In the wake of recent discussions about ACTA, SOPA, PIPA and a number of other Orwellian acronyms, the lines have been drawn rigidly. While the claims of anti-piracy lobbyists that illegal downloads destroy artists’ lives and lead to the annihilation of all artforms are somewhat amusing in their death-rattling desperateness, the claims of anti-copyright groups that torrenting the latest movies and music albums is a form of “free speech” are equally skewed.

But instead of further pitting these polarized camps against one another (and inevitably boring the reader with redundancies) I want to ask a different question here, altogether.

What if we stop looking at this issue as a moral one (good vs. bad) and start looking for alternative modes of behavior that lead beyond this dualistic abyss?

Technology (as usual) is not the problem

A strong argument for “stealing” media is: “because it’s easier than buying it!” – It sounds silly, but as the author in the linked article explains, it’s often ridiculously easy to get a movie by illegal means whereas purchasing it online requires the user to jump through all kinds of hoops and download extra software.

The fact that iTunes has (rather successfully) tried to become the #1 way of buying music online doesn’t mean that the principle of buying music online depends on an Apple ID and iTunes.  As I have shown before with the example of Sargent House, there are all kinds of alternative and more flexible ways already existing!

And interestingly, many of these alternatives are a lot simpler and offer the consumer a lot more (multiple formats for one price, no digital rights management, etc.) than iTunes or Amazon’s Music shop.

So, if there are alternative ways and they are really better why don’t more people use them?

There are at least two reasons for that:

  1. people don’t know about these alternative methods
  2. people don’t support independent artists

The first point is not really an excuse: head over to Bandcamp or Hyperdub right now and see how it is possible to first listen to a full album and then buy it with a few clicks (Bandcamp doesn’t even require you to have a user account!)

The second point is a bit trickier. Because if you go to Bandcamp and search for the latest Britney Spears album or whatever, you won’t find it.

In other words: Independent ways of purchasing media online go hand in hand with independent artists!

Regarding most artists signed on major labels just finding a quick way to buy the album with one click via Paypal or Google Checkout will prove to be almost impossible. If you don’t have an iTunes or Amazon account linked to an active credit card and all the necessary software installed, it’ll be difficult. So I’m not surprised people just get the torrent or rapidshare link and “have it over with.”

A Mini Case Study With Major Label Artists

Now, regarding that new Britney Spears album (don’t know if there actually is one), I can happily live without it. But there are also great artists on major labels (yes, it happens) – As an example, let’s look at Leonard Cohen (because he’s widely accepted as being “genuine” although being a major artist) and his latest album “Old Ideas”.

If I google leonard cohen “old ideas” download here’s what I get:

As you can see the first page shows us a cross-section of the whole ordeal: The links marked in red are the monopolies (Amazon and iTunes) and what I marked in yellow are “illegal” copies.

If you are like me and you don’t like to buy music from iTunes or Amazon and also don’t want to get your hands dirty torrenting, all that’s left is listening to the music on Youtube.

What kind of a choice is this?

Support Your Global Heroes

All of the above may seem complicated when looking at platforms, rights and terms of services. But behind this jungle there are two simple principles:

  • By buying from iTunes or Amazon you don’t support the artists, you support the corporate world mainly
  • If you want to support artists you have to buy the downloads directly from their homepage

Instead of asking ourselves: “How can I get this stuff?” we should ask ourselves: “How can I get this in the most convenient and flexible way while also supporting the artist in the best way?”

I’m convinced that people are in fact willing to pay. The reason why more and more people download music illegally is certainly not because they are all criminals but rather because the paid service don’t offer any special benefits worth paying for: back in the days owning a CD or Vinyl meant you could look at the cover art and booklet if you owned it, for example.

Therefore, also artists have to learn to look at the process a bit differently. Instead of asking: “How can we get the biggest sales and outrank all the major label artists in the iTunes charts?” they can ask: “How can we offer our music in the most creative and consumer-friendly way while also making sure that we don’t just get crumbs from each sale?”

But this is maybe a bit too much. Some consumers just want to own the stuff and don’t really care who profits as long as they can get it on their iPod as quickly as possible. And some artists on the other hand will find this process cumbersome, not wanting to deal with the business side of it and “just doing the art part”.

This unwillingness of both consumers and artists to take responsibility for the other half respectively has – so far – left the playing field to major music labels that made millions selling music and are now struggling for survival (and sueing everyone on their way to the bottom.)

As soon as physical storage mediums (CDs, cassettes & vinyl) began to fade away, and with it the necessity of costly distribution and production costs, the label empires were beginning to lose ground.

The two big online music retailers are following in their footsteps but if they don’t find ways to support artists and consumers while actually offering customers extended value, their fate is sealed.

The same applies to the movies, books and games industry. Never before did artists and consumers have more power. Why don’t we use it to shift the balance to our benefit?

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