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Jason Schmitt Headshot

Download Illegally, It's the Right Thing to Do

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The music business is a touchy subject hinged between the pay for your consumption model and the instant gratification/I want it all for free mentality. The problem with the two downloading camps is the fact that they divide us into two distinct societal groups: One with penalty; one with privilege. And more unfortunate than the act of illegally downloading, is this behavior generating more power for those engaged in the practice. Illegal downloading, and the technological knowledge to conduct it effectively is continuing to increase the massive separation between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

Huge multi-national, multi-billion dollar enterprises come into this equation as helpless pawns under the ultimate discretion and control of the end computer user. A 15-year-old boy sitting in his living room eating Fritos is in control as he goes online. The zillions of dollars that have been spent to both stigmatize downloading as "illegal" and occasionally persecute perpetrators comes to fruition as a barely audible whisper as he sees the file dangling in the digital divide waiting to be picked from the tree.

I know this is unstable ground to tread, and this conversation runs deep with people. Warner/Elektra/Atlantic used to have me on the roster as an employee, but due to shifting of assets (read: illegal downloads taking the cash), my regional office in Novi, Michigan was disbanded quickly. I was annoyed after the news and angry at the shape that the music business was transforming into. I've lived with the resentment and, perhaps, had an epiphany. From my 2010 vantage point, after watching the war between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and illegal downloading for quite some time, I have no option but to say: go illegally download everything you want.

My reasoning for such a bold statement isn't for my own greed, frugality, or to stick it to the man. Instead, my thought process exists to protect the under privileged. We live in an economic period which is widening the class gap between rich and poor, and cutting out the middle. From this reasoning, if a kid in Silicon Valley with a $3,000 silver laptop has the privilege from his Palo Alto technical education allowing him to figure out how to go on ZTorrent (a file exchange program), and download away to his hearts content -- without paying Owl City for Fireflies, or a Mad Men episode, or for the $1,000 Final Cut Pro Suite -- the act of the file showing up on his hard drive speaks more of his societal privilege than of his moral ethics.

In contrast, a large portion of my student body at Wayne State University graduated from Detroit Public Schools and have no concept of how to go about downloading files illegally. Why should an underprivileged student in one of my Detroit classes say she is going to spend $4.50 to go rent a video for my course? She is being blatantly penalized for her lack of a technical education provided by her schools, peer group, and larger community. Her life does not need another penalty.

There are ramifications for my willy nilly sentiments, and I understand them. It is estimated in a March 2010 International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) study that two million people are employed in the broader music economy. Roughly 4,000 artists are signed to major record company rosters. The Institute of Policy Innovation commissioned a 2005 study covering sound recording, motion pictures, business software and video games. The study found that the losses due to piracy in the 2005 U.S. economy accounted for $58 billion in output, over 370,000 jobs, and $2.6 billion in tax revenue. We can expect the ramifications to have increased significantly in a current view.

I also understand there is some serious financial outlay given to signed artists by the record labels, and they deserve compensation for the risks they engage in. The majority of artists signed to record labels will lose money. The current costs associated with breaking a successful pop act in major markets, according to a March 9, 2010 IFPI study, is typically hovering around the million dollar mark per act. That is a big coin to lose if it doesn't work out. It rarely does.

Currently, the labels are still huge corporations operating adequately in conjunction with illegal downloading. Maybe it is just my Detroit genetics, which is quite used to seeing massive companies (a.k.a. the Big 3) scaling back across the board. The industries becoming more lean doesn't mean that they are gone, or even that they are not profitable -- just that they are different entities now than they were before all the globalized hoopla began.

Perhaps it is a good idea to have the music industry give some power back to the people. I think the working class, not the most privileged, need a vitamin B12 shot of support. As of the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, corporations can now provide endless funding to political candidates and now more significantly than ever alter the influence of the individual citizen in the democracy. If that's the case, I am going to make the assumption that corporations have more than enough clout in my society.

Author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff argues in his book, Life, Inc., that, in fact, corporations trump humans in all kinds of ways. They don't die. They don't get sick. They can wait out a new political election to get officials (who they can legally buy off now) into office to amend legislation to fit their needs and bottom lines. Nearly always the changes corporations make to society take power and control away from average citizens for the end goal of providing a higher rate of return for the company shareholders.

Case and point: the RIAA in 2008 convinced Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to sign a bill (SB 3794) into law which requires colleges in his state to exercise appropriate means to ensure that computers on campuses are not being abused for distributing copyrighted material. Although the 2008 legislation looked to be the start of something big, IFPI released its report on digital music as of 2009. The report says that despite initiatives by the music industry, 95% of music downloads continue to be illegal. This is one of the rare cases in society where the masses are winning against the corporate elite.

Not for long. The RIAA and associates recently trotted to the courts for some more help to quell this nuisance to their gross sales. This time it looks to stick a little more firmly. A May 12, 2010 federal court ruled that P2P service provided by LimeWire and its operators are liable for inducing widespread theft (or information delivery). It didn't take all that long to get the big courts on the side of the company. The RIAA states, "The court decision is an important milestone in the creative community's fight to reclaim the Internet as a platform for legitimate commerce."

Let's look at the act of downloading and the concept of "legitimate commerce." The April 2010 Report to Congressional Committees on Intellectual Property pays respect to the fact that if a consumer "illegally" downloads media, the copyright infringer will have extra disposable income (due to significant consumer savings) and the money can be found to reappear in the U.S. economy as the consumer spends the funds on other goods and services.

Although the act of "illegally" downloading a file is taking away the profit margin from the copyright holder, we see the quest to maintain copyright exclusiveness in nearly all manufacturing/technology industries. Ford Motor Company always loses engineering ideas to India. The iPods and iPads of the world have been reverse-engineered by hundreds of global firms trying to improve their products. It is well known that companies in the global economy need to adopt the leakages into their business models. At least the power as it relates to illegal music downloading in the U.S. keeps the economic funds hanging around our own back door.

The divide of illegal music downloading doesn't exist exclusively from pedagogical differences of communities such as Detroit and Palo Alto. It also rears its head socioeconomically and relates to age. Does the average Wal-Mart shopper, who stereotypically isn't the highest on the socioeconomic totem pole, really need to send $13.50 toward the Britney Spears' camp due to their lack of education, older age, or lack of "know how" in a digital society? The problem here is, due to the restructuring of the industry, most artists do not see much of the $13.50. The money that is being paid by the less advantaged is paying a dying infrastructure that has huge interest bearing loans that are given by some of the top banks who borrow their money primarily from the Chinese.

The plea from the music industry, which seems to have only gross sales in mind, is that if you illegally download you are hurting the artists themselves. This logic is far from true. The Internet sensation Fireflies by Owl City would not have broke without the web. The song now is the most downloaded song on the web and the creator Adam Young has mounted a very profit heavy world tour in its shadow.

Countless other artists have recently gotten success holistically from their own talent. Not just from media campaigns orchestrated by huge multi-national labels, but from homegrown abilities. That seems liberating, fair, and exciting for my future on the planet. Perhaps digital files traded freely due to their usefulness, intrigue, or artistic merit (and not due to affiliation with multi-national companies) is one of the last true democracies left in our country.

If you think I am off track, there are swarms of people who will agree. Ted Nugent stated during an interview with me in 2008 that, "Technology has fucked the music thing. People think they can get bread for free because they have a direct pipeline to the bakery." Someone with the musical tenure of Nugent has seen his fair share of change in musical consumer evolution: from vinyl records to eight tracks to analog tapes to CD to the current end all, be all -- digital mp3s. I wish I wrote "Cat Scratch Fever" when society decided eight tracks were passé and millions had to go out and buy the same song on an analog tape and again on CD. Talk about profit for no extra work. The thoughts of the day would undoubtedly be hinged on what color do I want my new yacht to be.

For more recent artists, the made in the shade profits from album sales is a vernacular never learned fluently. Their lack of submersion in the artist royalty stream never occurred, which made these artists more willing to concede their album sales. Kid Rock is one such artist.

Rock is in direct opposition to Nugent's view and he stated in an interview with me in 2008 that, "I would give my records away for free if I could." His view has made his business relations more than a little shaky at times with Atlantic Records. The record label told Rock he should stand out against illegal downloading. Rock was far from agreement with their plea. Instead, Rock said, "the labels have been ripping off artists for years, now that somebody found a way to rip them off, they want me to speak up for them, fuck all those motherfuckers. I want to go play live, make my money there."

David Grohl of The Foo Fighters is in a similar vein as Kid Rock. Grohl says in a December 2009 Time interview that, "I don't have a problem with people downloading music. To me the important thing is that people come to the shows and see the music live and have that personal experience with the band. I've made a decent living making music. I'd feel greed if I asked for more."

This counterculture voice ringing the tone of "it is ok to download illegally" does not often carry far. Even if you are wielding some serious musical success like Kid Rock or David Grohl, few media channels will promote their stance, and they end up muting the counter arguments. So, when all is left to settle, we end up hearing the voices which promote "fair use" and "legitimate commerce." The voice which promotes illegal downloading is sanitized -- the same company that owns Kid Rock's label owns many of the radio stations that plays his songs and many of the magazines that report on his music. You can best bet a voice against the corporate mission doesn't have a chance.

I believe that if "wrong" is right for some kid in a Silicon Valley coffee shop then "wrong" must be right for all of society, including the less technologically savvy. If we continue to head down this downloading double standard path, we are continuing to hurt communities that have already seen their fair share of hardships and privilege those who are already privileged. From my view, most of the regional communities in the U.S. are in worse shape than the billion dollar record labels.

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