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Can we ease up on Emily White a little bit?

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This past week, my Google Reader exploded.

Last Saturday, an unsuspecting Emily White posted a piece called “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With” on NPR’s All Songs Considered Blog. In it, she describes herself as a music lover with a substantial library of digital music. However, Ms. White also claims to have only purchased a handful of recordings in her life.

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

She makes it clear that only a small handful of this collection was downloaded illegally with Kazaa when she was in the fifth grade. (That makes me feel old.) Most of this was acquired by swapping with friends and family as well as ripped from the CD collection at her college radio station.

Ease up, bro.As you might imagine, legions of music bloggers were shocked and appalled by this statement—or at the very least did an excellent job of feigning their righteous indignation. Perhaps the most viral of these responses was written by David Lowery of The Trichordist. Mr. Lowery’s 4,000-word response was condescending 1 and involved a fair number of straw men. He frequently references the “Free Culture” movement, which he clearly does not understand. He also displays a startling lack of understanding of the way the web works by bringing Google, Verizon, and AT&T into the same category of piracy-mongers as Megaupload and The Pirate Bay. The more of Mr. Lowery’s article I read, the less impressed I was by his reasoning, but his heart is in the right place. We absolutely have an obligation to support the artists making the music we love and the ecosystem that allows them to make it. Buying CDs are only one of the many ways that we can support creativity.

In fact, Emily White wrote as much in her own post:

I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

People pay for things if they are convenient and reasonably priced. Piracy isn’t stealing music from anybody, and there’s no study that can prove that the industry is harmed by piracy because there’s no evidence that an illegally downloaded recording represents a lost sale. In fact, in Switzerland where “piracy” is legal, a study from this past December shows that piracy may actually be good for the entertainment industry.

Swiss citizens over 15 years old download pirated music, movies and games from the Internet. However, these people don’t spend less money as a result because the budgets they reserve for entertainment are fairly constant. This means that downloading is mostly complementary.

The other side of piracy, based on the Dutch study, is that downloaders are reported to be more frequent visitors to concerts, and game downloaders actually bought more games than those who didn’t. And in the music industry, lesser-know bands profit most from the sampling effect of file-sharing.

With every new disruptive technology there are winners and losers. And every time, the disruptees who are the slowest to change are the ones that lose, and the ones that fight hardest against the technology. Music streaming services represent the latest disruptive technology. Emily White and her generation love them. They will continue to “own” less and less music while consuming (and paying for) more and more of it. David Lowery vilifies these services in his article, and he certainly has a good reason. Spotify does not pay up-and-coming artists fairly compared to superstars. Despite these streaming services, however, people will continue to purchase recordings (though probably more and more digital copies) and concert tickets. And in fact, these lesser-known bands that get the lowest direct revenue from Spotify are the ones getting the biggest indirect benefits. The future of music involves many fewer superstars and many more journeymen and part-timers. That’s ok. Buggy-whip makers 2 and blacksmiths aren’t doing so hot anymore either.

I think of piracy as the growing pains of digital distribution. Today, I consume music from the iTunes, Amazon, and Google digital music stores; I stream music on Spotify; I watch movies and TV on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu; and on the rare occasion that I play a video game, I buy it as a digital download from Steam. None of these would exist if piracy hadn’t come first. Emily White is 20. She’s an intern at NPR. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that she isn’t getting paid for that. In a few years, she’ll be able to spend money to support the artists she cares about, and it has taken a little bit of piracy to figure out who those people are. When she says that she doesn’t think her peers will ever pay for albums, I don’t think she means that they will never support artists.

Notes:

  1. “Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality.”
  2. That may not be a real thing.