A recent download made me think about the difficult ethics of illegally downloading music from the net...
A friend of mine recently passed me a USB stick containing the MP3s of a very rare album on it, by a French fusion group called Dun. Their sole album was going for £250 on Discogs and was impossible to find to buy anywhere else. He had ripped from Youtube by converting song posts into MP3's. Poor quality but the only way to own the album. I have immediately passed on the album to several friends who would enjoy it and spread the word. It struck me that this band are almost completely forgotten and I only heard about them through people posting the album on Youtube. Without someone having stuck up their music illegally online they would remain an unknown myth inaccessible to all apart from the rich obsessive vinyl collector. If enough people hear and pass on the music then there is a possibility that a small label will eventually rerelease the album due to the interest.
For cult artists this can work as people into obscure music would most likely buy the CD if rereleased, mainly due to the improved sound quality, but also to support the label, invariably small and fan driven, and band. Even if you buy an album at an inflated price second hand the band still does not receive any royalties, if the CD is rereleased and available new they hopefully will. In the past the recordable cassette was seen as the death of the industry but did not significantly effect sales, in fact it was soon seen as an unlikely form of stealth promotion. In the past many albums such as The Modern Lovers then unreleased demo's (a huge influence on the UK punk rock movement in bootleg form) and more recently The Beach Boys "Smile" album have only been circulated and reevaluated through dissemination as illegal bootlegs. Often a flood of bootlegs forces the artist to acknowledge an audience for a particular aspect of their work, such as Bob Dylan's "Biograph" box set and Led Zeppelin's "How the West Was Won". Ripping files from the internet is just the new form of bootlegging.
However there is a possibility that the downloading phenomenon has damaged the industry in another way. Record companies' back catalogues are proving significantly more stable income than newer artists principally through the massive costs of promoting a new act. A rerelease frenzy that has created a retro obsessed "dad rock" industry. Too busy re-promoting the past to spend time developing the future? Newer music is absorbed by a generation to whom packaging and historical significance is less important than before, in general people have a less personal connection to artists. The emphasis in breaking a modern act, which is closely linked to film and advertisement tie-ins, is that the music is now selling the concept of consumption not the idea that you consume because of your believe in the values or messages expressed in the product. Modern pop is seen as a tool to fluidly create connections between disparate products in the minds of the public. You are as likely to picture a soft drink when hearing a pop song as you are to remember the lyrics.
Another aspect in retro active consumption is that modern music is such an extravagant display of wealth, either explicitly through the clothes and jewelry or through the subtle technological showcase of the promo videos. Many people imagine that either the artists will not be significantly financially effected by your illegal download, after all they are practically forcing their wealth down your throat, or consumers desire the music but resent paying money to fund such ostentatious neo yuppy life styles during times of recession. An artist from the past is protected from this to a certain extent by the passage of time. They are not constantly in your face through the over saturation of multimedia, and their extravagance or foolishness is given the protective perception of "retro", the 70's, a decade of terrible record company corruption, prejudice, the worst excesses of rock star arrogance and debauchery is now seen as a fun pimped up era of afros, bell bottoms, double necked guitars and disco glitter.
It will always remain a controversial topic but it is worth remembering the amount of money and resources squandered by the record business. It is unfortunate that artists and sound engineers are suffering because of a situation created more through record company incompetence and mismanagement than what is promoted (by the record industry) as the greed of the consumer. I see the industry splitting into two linked but ideologically divided sides. One will retain the old model and will see music become merely a supporting player to reality TV, film and advertisement. It will not be created for aesthetic worth or longevity but as a cog in a capitalist machine for aspiration and consumerism. On the other side a new industry will grow up from the grass routes level where small labels of enthusiasts promote artists driven more by the music than the desire for fame and money. This is already happening, with artists accepting that their music will remain something which has to give satisfaction in and of itself without being a route towards financial independence. Future music for both creator and listener will provide a spiritual but not a financial release from your day job.