Is Music Piracy Really ‘The New Radio’? Yes and No

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Canadian music legend Neil Young gestures as he address attendees at the Dreamforce event in San Francisco, California August 31, 2011.

Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young is making waves this week after telling reporters at a conference that piracy is “the new radio.”

“It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone,” said Young (via The Telegraph). “Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around … That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95% of it.”

If that makes you want to fist pump in solidarity, riddle me this: If we suddenly made music piracy — I realize that’s “public music sharing” for some of you — as legal as waking up in the morning, do you think anyone would spend a penny for music (not concerts, but the songs themselves) ever again?

I have a lot of respect for both Neil Young’s music and his politics, and I’m sympathetic to the principle behind what he’s getting at here (“share the world, man!”) but given the way the U.S. economy currently works, I can’t say I’m with him on this one.

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Songs played on old-school radio cost listeners nothing, it’s true. Terrestrial (and to a certain extent, satellite) radio stations subsist on advertising revenue. And until the Internet, artists and labels made money from album sales generated in part by radio accessibility. There was a strong correlation between sales of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, for instance, and radio play of album songs like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Selling your music required (and still does) that it’s heard by as wide an audience as possible, and making that happen requires freebies — no one wants to pay for merchandize they’ve neither seen nor heard.

Enter public content aggregation portals like The Pirate Bay, which is what Young’s really talking about when he says “piracy is the new radio” (he means file-sharing sites in particular). That’s where, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, around 30 billion songs were illegally downloaded between 2004 and 2009. That’s a metric you-know-what ton of music.

Trouble is, under the radio-as-radio model, people still generally paid for music. Under the piracy-as-radio model, they don’t, or at least they don’t in anything like the proportions they used to. Physical music album sales have been plummeting for years. Digital sales have been inching up, but again, in nothing like a compensatory capacity (and there’s little evidence at this point to suggest the people who pay for music have much to do with the ones pirating it).

The RIAA says between 1999 (when Napster appeared) and 2009, U.S. music sales fell 47%, from $14.6 billion to $7.7 billion, and in 2009 the International Federation of the Phonograph Industry issued a report that found 95% of music downloads in 2008 were illegal. Street-level music piracy surely existed during the pre-Napster years, but the notion that its digital analogue might someday account for as much as 63% of annual music acquisition — NPD says U.S. consumers paid for just 37% of music acquired in 2009 — was a pirate’s fantasy prior to the century’s turn. The honor system hasn’t worked here. Even where piracy has resulted in increased awareness of this artist or that one, the end result’s been that people who might have paid for the content under the old system are now simply grabbing, holding and eventually moving on to something else.

So no, Neil Young, piracy isn’t the new radio. Not unless you mean music should be free not just some of the time, but all of the time. You can’t have it both ways. Where’s the incentive in a piracy-as-radio model for consumers to pay for music — moral or otherwise — once you’ve told them downloading anything they like is repercussion-free? (It may be okay for mega-successful musicians like Neil Young, by the way, or Angry Birds developer Rovio, but try pitching the piracy-as-radio angle to startup or struggling artists.)

I’m not condoning the way the music industry (or frankly anyone else) has handled piracy (or, for that matter, how the music industry operates in general). I’m thinking about this more at the societal level. What kind of society are we becoming, where we take things we want just because we can?

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s irresponsible to green-light this twenty-first-century “whatever I want is mine” mentality. The notion that piracy is harmless (or in Young’s interpretation, an actual force for good) is just another siren song, a comfortable lie we’ll tell ourselves to justify whatever we’re up to. We may want information to be free, but that doesn’t mean it can be when we live in a world where so many take, and so few give back.

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