Students weigh in on illegal music downloading

caitlinhardee

Credit: Alden
Credit: Alden

We don’t like it when people steal our stuff.

The outrage and fear on campus, following the recent spate of laptop thefts, testifies to that. Such reactions are understandable. A laptop holds a student’s work, the labor of one’s mind: one’s livelihood as a student. Few of us would ever condone stealing someone’s labor and livelihood.

Oh wait.

A recent poll of Whitman students asked the question: Do you download music without paying for it?

Fifty percent of 107 responders answered: “Sometimes.” Twenty-three percent responded, “All the time,” and 11 percent said they use bulk music subscriptions like Rhapsody. Only 16 percent said they consistently pay full price for their music.

It’s a sensitive subject. We are in the midst of a recession and many college students don’t have extra funds to throw around. However, the surge in illegal downloading impacts artists and the music industry in ways that students may not realize. Jim McGuinn, owner of local music store Hot Poop, spoke regarding the intense pressure on recording artists to perform strongly in sales.

“You get fronted money when you get signed up,” McGuinn said. “They say: your CD’s going to do well, here’s $50,000. Now you owe a couple hundred [thousand] for recording it and promoting it. When I used to do light shows, I met people who told me they still owed Sony, or in those days Columbia Records, for their albums. They had not recovered it. They’d sold a lot. But it cost more: to make it, promote it and tour.”

Despite pressures on individual artists, the music industry is often perceived as rich and financially stable.

“I feel like the music industry makes enough money that it’s pretty much okay to download music for free,” said sophomore Annie Truscott.

While top record executives like Doug Morris and Simon Cowell do have plenty of money, declining record sales force labels to be more conservative with the artists they sign, leading to dwindling diversity.

“It’s kind of like selling oil,” McGuinn said. “I talk like a Republican. But you’ve got to allow the record labels a chance to make some money. If they’re restricted, they’re not going to sign new artists. When you have Taylor Swift, they say, let’s go get another Taylor Swift. They’re not out trying to find the new best thing.”

For McGuinn, the question of illegal downloads concerns not only the welfare of the industry, but ethics.

“I would just feel guilty,” McGuinn said. “Some of these artists are millionaires, but most aren’t. I’ve seen the industry evaporate: people that I knew in the industry are no longer there. Here’s what I find is weird. ‘Man, you gotta hear this, it’s really good.’ You really care about the band, but not enough that they make money?”

The fact that music downloading poses such a personal ethical problem also speaks volumes over the inability of the legal system to actually enforce copyright laws. Despite publicized instances of legal action being taken against downloaders, many feel that the number and anonymity of downloaders will protect them.

“I feel like so many people are using it that I don’t think they’d be able to single me out individually,” said Truscott.

However, some of the risks of downloading come from fellow file sharers rather than prosecutors. Torrent services such as LimeWire and Frostwire are often riddled with viruses and malicious downloads intermingled with normal music files.

“A lot of the illegal downloads come with viruses,” said McGuinn. “I feel like your mom. If you have free, unprotected sex, you may have herpes for the rest of your life.”

Downloaders using peer-to-peer file sharing services also face serious issues of quality control. A test search for a high-charting pop song on one download hosting site turns up a wide range of file sizes, bit rates and audio quality: everything from high-quality song files to files on par with something ripped from YouTube. For music purists like McGuinn, born in the age of vinyl, such compromises in quality are unacceptable.

Despite the drawbacks and dangers of illegal downloads, sales have continued to spiral as more young people turn to file sharing services. Such trends raise the question of karma. Will young musicians currently using illegal downloads someday themselves face the problems ravaging the industry? Truscott, a KWCW DJ and violinist with The Breezes and Combo Pack, spoke further over her own musical aspirations. While she would like to go further with the bands, she isn’t worried about the anemic music market.

“I’m not really that interested in selling music, more just playing for people,” Truscott said.

For those who are interested in selling music, illegal downloading remains a complex and troubling problem: one that strikes close to the heart of the music industry and its future.