‘Nothing Less Hip’: Arguing Against Music Piracy

When music fan, part-time writer and Brooklyn barista Chris Ruen got to know some of his indie rock star customers (from bands like Vampire Weekend and TV on the Radio), he was shocked to realise how hard they were working, and for how little money. Suddenly, he became uneasy about the orgy of free downloading that had become the norm for his generation - and began to question how music piracy has evolved, how it’s affecting the music business, and what can be done about it.

Anyone in my generation who paid attention to the litigious battles between Napster, Metallica and the RIAA instinctively gleaned that nothing was less hip than getting uptight about music piracy. Doing so aligned one with multi-millionaire artists, greedy major labels, corporate scallawags and thick-skulled Luddites. I resolved to avoid that particular gnarled and futile debate.

While purposefully ignoring the controversy of digital piracy through the mid-2000s, I assumed new digital models were emerging to replace the revenues of physical music sales. They had to be emerging, right? Considering all the capital and brainpower invested in the industry’s future, solutions would need to come sooner than later. In my mind, the controversy over piracy evidenced a perfectly healthy period of technological transition. As for the artists and industry heavyweights who predicted doom for the future of music: they were overreacting, obsessed with protecting their obscene profit margins. Piracy was arguably a positive development. It helped promotion-starved small artists connect with fans, threatening the unjust monopoly of bloated major labels. I didn’t hear of any independent artists raising their voices on the issue. Plenty of great new records continued to be released each year. The industry seemed to be doing just fine. How bad could piracy be? 

Image: Book cover

Years on, I realized it. Something was rotten in Brooklyn. My Greenpoint café was frequented by members of various Brooklyn bands like TV On The Radio, The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, and MGMT. From my traditional perspective of writer and fan, I saw the cyclonic press coverage of these artists, the breathless critical praise, and the sold-out dates around the country.

In the sphere of indie rock, they were in the upper echelon - either one step away from being on a major label or already succeeding on one. These were the success stories of the Internet Age, supposed poster children for the triumphs of file sharing. But from my groundlevel vantage point in Brooklyn — away from the Rolling Stone reviews, SPIN cover stories, and profiles in the New York Times — all was not as it appeared on the mediated surface.

After getting to know a handful of members from some of these bands, I was shocked by how little money they seemed to actually be making. As a measly young writer and part-time barista who had never even heard of a trust fund before moving East, even I had an apartment — that paramount symbol of fortune in New York City — as nice or nicer than those of some of these ‘rock stars’. Sure, I thought at the time, multi-millionaire artists like Metallica don’t really need me to help them finance that fourth house, but what could possibly be the rationalization for refusing to compensate working artists who desperately need the support?

I suddenly observed the music scene in Brooklyn with both the perspectives of consumer and creator in mind, noting the music-buying practices of my friends, or lack thereof. My peers, twenty-something rock disciples and aspiring songwriters, obtained nearly all of their music by downloading unlicensed copies for free online, often well before album release dates. They rarely went to concerts or bought band merchandise like t-shirts or posters, rationalizations I’d heard others express for their downloading habits.

After purposefully ignoring the drama surrounding music piracy for years, I was shaken by its clear reality. Millions of fans, like my friends, had made up their minds that they no longer saw a reason to pay for the music they genuinely enjoyed and loved. Judging by the relative dearth of intelligent discussion I found on the subject online or in my immediate social circles, meaningful debate on the ethics of ‘taking’ or ‘copying’ one’s music for free had effectively ceased. For such a recent technological phenomenon, packed with so many quandaries for consumers and creators, the lack of discussion was genuinely bizarre.

I saw that no moral high ground existed in the debate over music piracy; neither thankless consumers nor litigious major labels could claim it. ‘Free’ music didn’t discriminate between rich or poor, emerging or established artists.

A growing class of consumers, spearheaded by my own generation, had been duped into believing that if it feels good to download your digital content for free, then it must be good. It was, somehow, the rest of the world’s fault for not adapting to the noble practice. A new future was emerging; delirious, ominous, and liberated from timeworn social codes and responsibilities.

Portrait of Chris Ruen

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