Stealing Music

stealmusicThe other day, awkwardly named technology site TechCrunch ran an editorial by founder Michael Arrington asking, “Stealing Music: Is It Wrong Or Isn’t It?

First, a definition: In the article, Arrington says, “Let’s put the law aside for a moment – this post is about doing the right thing.” OK, so the question Arrington is actually asking is, “Is stealing music ethically wrong?” That’s helpful, because it makes the answer particularly easy:

Of course it’s wrong, you fucking idiot.

But Arrington — an erstwhile corporate attorney — disagrees. He spends the whole article setting up a lot of really awesome hoops and jumping through them all to arrive at the conclusion that it isn’t. Here are some of my favorite gems from the article:

“People who are older than say 30 think that downloading music is ethically wrong [because] they remember that music is something that you pay for. … But if you’ve discovered and come to love music in the last decade, I don’t see how you can be expected to know when listening to recorded music is ok, and when it’s wrong.”

Oh, I see: If you can’t figure out if stealing something is wrong, that means it’s OK to steal it.

“Just a couple of years ago anyone listening to free streaming music anywhere on the Internet was violating copyright and subject to being labeled unethical. Today, its no problem.”

Oh, I see: If something is easy to take, that means it’s OK to take it.

“If you live in China, you can download music legally from Google for free.”

Oh, I see: If something is legal in China, that means it’s ethical. Let’s celebrate this revelation: Lead sundaes for everyone!

“Over the last few years the line has blurred to the point where there really isn’t any line any more. We can listen to free, on demand streaming music at MySpace Music and lots of other sites. It’s ok to do it at MySpace, but it’s wrong to do it at Project Playlist, just because the right contracts aren’t in place?”

Um. Yes. Just like it’s OK for my friend to borrow my car when I tell him he can, but not to take it without my permission. Is this concept really so hard to grasp?

Look, you really need to read the whole article. Arrington dances around the issue with lots of insinuations about the recording industry and record labels and all the Big Bad Boring Wolves of the music industry, including one particularly awesome segment where he claims that the labels should be paying him for his stealing of their music. But nowhere in this article — not once — does he mention the people who make the fucking music he’s stealing. There’s a very good reason for that: Once you introduce musicians into the equation, all his carefully balanced hoops fall like festive dominos.

Because musicians are the people who are trying to make a living by creating and selling music. Sure, there are other revenue streams open to musicians: touring, merchandise sales, royalties, etc. But without ownership of their own music, all these things fall apart. If stealing music is OK, why should radio stations have to pay when they play it? Why should ad agencies have to pay to license it? Why should record labels have to pay the artist for the right to put it on a disc and sell it, for fuck’s sake?

Perhaps this shockingly ignorant argument can be better illustrated with a different profession. Let’s say you’re, oh, I dunno, the editor of an awkwardly named technology website. And let’s say one day you decided you wanted to collect all your editorials into a slick e-book, complete with commissioned illustrations and bonus material. Now let’s say you wanted to let people read the material of the entire book for free on your site, but you wanted to charge a buck or two for the deluxe edition, for those who wanted to download it to their Kindles and whatonot.

You’re saying it’s ethically fine for me to pirate a copy of Internet Ramblings of a Fucking Idiot just because some of the material is available for free on your website? And not only that, but you should actually be paying me for the privilege?

No? Because you should have the right to earn a living from your talent, hard work, and clear intelligence? Hmm. I wonder how that’s different from musicians.

Oh, that’s right — it’s not.


7 Replies to “Stealing Music”

  1. I’ll be sure to read the article for myself, but I just wanted to ask while its still on my mind: did your music project, johnny high ground, ever come out with an album. I still have that song “trigger happy texan” on my ipod and really like it. I don’t remember where I got the song, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay for it. I apologize profusely if I unknowingly pirated your music, and if you would direct me to and of the band’s merch/albums I’d be more than happy to give you a sale.

  2. Haha, nice article. As a former musician and current watcher of all things media, I must concede that I’m a little in the “give-the-music-away-for-really-cheap (or maybe free)” camp. It has nothing to do with whether stealing is right or wrong and everything to do with getting people to pay attention. The success of iTunes and other digital music services has taught us that listeners pony up the cash in other ways (merch, shows, etc.) when they pay little or nothing. I agree, everyone who works hard has a right to make a living and the law should protect that. But I’d trade a little short-term profit for long-term dedication if I could get it.

  3. Wally @ 2: JHG is pretty much on hiatus at the moment, but the website is still live at And no worries about downloading THT — I made a conscious choice to make all my music available for download for free. So you can download and share all you like.

    Adam @ 3: Along the same lines, I totally agree with your philosophy, and perhaps I should have been more clear in the article. I do think it makes sense these days for many artists to give (at least some of) their music away for free. But that’s the decision of the artist, not the consumer, right? Mainly because the scenarios are different depending on the artist; in my case, I don’t tour and my music isn’t particularly radio- or marketing-friendly…so selling the songs outright is likely to be my best route for making money from them, you know?

  4. Free music on the inernets? Ha, very funny. Next you’ll be saying people can find free movies there too. I wasn’t born yesterday…

    Oh, and I suppose there’s photographs too, right? Ha ha…whatever…


  5. Thank you for supporting musicians and their rights to their property. We promote great punk and rock and roll from the Minneapolis music scene, and we do it because we love sharing great music, but we don’t SHARE THE MUSIC…we ask our readers to purchase it, to support what they think is great. You rock. Thanks again.

    -the devil.

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