Wired: The Age of Music Piracy Is Officially Over

by Paul Boutin

Mark down the date: The age of stealing music via the Internet is officially over. It’s time for everybody to go legit. The reason: We won. And all you audiophiles and copyfighters, you know who fixed our problems? The record labels and online stores we loved to hate.

Granted, when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003 there was a lot to complain about. Tracks you bought on computer A often refused to play on gadget B, thanks to that old netizen bogeyman, digital rights management. (It’s crippleware!) My local Apple store was actually picketed by nerds in hazmat suits attempting to educate passersby on the evils of DRM.

Well played, protesters: In January 2009, Apple announced that it would remove the copyright protection wrapper from every song in its store. Today, Amazon and Walmart both sell music encoded as MP3s, which don’t even have hooks for copyright-protection locks. The battle is over, comrades.

A few years ago, audiophiles dismissed iTunes’ 128-Kbps resolution as anemic, even though it supposedly passed rigid blind testing against full-bandwidth CD tracks of the same song. The sound is compressed, connoisseurs said. The high end is mangled. Good work, audiophiles: Online stores have cranked up the audio quality to a fat 256 Kbps. To most ears, it’s indistinguishable from a CD. (Actually, most ears are listening through crummy earbuds anyway, but whatever.) It’s certainly better than most of the stuff out on BitTorrent. If you still hate the sound of digital music, you probably need to go back to vinyl. You can get a pretty good turntable for around $500. Which, I’ll just point out, is not free. And when you steal vinyl records, it’s called shoplifting.

Music is so cheap, there’s no reason not to buy. Besides, many downloads send 20 cents straight to the band.

Haters might get a bit more traction with the gripe that official stores still don’t carry every track ever recorded. You won’t find, say, AC/DC or the Beatles* in iTunes. For other artists, contract restrictions mean some songs can’t be downloaded in every country, which indeed seems dumb for a store on the border-free Internet. Americans, for example, can’t buy Daniel Zueras’ 2007 Spanish hit “No Quiero Enamorarme” from the iTunes store for Spain. Still, the available inventory keeps growing, including artists’ back catalogs. I recently discovered that Salt City Orchestra’s limited-edition, vinyl-only 1997 nightclub fave “The Book” has been kicking around iTunes since 2008. Way back in the day, I had to trade favors with a pro DJ to get that record. It’s getting harder and harder to find the few holdouts to hang a reasonable complaint on.

That leaves one last war cry: Music should be free! It’s art! Friends, a song costs a dollar. Walmart has pushed some of its MP3s down to 64 cents. At Grooveshark, you can sample any song you want before you buy. Rdio charges $5 a month for all the music you can eat, served up via the cloud.

So there’s really no reason not to buy—and surely you understand by now that there are reasons why you should. When you buy instead of bootlegging, you’re paying the band. Most download retailers send about 70 percent of each sale to the record companies that own the music. Artists with 15 percent royalty deals get 15 percent of that 70 percent, or about 10.5 cents per dollar of sales. Those who write their own music and own their own music publishing companies—an increasingly common arrangement—get another 9.1 cents in “mechanical royalties.” Every download sends almost 20 cents straight to the band.

A recent court ruling against Universal Records—and in favor of the rapper Eminem—might even lead to downloads of older music being treated not as sales but as licensed music. (Newly written contracts tend to address digital music sales directly.) That would bump the artist’s split with the label from around 15 percent to an average of 50 percent. If that happens and you can still rationalize not throwing four dimes Eminem’s way, then maybe there’s another reason you’re still pirating music: You’re cheap.

* Yes, we know: Since we published this article, Apple brought the Beatles to iTunes.

Paul Boutin (paulboutin@mac.com) wrote about letting small investors in on pre-IPO deals in issue 18.07.
Courtesy Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/11/st_essay_nofreebird

Posted by Ted • Monday, November 29, 2010 .