As a music lover growing up in the digital age, piracy has become second nature to me. It’s not my proudest admission, but I have a hard time believing anyone with a favorite artist and an internet connection hasn’t gone the illegal route to obtain a new song or album at least once or twice in their lives. Whether you snagged a leaked album just to hear it a week early, or you have a hard drive full of gems you scored off SoulSeek back in the day, you’re a pirate, and you’re part of the problem.
You are not, however, part of the cause of that problem.
The root cause of the ongoing piracy problem is an unfair and unnecessarily complex music digestion paradigm, and the devaluation of the art that drives it. When piracy first became a real, sales-sucking problem for the music industry, it was largely due to a mixture of newly developed technology itching for a place to be used, and a response to physical CD prices that were at times reaching well over $20.
Services like Napster, Limewire, DC++ and the like were the first to offer a viable alternative to people who simply could not financially afford to maintain their love of music. The practice was morally questionable, but for a teenager eagerly awaiting multiple albums each month with the lack of funding implicit in adolescence, pirating offered a way to feed a musical passion without getting picked up for shoplifting at the local FYE.
As music pirating continued to serve as an answer to both an abundant musical output and a ridiculously inflated, a la carte distribution system, physical album sales fell sharply as the industry attempted to compete with a declining economy and a diluted market. This development eventually led to the birth of streaming services like Apple Music, TIDAL, Spotify and others, though perhaps years after the major labels should have started trying to create their own reasonable adaptation to a changing technological landscape.
The idea was to offer a monthly paid service for unlimited music consumption—great in theory, but as of yet, none of these services have managed to accomplish this in a manner that appeases the average music fan while offering fair profits to both the artists and the labels. Services are snagging exclusives in an attempt to steal users from the other services, resulting in a convoluted streaming landscape.
For example, the average hip-hop head right now would need subscriptions to both TIDAL and Apple Music to hear all the newest albums from their favorite artists. Granted, that still means you're paying around $20 a month for unlimited music, which for consumers is a considerable improvement over the days of paying $20 for a single CD, but streaming exclusives seem to have left people more confused and bitter, and has done little to curb the prevalence of piracy.
Major labels have also had to deal with yet another manifestation of music piracy, websites that offer the ability to rip YouTube audio into a downloadable file format, such as YouTube-mp3.org, which several prominent labels have now taken legal action against, according to Pitchfork. Piracy has reached Hydra proportions—cut off one head and two more grow back to replace it. Until some sort of balance is reached within the music industry, the problem will persist and the means by which we reject the mainstream consumption options will become easier and harder to trace.
Piracy is a legitimate problem, but it is also a glaring symptom that continues to shine a light on the more pressing issue of how power is divided in the music industry. The fact remains that the dominating entities within the music industry have been reaping outrageous profits from the financial suffering of artists for decades, and the tides are beginning to turn.
Unfortunately, piracy is still the easiest way to eschew the entire current musical landscape, and it is forcing artists to have to restructure the system themselves, as artists like Chance The Rapper have done by not charging for music at all, finding alternative means of compensation through merchandising and touring, among other ventures.
Despite the music industry experiencing its biggest growth since the last 90s, thanks to the proliferation of streaming, there's a long way to go before piracy comes close to kicking the bucket.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.