Is Piracy Killing Independent Music?

We have all seen the lady in the subway, selling DVDs of Ratatouille or Ocean’s Thirteen while the movie is still in theaters. Another guy sells anthologies of classic bossa nova and seventies soul music on the street, saying it is his freedom of speech to make and sell such CDs. Piracy is an everyday feature of the New York landscape.

Photo by Adam Kuban

I was at a bakery/venue/record shop in the Lower East Side called the Cakeshop, waiting for Norway’s Ungdomskulen to play as part of the CMJ Festival. An exec from their label was there, sporting a snappy white blazer and a rakish poof of salt-and-pepper hair. Someone mentioned that I was writing my dissertation about music piracy, and the inevitable discussion about how my research topic was destroying his line of work ensued.

The executive said that online piracy was undermining even acts as little-known as Ungdomskulen. You can see it plainly by how many more people come to the shows than buy the albums, he said. I asked him if iTunes and other ways of legally downloading music were making up for the shortfall. “The digital market is growing,” he said, “but it’s not growing as fast as the physical market is declining.”

Radiohead recently dismissed the physical market, and maybe the market altogether, by releasing their new album, In Rainbows, without the help of a label. (See review elsewhere in this issue.) People can download it from their website, choosing their own price. You could pay nothing for the ten songs, though I paid ten dollars—roughly the price of an album on iTunes. Of course, Radiohead does not have a label to pay, so pretty much all of those ten dollars will go to them. More important, Radiohead is a well-established band with name recognition, a fan base, and plenty of money from its previous hits. They can afford to experiment.

Radiohead is not the only one to experiment in the new world of digital distribution. Kanye West’s Graduate “mixtape” is available for free from his blog, weaving together tracks from his latest official album (in stores) with contributions from other rappers and DJs, including the ever-resurrected Biggie Smalls.

Through mixtapes, rappers like Lil Wayne have been doing what workaholics like Prince and Robert Pollard have always wanted to do: release every single sound they ever commit to tape, without permission from the suits. In the bad old days, Prince’s label scoffed at his desire to release an album every couple of months, which disrupted the standard business model of hyping and touring for a new album every two or three years. The Purple One took to writing “Slave” across his face, and eventually started a label that would release triple-albums of filler any time he wished. Recently, he joined the free-music movement by releasing his new album in the UK as a free insert to the Times, a move that record stores were quick to denounce.

The mixtape has been a vehicle for getting an artist’s name out and building street cred—usually without the help of a label. Papoose and Saigon, for instance, released a lot of music before they ever got around to putting out an “official” album. Mixtapes by the likes of DJ Drama have also been a crucial part of the street-hype machine, imbuing an up-and-comer with the status conferred by a well-known DJ. As in the freewheeling early days of hip-hop, these artists stitch together bits of music without seeking permission from copyright owners—a business that landed Drama in jail earlier this year.

Lil Wayne and Radiohead circumvent record labels to hand out music for free. But what is piracy, if not free music? We could easily praise piracy—it lowers the obscene prices put out by music industry bureaucrats, and it opens a profitable enterprise for the people hustling on Canal Street or 125th. They are benefiting indirectly from the record industry, even though the industry would probably not offer many opportunities to them. On the other hand, piracy forces us to ask whether people will actually pay for something if they don’t have to, and whether music-making can be sustained on such a model of payment as Radiohead have proposed for everyone else.

The pirates of the subway and sidewalk do not pose much of a threat to indie rock. No one is going to be hawking copies of an obscure album by a Norwegian punk band on the street. The real threat to indie rock would have to lie online, where tastes can be catered to far more specifically than they can on a store shelf or a blanket in a subway station.

In one sense, online access to free music could be a boon to the underground. No longer would bands have to curry favor with an indie label, which would in turn persuade some big label to use its distribution muscle to make sure its albums get into every K-Mart in the country.

The Internet seems to make possible the time-honored dream of taking the middleman out of the music industry, connecting bands directly to fans. When bootlegging first became a big deal, with the leaking of Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes” in 1969, an article in the lefty Chapel Hill zine Protean Radish mused on the possibility of a noncapitalist way of distributing music. The pirates, it said, were in it for the money, but they did show how people could use new technology to cut out the record label from the equation. “You have to sort of admire them for taking on Columbia and fucking them.” But they were still just “outlaw capitalists.” As long as music was released on discs and tapes, it was hard to prevent the manufacturer from profiting—if not the record label, then the pirate would be exploiting the artist.

Today’s digital media are a different story altogether. As Columbia law professor Eben Moglen says, the Internet means that music reproduction has virtually no marginal cost. Making ten copies of an MP3 does not really cost more than making one hundred. A listener could read about a band, look them up online, and check out the music without anyone thinking about distribution deals or shelf space. If the person liked it, she could go to the band’s website and buy the album directly from them—either for a fixed cost or, on the Radiohead model, for a donation. Artists like Ani DiFranco, who once struggled to build their own miniature versions of the traditional record label, would only have a website to worry about.

On the other hand, indie rock works on the thinnest of margins. When a band like Ungdomskulen expects to sell a few thousand records, every record they don’t sell because someone downloaded it online really hurts. The familiar argument, put forth by South Park and Weird Al Yankovic, that the rich rock stars could do without another diamond-studded swimming pool, does not work for a band who is sleeping on people’s couches and driving around America in a minivan, hoping to squeeze a little profit out of their CD and ticket sales.

So, are these artists being downloaded? An unscientific survey of file-sharing networks offers some clues. Using Limewire and the Pirate Bay, I searched for a sample of artists at different levels of fame: big stars, established indie bands, up-and-comers, and the truly obscure. While Limewire brings up individual songs, the Pirate Bay lists whole albums; it was set up in 2003 by Piratbyrån, an anti-copyright group that has darted from Sweden to the Netherlands and back again to evade the authorities.

A search for “Madonna” brought up 219 files on Limewire, many of which were multiples of hits like “Borderline” and “Frozen”—all singles, none of them lesser-known album tracks. Modest Mouse came in a close second with 213 songs, spread over their earlier indie records and later mainstream hits. An independent band that has built up name recognition over a twenty year career—Yo La Tengo—brought up 192 files. (A few of these were songs by Spanish-language artists.) In contrast, relative newcomers the Fiery Furnaces produced 494 results. Lil Wayne had almost as many with 481 hits, reflecting his vast catalog of recordings.

The difference between Madonna and the Furnaces could reflect the age of their audiences. John Mayer—a hitmaker who is popular with the younger, more tech-savvy generation—also brought up more hits than Madonna. Jay-Z had only 236 songs on Limewire, though he produced twice as many results on Pirate Bay. Only one track came up on Limewire for Giant Sand, a low-profile personal favorite of mine. Ungdomskulen yielded no results on Limewire or Pirate Bay.

These results suggest that you can find independent music on these networks as long as the artist has reached a certain level of buzz already, like the Furnaces or Datarock. The true unknowns may have to rely on their MySpace pages and pray for a positive writeup on Pitchfork, but file-sharing is not likely to hurt them until that happens.

Maybe the guy from the label was right—maybe indie rock kids download the music for free, and view the cost of the concert ticket as their “contribution” to the band. If this is the case, then Radiohead’s model may be the shrewdest of all. Offering the files on their own website, they ask people to pay for what they could easily take for free; the donations join tickets, T-shirts, and licensing as just another revenue stream.

In Rainbows points to a possible future in which music is like the free software that companies like Red Hat make available to the public. They hope their programs are adopted by consumers, who will then pay for tech support, upgrades, and other services. The music can be given away for free as long as its popularity draws money in other areas. If music videos were ads for albums, then maybe albums are becoming ads for the artists themselves.

More Articles by the Author

Alex Cummings

Alex Cummings is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University.