Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sour Limes

On October 26th, Lime Group was slapped with a court injunction to disable the file sharing and peer-to-peer networking functionality in its popular LimeWire file sharing software. The upshot of this, of course, is that the LimeWire software can no longer illegally download files (especially music and videos).

Horrors! You mean the free ride is over? The gravy train has left? No more free music? This is an outrage! The public has rights! It's undemocratic! It's unconstitutional!

The court injunction was, of course, driven primarily by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) who have seen file sharing services like LimeWire as a stone in their corporate shoe for several years now. Let's face it, if everybody downloads music without paying for it, the music industry must eventually collapse. If the music publishers and distributors make no money, they can't afford to pay the artists and performers, who then also make no money and can't afford to continue exercising their creativity (except, perhaps, in their spare time, outside of their day jobs and, even then, it would have to be strictly a labor of love).

The RIAA's web site claims that illegal downloading of music globally has caused economic losses of about $12.5 billion per year in lost earnings, lost jobs and lost tax revenues. I tend to look at this type of argument with some skepticism. What they're really saying is that, if every single song that was downloaded illegally in the past year had been paid for, the music industry, its artists and performers and the tax man would now be about $12.5 billion richer.

First of all, let's remember that this is just an estimate. Nobody can realistically say exactly how much music was illegally downloaded last year. Even granting that the estimate is reasonably accurate, those making the estimate appear to assume that those who downloaded music illegally would have downloaded that music even if they had to pay for it. This fails to consider that there is still the third option of simply not downloading at all. I suspect that the majority of the music that was illegally downloaded would not have been downloaded if there was no choice but to pay for it. Just because I'm willing to take something for free doesn't necessarily mean that I'm also willing to pay for it. That's a logical argument, not a legal or a moral one. It does, however, challenge the premise that the music industry should, by all rights, be $12.5 billion richer today than it was at this time last year.

I think that one of the main reasons why people download music illegally is because there's a perception that the music industry is full of mega-rich stars who don't need the money anyway, and so illegal downloading is seen as a victimless crime. Michael Jackson's estate alone is said to have made more that $275 million last year. Not bad, for a dead guy! This in spite of the fact that many people surely downloaded Jackson's music illegally. It's hard to sympathize with someone who cries that they only made $275 million when they really should have made, say, $500 million. In that context, it becomes understandable that many don't feel a great deal of guilt about not tossing another ten bucks into the huge money pot for their copy of "Thriller".

Of course, for every Michael Jackson out there, there are hundreds of lesser-known, struggling artists who can't yet afford to quit their day jobs. On the other hand, not many people download their music, because they're not as well-known. Ironically, this poorer class of artist is often happy to allow people to download and distribute their work for free in the interest of getting increased exposure.

Another rationalization that's sometimes used to defend music piracy is the argument that the music industry has already reaped the profits from the music that it offers and shouldn't be paid for it again. The music industry is notorious for re-releasing the same work multiple times under different packaging. Aside from "Greatest Hits" compilations, there are the "Extended" or "Deluxe" editions of albums, which are often simply the original albums re-packaged with an extra track or two included.

I'll pick on one of my personal favorite musicians in this regard. I've been a huge fan of Mike Oldfield's music since my college years. I've legally purchased most of his albums twice, first on vinyl and then again on CD. Of course, the digital CD format is of a higher quality than the old vinyl. It's reasonable to pay for the upgrade, although one could make the argument I shouldn't necessarily have had to pay full price the second time around. Why not offer me a discount for proof of purchase of the older vinyl pressing? Unfortunately, music industry marketers have never been known for this sort of forward thinking, which is largely why the digital revolution caught them so unawares. But I digress, as usual.

Even allowing that I was willing to pay a second time for CD versions of Oldfield's music, he has re-released and re-re-released his seminal work, "Tubular Bells" so many times now that it even makes me groan "Enough already Mike!" "Tubular Bells" was originally released on vinyl, both in stereo and quadraphonic formats. A re-mixed version with an out-take that had been dropped from the original release was included as part of a boxed set (appropriately entitled "Boxed") along with re-mixes of several of Oldfield's other previously-released albums. Of course, all of the above were eventually released on CD as well, and some even on DVD.

Then followed several sequels to the work including "Tubular Bells II", "Tubular Bells III" and even "The Orchestral Tubular Bells" but these, although variations on the original theme, were new recordings and therefore qualify as new material, rather than a simple re-packaging of previously released work. There was also "Tubular Bells 2003" which was a complete re-recording of the original work but at least it was a re-recording rather than just another re-mix or remastering.

In contrast, the 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition CD release, was the merely the original Tubular Bells, cleaned up and re-mastered and re-packaged yet again. Segments of the work have appeared on compilation albums such as "The Complete Mike Oldfield". In 2009, four physical variations and two digital variations were re-released in the U.K. and Ireland, and five physical variations were released in the U.S. and elsewhere. These include a new stereo mix, a 5.1 surround mix (entitled "The Deluxe Edition") and an "Ultimate Edition" which basically contains all of the previous editions plus extras. All of these are nothing more than re-mixed and remastered versions of the same work that Oldfield first recorded in 1973. I'd say he's milked his Tubular cow for all it's worth, and then some!

Incidentally, I was dismayed to discover that some of the CD releases of Oldfield's albums were missing material that had been included with their vinyl brethren. The CD version of "Crises" lacked the song "Mistake", which appeared on the vinyl album, and the CD version of "Incantations" seriously abridged one of the tracks, fading it up a good two or three minutes into the piece as compared to the vinyl version. Given that a compact disc is capable of storing more music than a 12-inch vinyl disc, I see no excuse for these omissions. In this regard, it might be argued that Oldfield or his publishers stole from me, and from all of his other fans that purchased the CD versions of those albums. So I put this question to you; if I were to find those missing tracks on LimeWire or some similar file sharing network (and, make no mistake, there are others), would I be justified in downloading them for free?

I'm not arguing in favor of illegal downloading of music. As I said, if everybody did so, the music industry would collapse. The RIAA is well within its rights in fighting music piracy. I'm merely pointing out why it's understandable that some people do illegally download music without feeling that they are committing any great wrong, and I question whether music piracy has really hurt the industry as badly as the RIAA would have us believe.


Martin said...

I agree with you on most points, Andy. In particular, well known and established groups have probably been hit the hardest by piracy. This probably accounts for why concert tickets for big name artists have gone up so much. In the 80s, I would have paid $25 for a great concert. These days, it is hundreds. On the other hand, Limewire and other methods of music sharing have benefited lesser known groups. I am (or WAS) fond of going onto Limewire and checking out little known artists. When were were in Newfoundland, Candy and I heard many Newfie/Irish groups that were very interesting. Back home, armed with only scraps of lyrics, I used google and then Limewire to research these groups. Ever hear of Flogging Molly? I never had, but thanks to Limewire I know enough about them now that I may pick up a CD of theirs next time in the mall.

Halmanator said...

For researching music and artists, I recommend Allmusic ( Of course, you do have to know the artist/group name, an album name or at least a song title.