When I was a student, which wasn’t today nor yesterday, but to be fair, isn’t a million years ago either, I listened to a lot of music, and read a lot of books. I didn’t have much money for either of these things. In fact, due to a combination of a healthy social life, and an unhealthy smoking habit, I didn’t have any money for either of these things. And yet I still had books, and I still had music.
Very occasionally, I would get presents of books or CDs, but mostly, I borrowed books from friends, family or libraries, and copied other people’s CDs onto tapes for myself. The books I actually bought were for school or college courses. And whereas the other authors I was reading may have been paid royalties from libraries (presuming they weren’t long dead, which many of them were), the musicians whose music I ripped didn’t get a cent.
I was a pirate. A crappy, small-town, small-time pirate, but a pirate nonetheless.
When I first started working, nothing much changed. I remember thinking at the time that real wealth would be having the money to buy any books or music I wanted. But I was being paid a pittance, and I spent all my money on rent (and cigarettes). So I continued to borrow my books, or buy them second-hand from charity shops. And I continued to rip music from other people’s CDs, and share my own.
Okay. Writers now hate you. What’s your point?
My point is that if I hadn’t had these means of access to books and music, I would simply have gone without. Tobacco companies were a far greater influence on my buying decisions than technology.
A lot of the discourse about piracy, file-sharing and the notion of ‘free’ on the Internet now assumes that every free thing, or pirated thing, is lost revenue. It assumes that an entire generation has now become used to getting stuff for free, and will never want to pay for anything. It’s said to be causing the demise of the music industry, and the publishing industry. Social technology, it’s said, is killing art.
But whilst I’m fully behind the campaign to pay authors and artists for their work (this whole notion of powerful people making someone work for free in return for ‘exposure’ is a scam, and every instance of it should be publicly denounced) I believe we have to accept the fact that some people are just never going to spend their money on this stuff. Such as 18-year-olds who really want a holiday in Ibiza; 22-year-olds in their first job who are getting paid so little they wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickens novel; or 38-year-old parents who can’t afford their mortgage. Unemployed people. People who would never buy books or music anyway. I could go on.
There is no point demonising the increasing transparency of a practice which has been going on forever. People have always lent books to each other, and if anything, this is now happening less.
The e-book is still a far milder revolution than the CD. The CD brought easy and transferable copying: e-books brought the first book piracy, but mainly the notion of ‘free’, where people download free books they would never otherwise pick up, if asked to pay any money at all for them.
That Doesn’t Make Piracy Okay, Meanie-Pants
Piracy is of course illegal, and should be prosecuted. But how true is it, really, that piracy is destroying the livelihoods of authors and musicians?
Established creatives are far more likely to be losing money from the increasingly punitive contracts forced upon them by Internet giants, record labels and publishers. Publishers, after all, are still making as much money as before. How authors are being paid, though: that’s changed.
Both established and emerging artists and authors are also losing significant revenue because of the market noise created by cheaper self-publishing. It’s harder for everybody to get the word out.
And most emerging or self-published recording artists and writers earn so little, it’s hard to imagine a case where piracy is having any real effect on their pockets. Or dissuading anyone from purchasing their product legally elsewhere. It’s easier to imagine a case where punters just won’t bother with them at all if they don’t get their work for nothing.
As for livelihoods being destroyed, just look at the retailers. Even the massive chains have found themselves in trouble. But I don’t see recording artists and authors crying about them. (Except for James Patterson, and I normally give out about him, so enough about him giving neck-saving grants to independent bookshops all over the world before you make me grumpy.)
But It’s Still Piracy’s Fault, Right? That Artists Starve?
These days, I rarely borrow. I don’t copy. I buy everything, unless it’s being given away for free, and I don’t tend to go looking for that.
What changed things for me was not the money going into my pocket, but rather the money that was coming out of it. From the early noughties, and perhaps in response to what was going on digitally, books and music started to become a hell of a lot cheaper. And so, I bought. Book promotions were everywhere, and I stocked my shelves with 3 for 2 offers until I got a Kindle and bought cheaper books online.
Music was the same. Every CD I wanted was bloody expensive in the ’90s, unless it was Austrian folk music from a bargain bin (which I did actually buy once, for 2 Deutschmarks. It was called Viel Spaß und Freude). When music became less expensive, I started to buy more. Then I bought loads. And I’m still buying loads. (I also no longer smoke. Up yours, Big Tobacco.)
So Whose Damn Fault Is It Then?
Look. The sales model broke. It’s still broken. But even this broken sales model is reaching more people than before. It’s reaching people who would never have even contemplated buying what they’re downloading. This is not lost revenue. Because you can’t lose what would never have been yours.
Some people today still don’t buy books, or pay for their music. But that was already happening before the Internet. And cracking down on online piracy doesn’t address the real problem.
The real problem is that the sales model is still broken. Customers aren’t getting what they want, and authors and recording artists aren’t getting paid. So could we perhaps focus on fixing that now?