The activity of pirates off the Somalian coast late last year raised many spectres. The most obvious was the oft-mediated fantasy of the high seas, from Errol Flynn and Captain Hook to Johnny Depp's incarnation in Disney juggernaut Pirates of the Caribbean. Looking at pictures of these African outlaws seeming strangely out of place as they sat in dinghies grasping AK-47s, my mind wandered to what seems a similarly out of place use of the pirate.
Listening to the cries of record companies in the face of music downloading on peer to peer networks it isn't such a stretch to imagine them somehow considering themselves in a like position to these ships, executives akin to the vessel's captain. Indeed, record companies facing the alleged scourge (or scurvy) of illegal downloading might even suggest they are the figurative sinking ship.
What these PR savvy companies recognise, however, is that few fans empathise with corporations when it comes to music. The thought of their favourite artist being at the whim of a suit is distasteful to most. And so when it comes to music piracy, record companies use sentiment as their weapon of choice, trying to play fans off directly against the musician: the consumer in the balaclava and the musician the defenceless shopkeeper. As mouthpiece Britney Spears rhetorically quipped, "would you go into a CD store and steal a CD?"
There is no doubting the internet has created unprecedented accessibility to the music industry. Peer to peer networks along with MySpace and YouTube have allowed music sampling beyond the wildest dreams of those who spent months of their lives huddled around listening stations at record stores. With a mouse click a teenager can download a torrent (a type of mp3 file) of the Rolling Stone Magazine's Greatest 500 Songs of All Time.
Alternatively, the longtime fan can download bootleg concert recordings and rare albums of the band whose music soundtracked their youth, whose career they've followed with unconditional love (including through the obligatory bad-haircut nadir), and who they've seen each time they've toured Australia since the early 1970s.
It is a fallacy that illegally downloading and purchasing music are mutually exclusive. Many of those who use peer to peer file sharing programs will still, and in some instances be more inclined to, buy the tangible product and attend concerts. Foreign bands making the pilgrimage south for the Australian festival season could attest to this: not just the festivals sell out, but a large number of sideshows have (and will) as well. More than a handful of the punters at these gigs will be literate with programs such as Limewire and Bittorrent.
The counter argument is that this type of listener is both the exception and of a dying breed: the iPod generation which hasn't been seduced by the charm of the record or the liner note will never buy a product they could get for free. Indeed, it is the downloader who downloads without making any investment who presents the greatest threat. If the musical landscape existed solely of these consumers, it would be facing a crisis.
Fortunately this isn't the case. For those passionate about music and who complement their downloading with purchasing records and attending the concerts of those they deem worthy, downloading music for free makes for an informed, competitive market.
These fans aren't going to be hoodwinked into spending $30 of their hard-earned on the back of a listen to a catchy single where the balance of the album is tripe. Peer to peer file sharing offers the discerning music fan what any consumer desires: an informed choice. And like any industry which has had it too good for too long, an informed market frightens the record industry. If people can access the product and make their own minds up before buying, instead of being bombarded with gilding publicity or sychophantic reviews, then how do they flog a crap album?
Denying the artists what is rightfully theirs is more difficult terrain to push the pro-downloading wagon through. It is one of the reasons that I, like many others afflicted with downloaders guilt, attend so many concerts and continue to buy albums. I also rationalise that if illegal downloading makes it harder to win the consumer's dollar, does this not make the artist hungrier and force them to tour more?
With Robbie Robertson's words in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's brilliant film on The Band, that "the road has taken many of the great ones ... it's a goddam impossible way of life" ringing in my ears, I still can’t help but romanticise the notion of an itinerant band and cling to the idea that touring the world and doing drugs is more conducive to great music than spending months doing drugs at home. Most of the great stuff from the great careers was made when the artist was hungry, not comfortable: Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s, Bruce Springsteen with Born to Run, Neil Young before 1975.
Further, neither the quality of new music, nor the volume of it, appears affected by more people getting their first taste for free. To the contrary, 2008 unveiled Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, two of the most memorable debuts in years. As to the volume of new music - it is of head-spin-inducing proportions. My Space, the closest music has come to Swedish style democracy, has meant that a young band can record their tracks at a low cost and post them for the world to access. Somehow I don't get the feeling that musically-inclined teenagers are surveying the economic benefits of a career in music and electing to become dentists because, with downloaders denying them profits, they won't make enough money.
And, finally, to suggestions that internet piracy will induce some sort of musical Armageddon, isn't this the recurrence of an old problem, albeit it in a more robust form? Remember the mixed cassette, the burnt CD? Each a form of piracy that has confronted the industry in the past and from which it survived. The means have become more complex, however sharing music is a cultural dialogue that people have been engaging in for years and will continue to do so, for many, many more.
Ahoy there me hearties.