Piracy remains gray area for industry

“You wouldn’t steal a car … Piracy, it’s a crime!”

Many people will remember this quote from an anti-piracy ad that appeared in 2004 in theaters and on countless DVDs.

Ironically, though most college students probably wouldn’t shoplift a CD from a store, many do pirate albums and feel no shame about it.

As sales in the music industry continue to slip, it is becoming increasingly easier for people to instantly find the music they want to for free through direct-download sites, such as Mediafire and Hulkshare, or through legal streaming platforms, such as Soundcloud and Spotify.

Electronic/dubstep artist Skrillex told his fans in January via Facebook they should pirate his latest EP if they can’t afford to buy it. Though he isn’t the first artist to endorse pirating or to claim to be indifferent to record sales, fans did respond to this with wide support. Many, in fact, claimed that they would pay for his album because of the bold statement he made.

In the past, artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released albums with “pay-your-own-price” options and have faced mixed success. Radiohead’s spokesman Murray Chalmers stated that most fans paid around retail price for the album, In Rainbows, despite having the option of paying nothing.

As for Nine Inch Nails’ release of The Slip with a “pay-your-own-price” model, creator Trent Reznor told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Dec. 2008 it “didn’t feel like an overwhelming success.”

There is a difference, however, between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails offering their albums for free and Skrillex telling his fans to download his album for free. Though Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails released their albums independently, Skrillex released his Bangarang EP on a major label.

In this example, it means that the resulting sales profits that aren’t going to Skrillex also aren’t going to the studio engineers, marketers, promoters and label executives who own the rights to the album. Though Skrillex might gain fan support by empathizing with his fan’s financial constraints, everyone else involved in the recording of the album is missing out.

To combat the impact that piracy has, the U.S. Congress proposed the Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial House bill supported by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. The bill gained controversy and criticism, and on Jan. 14, the White House released a statement saying it will not support SOPA in its current form; SOPA has since been indefinitely postponed in Congress.

But another question arises: Is piracy really to blame for the music industry’s struggles?

Paul Young, a professor of music industry at the Thornton School of Music, doesn’t think so. Though he believes that piracy is one component in the downfall of the music industry, he also contends that the increasing popularity of music streaming, as well as the music industry’s struggle to adapt to new distribution methods, are to blame.

“Streaming is based on ad money or subscription dollars. Neither one of them are pacing close to where sales were, but [streaming] also cannibalizes sales,” Young says.

When consumers can listen to Skrillex on Spotify or YouTube for free, pirating seems to become a secondary issue. According to a 2011 Nielsen report, 57 percent of Internet users access YouTube to stream music, compared to 35 percent who download music illegally, and 17 percent who download music legally.

Copyright issues get much more confusing when it comes to the increasing popularity of electronic music, which is often heavily dependent on sampling and mashups.

When artists such as Girl Talk — who samples other musicians’ works — release their mashups for free, the question of ownership becomes cloudy.

Aria Soroudi, a USC senior who also DJs under the moniker Three Beats Deep, defends the use of sampling in modern music.

“Even though we don’t make all of the music we play, we help spread it around and make it popular,” Soroudi says.

But Young contends that the issue is less innocuous when bigger artists use sampling for their own gains.

“The problem is with electronic artists like Girl Talk or, before he died, DJ AM, [who]can go and do a show for $20-$50,000; What does [that money] do for the guy that’s singing on the track?” Young says. “What [audiences] want now is an artist’s remix as a product. You may go through Soundcloud, a torrent site or that artist’s site, but you want the new version.”

The issue of music piracy and free music continues to be divisive among music lovers and artists, but one that contains more complexity than simply “stealing is wrong.” Skrillex understands that not all his fans can afford his music, but he isn’t the only one missing out when his album is downloaded.

“I want there to be a profession for the musicians who create content. Sometimes the creator is the person who paid for it — that means a label,” Young says.  “Somebody went to them for money to make the music they want to make, so everyone in that chain deserves something.”