Sharing music files is fab, don't abuse it

I’m always amazed by how easy it is to dislike Bono. The guy’s written some of my favourite songs, and he’s a tireless campaigner for human rights. I should be over-awed by this charming example of compassionate humanity, in the same way that I am by Joanna Lumley, but instead I often find myself wanting to use his fat stubbly head as a football; a football wearing smug plastic shades.

I’m sure that the hypocrisy of a millionaire rock star preaching to us about poverty doesn’t help here. So, when I first saw that Bono had to decided to have a pop at file sharers in his New York Times guest column, I thought that this would be another opportunity to imagine a penalty shoot-out with the aforementioned philanthropic football, but it turned out that I actually agreed with some of what he said.

For the sake of perspective, it should be pointed out that Bono’s comments on piracy occupied just three paragraphs of a three-page piece of editorial.

Secondly, Bono at no point suggested that U2 was in need of more money, which is stupidly what seems to have got some people worked up. His argument against mass Internet piracy was that it hurt ‘the young, fledgling songwriters who can’t live off ticket and T-shirt sales like the least sympathetic among us.’

He also acknowledged the irony of a rich rock star complaining about losing money to piracy, saying ‘Note to self: Don’t get over-rewarded rock stars on this bully pulpit, or famous actors; find the next Cole Porter, if he/she hasn’t already left to write jingles.’

Sadly, he then embarked on the facepalm train and suggested tracking people’s Internet usage as a way of identifying file sharers, and also attacked ISPs for apparently cynically profiting from mass piracy, despite the huge bandwidth costs that it presents. This is what’s got a lot of people worked up, including ISPs, and understandably so.

This is a shame, as there’s a very important point to be made about the widespread use of file sharing, and it’s one that rarely comes up in the verbal spats between music business reps and file sharers. On the one hand, representatives from the music industry frequently try to make their point by equating downloaded files with lost sales, despite the fact that many people wouldn’t buy the music if it cost money anyway.

There are all sorts of other ways in which the music industry has alienated many music lovers from its cause, which we’ll come to later, but that’s not to say that I haven’t heard some equally idiotic arguments from file sharers to justify music piracy.

These include a basic self-righteous sense of entitlement, as well as lumping in all record labels with Simon Cowell’s bland pop empire. I frequently hear people saying that new music simply isn’t worth paying for, yet they’re quite happy to spend their time listening to it if they can get it for free.

Okay, so not everyone would buy the music they download for free, but I’m certain that a lot more would if you could only buy it on physical media.

Give a dog a Bonio

The most popular pro-piracy argument I hear at the moment is that file sharing enables people to listen to the music of new bands for free, and then the band can make its money from ticket sales for live gigs. Of course, this makes complete sense when you’re talking about a huge band such as U2. With their extravagant stage shows and massive fan base, U2 won’t have any trouble making money from live gigs, and you could argue that some free tracks on Bit-Torrent might even persuade more people to buy tickets.

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This argument only works for certain artists, though. It’s fine for established stadium rock bands, but it’s impractical for artists who are just starting out, and it’s not even remotely relevant to studio artists.

Recorded music isn’t just the result of sticking a microphone in front of a band any more; it’s become both a science and an art form, and well-produced recorded music costs money to create. It’s easy to say: ‘Aw, boo hoo, poor Lars Ulrich can’t afford to install a fifth swimming pool in his mansion,’ but this misses the point. Y

ou’re not just denying the artist the money that might have come from sales by sharing their files, but you’re also hurting the studio engineers and pretty much anyone else who worked on the production of a song. These are the people we need to create well-produced music. The insane popularity of music file sharing shows that we still have a very healthy appetite for well-produced recorded music, so why do so many people refuse to pay for it? It’s the increasing worthlessness of recorded music as a commodity that really worries me. The invention of the multi-track recorder ushered in a new way of looking at music.

You no longer had to play everything live, but you could do it all one instrument at a time, and even create a whole album on your own.

If it wasn’t for this, we would never have had many of the early classic rock albums, including Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and those were just from the early days of studio experimentation. Well produced multi-track recordings are now intricately complicated beasts.

As a case in point, one of my favourite recording artists at the moment is the electro-metal mastermind, Celldweller. An independent one-man band, Celldweller’s fusion of multiple styles is a rollercoaster of production techniques, with layer upon layer of different instruments, sounds and vocal effects. He even posted a screenshot of the Pro Tools session for one song at the end of last year, showing just how much work goes into producing a single song.

Celldweller sells his music in batches of two MP3s for a very reasonable $1.98 US. The tracks have no DRM, and are encoded at a decent bit-rate of 320Kb/sec, and you can also buy a CD if you want the full audio experience. Despite this, though, you only need to run ‘Celldweller torrent’ through Google to see that his music is also easily available for free via Bit Torrent.

This is what really gets me worked up. While I know a good number of semi-ethical file sharers who later pay for the music they like that they’ve downloaded via Bit Torrent, I also know plenty of freeloaders who apparently couldn’t care less if their favourite artists couldn’t afford to produce music any more. Of course, studio artists such as Celldweller can (and do) play their songs live and sell gig tickets, but the real moments of genius are found in the recording. The same also goes for many electronic studio acts. Richard D James, Orbital and the Future Sound of London have all done their own variations on live shows and DJ sets, which are great, but they can’t be compared to the recordings they produce.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for megabuck artists such as Bono, or the David Geffens of the world, and there’s no reason why we should. The music industry has done itself no favours with the use of draconian DRM systems, over-charging for downloads and even going after ten year old girls for file sharing. Equating downloads with lost sales is also a highly misleading, way of calculating lost profits, and it doesn’t endear people to the industry’s cause. Likewise, the introduction of badly thought-out acts such as the Digital Economy Bill makes the music business look more like a totalitarian state then an artistic community.

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Whatever views you have on piracy, no one should have the right to snoop on your Internet activity because you might be doing something criminal. Of all people, Bono should know this, but instead he even used ‘China’s ignoble effort to suppress online dissent’ as an example of how online content could be tracked to stop file sharing.

At the same time, though, file sharers need to be aware of the consequences of their actions. You can’t just laugh it off and say ‘ah, but they said home taping was killing music, and it didn’t – it’s the same this time.’ It’s not the same this time. Making a compilation tape of tracks for a friend on a poor-sounding single cassette is completely different to making your whole music collection available as decent-sounding MP3s to a whole world of anonymous strangers. The scale of worldwide file sharing is a much greater threat than anything presented by the cassette tape. Likewise, any dislike you have for large recording companies, rubbish new pop acts or even just Bono is no justification for stealing the work of genuinely talented artists who’ve yet to establish a fan base.

Not everyone can fund their musical career from the sales of gig tickets, and this lazy argument is becoming increasingly tired. The experience we’ve developed in recording music is now incredible, and we need to hold on to these skills if we’re going to continue to produce quality music to listen to at home. These are skills that we could easily lose if people continue to treat recorded music as a worthless commodity.

After all, what’s the point in learning to become a sound engineer if there end up being few jobs in the profession. Plus, budding solo musicians and studio artists are going to find little motivation from the prospect of spending the rest of their lives living with their parents while they record their music for free. For many people, music is fine as just a hobby, but others find a great deal of motivation from the prospect of being able to do it for a living. I don’t have an easy answer to the problems presented by mass file sharing.

It’s easy to get on your high horse and justify it in all sorts of ways, but these excuses sound to me like the cries of a child who’s been told that he has to save up if he wants more sweets. The music business needs to wake and realise that it can’t force the Internet to act like a physical media shop, but we also need to play our part by supporting recording artists and keeping recorded music alive as a profession.