'Free' music has its costs

  • Article by: SIMONE CAZARES , St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists
  • Updated: July 5, 2013 - 10:47 AM

Musicians, artists and record stores depend on income for their work.

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Martin Devaney, of Eclipse Records in St. Paul, says music downloads could put his store out of business.

Photo: Simone Cazares,

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Editor’s note: To protect privacy, ThreeSixty Journalism has changed the name of Abigail in this story.

Abigail started using Real Player, an online software, to download music illegally from the Internet two years ago.

Like other teenagers, she was strapped for cash. Although Abigail would rather respect her favorite artists and pay for their music, she didn’t have the money.

In recent years, more teens like Abigail have been getting their music online, both legally and illegally. Now the 15-year-old Twin Cities resident has moved on to Spotify, a free and legal music streaming software that, some musicians argue, still doesn’t compensate artists fairly.

The ability to access free music digitally is taking a toll on brick-and-mortar record stores, not to mention artists — especially those on the local scene — who aren’t benefitting financially from their art. Abigail wants to support musicians, but it’s also hard to beat “free.”

“[I think music is] something worth owning, because then you can always bring it with you anywhere, and share the joy that music brings you. I mean, the artist worked on it super hard to make a living,” said Abigail, who figures 30 percent of her music library is from illegal downloads. “I’d rather honor and respect that, but [I wish] it was less of a hassle for money.”

Music pirates don’t always consider the consequences of illegal music downloads. According to Thomas Cotter, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, the consequences for music pirating can be fines anywhere from $750 to $30,000 per song, and up to $150,000 for every album.

In one of the country’s highest profile digital piracy cases, Jammie Thomas-Rasset of Brainerd was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for downloading 24 copyrighted songs illegally and sharing them with millions of people on Kazaa, a peer-to-peer (P2P) software. After spending eight years and three federal trials fighting the lawsuit, she ended up with a fine of $220,000.

Cotter said he believes the RIAA stopped going after individuals in 2008, but doesn’t think it’s a good idea to download music illegally, as there still may be risks.

“People probably don’t get caught in a very high percentage of cases,” Cotter said. “But yes, the more you download, the greater the risk, and the penalties can be substantial.”

The digital music debate first generated headlines in 1999 when Napster, a P2P software service where copyrighted songs were shared for free, exploded in popularity among computer users. With the click of a mouse, music fans could access entire albums, some before they were even released.

Though Napster eventually experienced legal difficulties, P2P software opened the door to a wave of similar platforms like Real Player, LimeWire, The Pirate Bay, Kazaa and others. One of the most popular formats today is Spotify, which is legal but only pays artists $0.004 per play, leading musicians like the Black Keys and Coldplay to boycott the streaming service.

Dan Rodriguez, a Minneapolis-based musician, is more forgiving about piracy than many other artists. Although Rodriguez is an advocate for fans coming out to live shows and buying CDs, he recognizes the benefits of digital music, both legal and illegal.

“Digital music has changed the playing field completely, and the act of music pirating has completely changed the game for myself and the independent artists who are trying to build a fan base,” he said.

“I feel like sharing that music for free, and people just sharing with each other, is a very key, important part in spreading the music. If I don’t make the 99 cents off of each song that each person has, that’s way less important to me than that people are listening to it and sharing it.”

The artist vs. access debate reached a fever pitch on the Internet in June 2012 when Emily White, an intern at NPR, wrote that she had only paid for 15 CDs in her life and didn’t think her generation would ever buy music. In an online rebuttal that went viral, David Lowery, the lead singer of ’90s alternative band Cracker, pointed out the moral and financial implications of White’s “free culture” attitude.

Those same artistic interests extend to distributors of music, like local records stores, which aren’t also hurt by digital piracy and iTunes sales. If White’s generation continues to value convenience over the physical act of purchasing music, “that’s what would put us out of business,” said Martin Devaney, manager at Eclipse Records in St. Paul.

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