Kathryn Toolan looks at ever-topical debate of illegal music downloading, the arguments for and against, and the effects it has on the music industry

This month saw a crackdown on illegal music downloading across the globe, most notably in Japan, where downloaders now face the friendly prospect of two years in prison or a hefty fine if caught downloading as little as one file illegally from the internet. Too far? Not far enough? It is an ever present topic of debate (one with a lot of grey areas). Can the illegal downloading of music be accepted as the next step in the evolution of the music industry? Or is it just criminality, plain and simple?

Almost everyone has done it. Even the most morally – just, upstanding citizens sometimes can not wait for the iTunes release date and just have to experience the most recent musical masterpiece from the prepubescent pop prince himself, the Bieber. Life simply wouldn’t be worth living. “Sure, I believe in the rights of the artist just eh, don’t check my browser history.” The facts: over one in three people illegally download music material for personal use, and over 95 percent of all music downloads are illegal. So who are the main offenders? BitTorrent (the peer to peer file sharing giant) released figures this week that did some naming and subsequently, shaming. Not surprisingly, the USA topped the table with an impressive 96.7 million illegal downloads in the last six months alone. But even more impressive is the silver medalist, the UK, with a very respectable 43.4 million downloads. Runners up included Italy with 33.2 million, Canada with 24 million and Brazil with 19.7 million downloads. And the victims of this download-mania? It seems Drake is the main man Stateside and the Brits feel similarly about a certain red haired crooner. But are they truly the victims? Or could they also be the main benefactors? Evolution or criminality, which is it?

Illegal downloading. With the word “illegal” in it’s title, one would often feel that the argument is over before it has even begun. But enter grey area numero uno: can downloading a song from the internet be entered into the same category of illegality as tax fraud or even assault? (Japan thinks so.) Regardless of the morality issue, it is a break of copyright. A song is a combination of time, capital and labour with a final product at the end. To download it for free is essentially stealing. No one can ever forget the “brilliant” anti-piracy adverts at the beginning of all videos and dvds. A patronising male voice telling you that “you wouldn’t steal a car.” Well actually, given the chance, with no traceability and no prospect of getting caught… you probably would. Not that they don’t try to catch you. Year after year vast amounts of taxpayer’s money is being spent on police operations to stop illegal downloading, with very little or completely ridiculous results. Ridiculous? In 2007 the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) filed a lawsuit against a gentleman by the name of Chazz Berry, of New York City for copyright infringement. Seems quite reasonable, the only possible cause for concern was that Mr Berry was homeless, and had been for quite some time.

Proponents for illegal downloading put forward the argument that financial gain should not be the driving force behind any musical act; anti-downloaders respond with the argument that bills need to be paid. Elitism is, however, often overlooked when examining this issue. Dave Grohl and Neil Young think it’s okay to download illegally, Young even going in so far as saying “piracy is the new radio,” but Dave and Neil are sitting on top of bags of financial security, accumulated after long careers in the music business. What about up-and-coming artists and bands? They argue that record labels are taking less and less risks with new acts as a result of lost revenue from illegal downloading. Losses in revenue? Let’s ask Universal Music, who boasted a 3.2 percent increase in revenue this quarter. This points to a problem with the industry and record labels, not illegal downloading. Record labels no longer have the power to decide who and what is popular on the music circuit. It is now possible for a relatively unknown artist to reach a certain level of success, without having to fork out cash for a marketing campaign. YouTube and SoundCloud are often viewed nowadays as the new “word of mouth”.

So what about iTunes? It can not be denied that since the introduction of the iPod by Steve Jobs in in 2001, iTunes has monopolized the legal music download market. Economically, perfect competition is always preferred i.e. two or more firms offering the same product. For the sake of the consumer, removing the market power from iTunes can be viewed as a positive step.

A side to the debate that is relatively unknown is the benefits of illegal downloading, not just to the music lover, but to the artists themselves. At the start of this year dubstep producer/artist Billy Van signed a deal with BitTorrent Inc to distribute his new EP – Cardigan. It is now the most downloaded song in five of the top 20 countries on the illegal downloading shortlist. This includes Brazil, which is number five on said list. Van has gained worldwide recognition that he may not have gotten without his controversial deal with BitTorrent. Another example is the mega-star that is Laura Pausini. Who? Pausini is the most downloaded artist in Italy and her popularity has increased tenfold as a result of her BitTorrent fame. Ed Sheeran recently quipped that if 1 million people downloaded his album legally and 7 million people downloaded it illegally, that was still 8 million people listening to his music.

Artists’ main source of revenue comes from gigs, concerts and merchandising. Only a minute percentage of their profits come from cds and downloads (as small as 1/40th in some cases) . The majority of revenue from cd and download sales go to the Big Bad Record Label. Prices of concerts have risen in recent times but not drastically so. Ultimately they can not exceed a certain amount, otherwise people simply would not attend. This makes downloading illegally seem less harmful to the artist, “they make their money from concerts anyway.” But what if the artist is dead? A sound engineer still had to completely re-master Elvis Presley’s music catalogue and unfortunately he can no longer tour (being deceased is a large hindrance on a worldwide tour). Is there a way to rectify this situation? A possible negotiation with the big names in the illegal downloading world, such as BitTorrent?

This is clearly a multi dimensional debate, with new developments and arguments made everyday. It seems that the method of policing illegal downloading is currently not working so a possible solution may be just to completely re-vamp the industry. Rather than see BitTorrent and Spotify as the enemy, they should be incorporated into business plans. Used for publicity and, ultimately, for gains. Constraints and financial compensation should also be considered. Whatever happens, something has to change. As the great Sam Cooke sang, “..long time coming, But I know a change gonna come.”