, record companies will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this system (As an analogous example, look at the resistance on the part of some labels to allowing high-quality, DRM-free files to be sold via iTunes.). They will resist for as lone as possible precisely because it will mean (1) a short-term decrease in profits, (2) a radical change to business and production practices to adapt to the increased choice provided by subscription services, and (3) the introduction of new players (e.g. Apple, eMusic) into the distribution market, thereby breaking the major labels’ stranglehold on distribution (not to mention the exploitative practice of setting varied regional pricing and releasing region-specific tracklisting, etc.)

    Now, to your final question about whether I feel that it is “illegal” to download music for free that I “should” be paying for. All of the above should be sufficient to indicate why I reject those terms (“illegal”, “should”) and the description of the issue in terms of morality. If you’re asking whether I do download music for free that I might otherwise find a way of paying for, the answer is this: on occasion, for varying reasons, I supplement my purchases of recorded music with the odd burnt CD and (though less often) with the odd download via a music blog or soulseek or some such mechanism.


  5. Owen

    June 5, 2008 9:18 pm

    Trent Reznor got it right.

    Not to sound like a crazy anarchist/establishment hater, but the labels are fucking over the artists and the listeners.

    You can download a 36-track album from Nine Inch Nails for the measly sum of $5 USD, and it’s available in a multitude of formats which you can freely burn to CD, put on your iPod, record to casette, and do anything you want with. Legally.

    You can have the two-disc version with accompanying artwork for $10 USD.

    Hell, you can even get the original uncompressed high-quality .wav files so you can easily make your own remixes.

    Of late, music prices have reached a saner level. Most CD albums I buy are about $20, which is good. However, it’s still technically illegal for me to take that CD, turn it into mp3s, and play it more conveniently on my iPod. I don’t want to pay for an album for each device I want to use it on. It’s rediculous.

    The advent of MySpace music has helped. You can listen to songs, presumably of the artists own choosing, at will. But you still have to buy the CD, or some crappy DRM-ridden files which will only play on devices which are not of your own choosing.

  6. Sharon

    June 6, 2008 9:35 pm

    The industry dropped the ball years ago and are now attempting to wrestle some kind of control over the market gone wild (without them!)

    I put my hand up for downloading – but y’know, I’ve always “stolen” music… I used to tape old punk shows on community radio, videotape Rage and compile mix tapes with friends. It’s the process of discovering new music. When the album sounds promising I buy it, and often the artist’s back collection. I only started downloading for a year or so, since then, I have been buying CDs, 6 a time from online stores – and regularly seeing these bands.

    “Stealing” is good I tell you!



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