I haven't downloaded an album illegally in three months and I'm no longer streaming pirated versions of TV shows online. I can't believe myself.
I'm an old school music pirate. In 1998, my family got our first computer with a dial-up Internet connection. It didn't take long before I discovered Napster--then still a new world where any song you heard on the radio was available for a free (and lengthy) download. I kept buying CDs for a while, since I didn't yet have a CD burner, but I entered middle school as someone who regularly downloaded music illegally.
I moved on through the different peer-to-peer networks, such as KaZaa and Limewire. In high school I would boast at how I created an MP3 CD with the entire Led Zeppelin catalog by using a mix of store bought albums and tracks I ripped off the Internet. I scoffed at the idea of ever getting caught, since I always disabled sharing on my accounts on these networks.
Then in college I discovered some music blogs linking to sites like MegaUpload, Mediafire, and similar websites where .zip or .rar files of albums could be downloaded. Not to mention movies, TV shows, unreleased music and so on. By then, the RIAA was targeting college networks; sending letters through universities threatening to sue students they caught downloading music on peer-to-peer networks. And to be honest, the amount of viruses destroying our PC laptops was aggravating. These blogs were a godsend, and I could rationalize it as "I'm a broke college student, so how do they expect me to pay $15 for a copy at Best Buy or on iTunes?"
But I was also in a band, and it'd be fair to say we'd be absolutely thrilled if we saw people were downloading our music illegally and for free.
In college I was in a band, and we were riding through the MySpace era. We toured the Midwest, gained a lot of regional popularity, and did our work canvasing the ground with flyers. Yet, we hoped these new social networks would help us get discovered since managers and labels aren't often stopping by Iowa for our local shows. At the time, practically every band would track what was happening in the indie music world through MySpace, PureVolume, and AbsolutePunk. If your band started gaining traction on these sites, the next step would be for someone to rip your music and link to it on a blog like StrikeGently. That's when you knew you were gaining popularity; when people were downloading a .zip file of your EP through a MegaUpload link they found on StrikeGently or DidItLeak.
Downloading music illegally was something every member of every band large and small did. When my band played the Warped Tour one year, we pulled up next to a band signed to Fearless Records as we played their album two weeks before it hit stores.
So what changed for me?
Well, I'm not using iTunes. Those illegal copies are all still out there, and I doubt the government or the RIAA could ever effectively stop it. I'm still pretty broke, so I could rationalize downloading illegally. But the way I listen has changed. The only CD players I own now are my computer and my Blu-ray player. I made the transition from burning mix CDs, to listening to MP3s on my phone, to iPod, and now to my iPhone. This April I got an iPad. I wanted to use Spotify and Hulu on it, and they required a subscription. I'm now paying those subscriptions happily.
I love being able to catch up on TV shows with my iPad. Sometimes I do it at home, or listen at work while I'm answering emails and filing stories. And sometimes I connect my Sony Vaio to my TV through an HDMI cable to watch my shows from Hulu. For music - Spotify has made it simpler. Almost every artist has their library on Spotify, and I like being able to have the same playlists on my phone, iPad and any laptop I use at a moment's notice. It's also nice to never need to back it up on an external hard drive or shuffle files to get them in the right spot in a library.
Paying for the premium allows me to put tracks on my iPhone and iPad, which are really the only devices I use to listen to music anymore. I once would've scoffed at a streaming subscription because I wanted to burn copies on a CD; no longer. When I went home recently and drove my parents' car, I played my music in the car by synching my iPhone with the vehicle via Bluetooth. No CD (or even wires) required.
The question, however, is whether artists can make enough money this way. Labels will need to figure out how to spend their money more wisely. People do still value seeing live music, as evidenced by an explosive growth of summer music festivals over the past decade.
The way we hear about new music is changing too. MTV and radio aren't the place to go to hear what's new. I'm going to hear about a new album from Passion Pit or Mumford & Sons through Pitchfork or Rolling Stone's websites first, and likely stream it there. If I miss that, I'll probably notice my Facebook feed showing me my friends are listening to Mumford's new album on Spotify.
The way I listen to music has changed. For the first time in a long time, it seems the way that music is delivered to me is moving with the change, rather than playing catch up.