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November 12, 2008

A discussion on ethics

Recently, it was brought to my attention that the all the links for the Seamus Ennis album recently posted were dead. This is troubling, because for the first time, there has been a complaint to the file-hosting servers, and they have removed the file. Now, I have a lot of goodies to give to you folks, but it really doesn't make sense for me to upload an album if it will just be deleted by someone else -- it's a waste of my time and theirs.

So, it seems as though a discussion is necessary before we can move on. I fully invite community participation in this: the more viewpoints we can have on this matter the better, and I'm certainly open to other opinions that I may not have considered. So please leave your thoughts in the comments section, but keep it civil, folks.

It seems the first point to be discussed here is one of ethics. Specifically, what is the morality of me distributing albums to which I do not own the copyright, if my stated intention is to support the artists?

I remember a story about how in 1969, Rolling Stone magazine offered to send a copy of Mississippi Fred McDowell's album I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll for free to anyone who wrote to them and asked. And this single act probably caused more rock and roll fans to discover the blues (and subsequently purchase more blues albums, attend concerts, etc.) than any other act of marketing. [i may have some of the details wrong on this account, but you get the point]

Now ultimately, my goal is to support living musicians and to enhance people's enjoyment of life through the discovery of music. In my own small way, of course. So I consider a lot of factors before I make a post.

Firstly, there is the question of quality. There's a hell of a lot of music out there, and life is precious, so I don't waste time on second-rate music just for the purpose of fulfilling a collection.

Secondly, there is the issue of exposure. I ask myself, is this artist/album familiar to the sort of people who would enjoy it? Because it makes no sense for me to be promoting and reviewing artists/albums that are already promoted by other means. I love the Beatles and Frank Zappa, but there are whole blogs dedicated to them.

Thirdly, there is the question of availability. I ask myself: Is this album still in print? Is this album offered anywhere else in the blogosphere, or is this artist well-represented by other albums on other blogs? Because it's senseless to double-up and distribute things that are easily available in other channels. I do sometimes post albums that are still in print, but most of them you'd be hard-pressed to find in your local store, in whatever part of the world you live.

Lastly, there is the question, who will benefit from my post, and who will be harmed? And this is where it gets into speculation, a rather fuzzy science at best. If the artist is dead, I feel this is mostly a no-brainer; while it's nice to support widdows & descendents, it's ridiculous to be giving money to dead musicians while there's living, working ones that need that money to go on making music. The exception to this rule comes when there's a non-profit organization taking the money that would go to the deceased, and doing something useful with it.

If the artist is alive, it's more tricky; the deciding factor is, will the publicity generated by my blog offset the potential loss of sales for the musician? I consider this question quite a lot, and I only post albums when I think my post will help people to get excited about an artist they've never encountered before, and perhaps even seek out and purchase other albums by that artist. Now, whether people do this is up to them, and I support free will in this matter, assuming people have the intelligence to realize that if they don't support the musicians they love, then those musicians won't be able to make the music we all love. But I also make sure that if I'm posting an album by a working musician, an inspired listener won't be able to find all their other albums on other blogs; this is the counterpoint to the second issue: availability.

I'm also aware that record companies need to survive if they're going to support artists and distribute their music. Now, some record companies are huge monsters that give a pittance of the sales to the artists, and some are genuinely supportive, operating from the same love of music that drives my blogging. So, to that end, I try not to distribute albums from small, cool independent labels, and I try not to distribute too many albums from any one of the larger cool labels. And, generally, I don't care about the huge labels, or those who used to be independent and now have been bought out.

Personally, I have become a much more conscious and avid consumer of music thanks to "music piracy". You see, because of music sharing, my interest in and exposure to music has grown 100-fold. If I had to pay $15 every time I saw something interesting and wanted to give it a listen, my musical horizons would have stayed pretty limited. By indulging and supporting my curiosity, the pirates of the inter-seas have made of me a musical connisseur, where once there was just passing interest. Forums and 'sharity' blogs have particularly helped to rouse my interest in unknown artists and forgotten genres. And, since the big-names are readily available for piracy, the obvious choice is to support the lesser-known and local artists.

In fact, I feel that by distributing the music of Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, I may be helping to open up a whole new world of experience for someone who is used to more polished music, and they may begin to appreciate the raw emotions of flamenco music or Greek rebetica. By posting Harry Partch and Tom Cora, I may turn a few people on to a world of improvisational and microtonal avantgarde music. Growth comes through exposure and experience.

Another story, more recent. Radiohead, one of the most intelligent contemporary bands, released their most recent album for download from their website before it was released in physical form. Radiohead allowed users to pay however much they liked. They made £10 Million or so, on an average of £7.00 or so per user. And none of that money got taken by a middle-man in the form of a retail store or a record company. Now, Radiohead is a big-name band with millions of fans. But the principle works the same for small-name artists. And it shows that people who download can be generous, especially if the artist is generous first.

You see, Radiohead realized that even if you issue an album conventionally, even with copy-protection embedded in the CD, it still gets posted on the internet within a week of release. So why not embrace the new system of music-distribution that is evolving, and experiment to see if it has an equal or greater capacity to support the artists than the (outdated?) distribution system of record labels and retail shops.

Remember, the music industry tried to sue radio on the same grounds of copywright infringement. Eventually, it learned to work with radio's inherent marketing capabilities. And the existence of recorded music itself almost destroyed the profession of composer (the music industry now has to give money to a fund that supports living composers).

Now, those are all issues of rights, morality, and money. I don't pretend to have definitive answers to them, but I've tried to demonstrate my thoughts around them. I invite responses that confirm or contradict what I've said.

Another question, which I think is even larger, is: how does all this downloading of music affect my life? I've talked about why I post. But I am really interested to know why you read this blog, and why you download the albums. Is it just a fulfillment of desire, a kind of instant gratification responding to my description of how tasty the music is? Is it filling a hole in you're life? Personally, I think it has something to do with me being afraid of really sitting with myself in silence and feeling. But that's my own issue. It may be different for you.

It's interesting to note that 100 years ago, 90% of Americans played an instrument. Now only 10% do. Most of us just play the CD player now, or the computer. Is this acquisition of music really enhancing your life, or just satisfying an urge to collect? The feeling that it's free, and you're 'saving' money, or that it won't be around forever so you'd better get it now? Or, is this music genuinely helping you to learn, feel, and grow?

Take a moment to really consider this.

Your answers to these questions will determine if and how I continue this blog, so please leave a comment. I'd love to post more music, but I feel we need to all be on the same page, before we can move on.

And to whomever complained about copywrite infringement to the filehosting servers: please, in the future, offer your complaint directly to me. It doesn't do any good to beat around the bush: if there's something I'm doing that you feel is wrong, I should know about it. It really does no good to try to shut down activity like this without appealing to the intelligence and innate sense of ethics of bloggers; if you get rid of public channels, pirates will move to private ones.


Gadaya said...

Hi Irate, i'll be first telling my reflections on this topic. First of all, as i started not long ago a musical blog myself and as a music lover, my ethical questions and opinions were pretty much the same as yours. So i decided to post on my blog mostly music that was not reissued in easy-to-get cds. Most of the time i discovered new music thanks to small record labels made by music lovers (Folkways, Arhoolie, Yazoo, etc...) so if i have the choice, i prefer to buy cds from them and support them in their mission. But i admit that my huge appetite for music leads me to download on music blogs also. As a long time suscriber to Emusic i try to support them and talk about them to people around me as it offers lots of good and independant music and good informations on what you hear. Now, i'm conscious that all this music fills a hole in my life. I live in France and my taste and interests are not wide-spread around here, so i'm happy to have the net to share what i love. As an amateur acoustic musician and day-dreamer, i'm always searching for new territories and old traditions for inspiration and personnal enlightement... Ok, i'll stop now..; I hope that my english is not too bad also... and, please, go on with your blog, it's one of my favorite..

Anonymous said...

I don't think there is any think wrong with what you are doing.
Without blogs like yours I would never have knowen what blues or gospel are because in my country the closes you get to country blues is bb king.
now I often buy blues albums in the net so the companies only benefit from you.

Anonymous said...

As the wife of a independent small time folk musician with a couple of cd's and out of print cassettes, you should know that he depends on the sales of these as part of his livelihood. So posting a song or two with links to websites of working musicians is great. putting out whole albums is problematic as the person from Smithsonian Folkways reported. if the musician is alive and working they probably have a website and email. Respect them for the effort they make to spread this music and contact them, see what they want you to do. Reviews are always wonderful.

Anonymous said...

now what is interesting is you mentioning that
nowadays only 10% of the people in the US play an
instrument.and this is what it's all about for me, keeping the music alive, handing the music to our
children,making sure the musictraditionchain stays.
music connects people whereever they are.
i collect mostly old songs, mainly from the 20s-50s,writing down the lyrics, chords,melodylines,and then perform them in my own way, solo or with other musicians, it is my way of preserving the music that otherwise probably would get lost.
it is now for the first time that through collectors all over the world music is available that has a great
historical value, we now have the chance to make
collections to ensure that this music has ever existed.
so i'm grateful to you bloggers that offer to me
out of print material that is hard to find, and sometimes contradict this all by offering some kind
of treasure that is stil available, introducing me to
an unknown artist or style, giving me a reason to
go to the recordstore or finding other ways to try and buy it.

thanks to all you bloggers for making this happening.
the Happy Researcher

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the huge success / fame and money made by groups etc in the 60's and 70's was an anomaly. Did they actually 'earn' their Mariah Carey really worth $150m? Should doctors and so earn more?

The so called 'major' labels were quick to pounce on this black hole, and swiftly dredged up some the most truly awful music ever and served it cold. By this time the public were programmed to accept, and they bought stuff without question. These days we are wiser, and so the majors have now cynically targeted kids, who dont know enough to think yet.

They don't make music for conniseurs (they never did) Ergo people will find it (good music)wherever they can. On this very blog I downloaded the John Fahey 'influences' set, and learned more and heard more in two hours than I ever would elsewhere. So bravo to irate pirate. Yes its hard on muso's, i am one and i struggle daily to make ends meet, but thats just part of life. Robert Johnson never gave up, and neither will i, because I love music. Thank-you, and goodnight.

The Irate Pirate said...

thank you all for your comments. each of them shows me another facet of the issue.

I look forward to hearing more.

intersting how many musicians seem to be readers too. if it weren't for music sharing, I may have never become the guitarist that I am, and I'm most glad to inform and inspire others through my posts.

Anonymous said...

Without blogs , limewire or any other facet of downloading , would some smaller labels or privately released music be made available . I have put up many cds which are easily accesible ( by a few people I know ) , where I live , but not to someone in other parts of the world . They are pleased with the feedback they have got and also thrilled their cds have reach the far places of the world . I also put links for my own cd in comment sections once in awhile as well . As far as discs manufactured in Germany or Holland one has to keep in mind these are not readily available in North America due to different copyright laws , I am talking about very old blues and country recordings . These blogs do help to get these because import prices are a killer . There is one blog that posts early and lat 60's hard rock psych prog etc which I would never have gotten a chance to hear . So As far as ethics go , forget it they do not exist in my little world . For me it is about getting the music out there and getting it heard . I have owned 10's and thousands of music in different forms over the years , from 8 track 45's lp's 78's cds I have done my part paying into copyright coffers therefore I support downloading

Anonymous said...

your invitation for an open discussion should be answered in depth but I have not much time now:

blogs like yours are "education" above all. you offer no blown-up-charts-noodling-mainstream- chickenshit, - you offer just plain music (and - important - the stories and explanations behind it, as well). most records you offer are older (out of print) or difficult to get.

Everyone knows that blogging can be addictive (take a look around). As long, as we stay healthy in this concern we will always find an ethic correct solution concerning the copyright dilemma.

I also assume, that bloggers like you and me hopefully will do blogging for a limited time only. We all need MUCH time in the future (which is now), to listen to all the music we download or to play music by ourself.

Thanks for all your musical suggestions and uploads
love: hoppe5147

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly support your efforts to bring rare recordings to the attention of others. I have bought HUGE quantities of music as a result of being introduced to the enthusiasm of others and think that there is no greater joy than to read someone's intelligent comments and then listen to the music they champion. I also think that people who feel free to spoil this process without having the courage to reveal themselves are dishonest and mean-spirited.

Anonymous said...

Irate, I have no ethical qualms whatsoever about sharing music. I have a fairly eclectic taste in music, but it requires exposure. Here in the US, commercial radio sucks big time and the community stations are sporadic depending on where you live. For years I had cut down on my cd purchasing because I couldn't justify the expense just because of cool looking cover art. I need to know that what I'm shelling out hard-earned $$ for isn't going to end up on the 'do not play' shelf because there's only one decent track. True, it's possible to download single tracks now but you can't listen to an entire album - and if you can, it has to be on your computer. Personally, I test out my music in the car.

If it weren't for blogs like yours, I never would have heard of Seamus Ennis (can't wait to get to it!). I had never heard of Marti Brom and I've since bought one of her cd's. Another blog had an entire cd of an artist who performed a song I've been trying to find for years. But is it worth paying more than $20 for an import cd just because I want one song? Hell, no. So I downloaded the entire album and loved it, so then I bought the cd so I can get the liner notes, etc. That NEVER would have happened without the blog offering.

Additionally, I have some friends in the industry. Neither makes noticeable income from their recordings, they get their $$ from performances. Selling cds really only helps the companies (who then drop the artists like a hot rock if they don't generate sufficient profits). I will buy a cd from a performer at their show, from an artists website, but try to keep the middleman out of it as much as possible. Record companies are parasites who ripped us off for DECADES. As you noted about suing radio stations (I have 78s that state it's illegal to play over the air), this is all about money. It has nothing to do with the artists, and represents a desperate attempt by record companies to remain relevant. To hell with them. In the interest of music, I've started my own music blog.

Anonymous said...

The research done on the issue indicates that downloading helps sales for obscure artists and hurts it for well known artists. I agree with the comment that for active artists a song or two is better than the whole album. Hell, take the time to ask the artist directly if they mind your posting/promotion.

Anonymous said...

hi pi-rate -

i appreciate your blog and generosity and as usual have been exposed to whole new genres of music i was unaware of.

more to the point on ethics is that there are many millions of people with far too much leisure time on their hands. I myself thanks to the new wonders of high-speed have amassed more music than I could ever listen to in my lifetime, beyond making time for my own music-producing capacities. think of the huge potential for time and energy applied, if all those privileged people with time to kill downloading music would commit their concerns about ethics to real-world activities like nuclear disarmament, saving watersheds, food security, restructuring government etc.

as for now, nobody's knocking on your door, so if you must share, do so.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago (0ver 35) I used to play in a band called RedLeb - we played mostly for little money and I played in many folk clubs for free. I never wanted money for making music, it seemed wrong and after working in a record store for many years I was totally pizzed of with the so called record companies - they were grabbing every penny they could and the artists were starving. So who can really say what is right or wrong?
By the way I have some CDs on which is clearly stated that the songs are in Public Domain here is the question who really makes profit from the sales?
Should music be available to everyone - a very good question and I think it is answered by searching for anything, you will be sure to find mp3s of almost every song you want!
So please keep on posting these wonderful masters of a time gone bye!afeasmilk

Anonymous said...

Many years ago (0ver 35) I used to play in a band called RedLeb - we played mostly for little money and I played in many folk clubs for free. I never wanted money for making music, it seemed wrong and after working in a record store for many years I was totally pizzed of with the so called record companies - they were grabbing every penny they could and the artists were starving. So who can really say what is right or wrong?
By the way I have some CDs on which is clearly stated that the songs are in Public Domain here is the question who really makes profit from the sales?
Should music be available to everyone - a very good question and I think it is answered by searching for anything, you will be sure to find mp3s of almost every song you want!
So please keep on posting these wonderful masters of a time gone bye!

Anonymous said...

Your blog is a GREAT educational tool for people who are willing to pursue the history of American music.

atlee said...

I first started looking for music on the Web wondering if I might find now obscure music that opened my mind in my youth. Bands like the Incredible String Band. And was I ever surprised by what I found! A whole rainbow of jewels that went deep into the roots of my already broad musical interest. And I was hooked...and enriched.

I didn't have a clue that the musicians I listened to in 1968 stood on the shoulders of whole traditions that I was too young to know about. My Internet music habit has become a delightful exploration, kind of like taking a hike and looking back to see where you were an hour ago.

Most of the artists I cherish never made it big. Some died in poverty, obscurity, or both. Many of them are from foreign countries that I will never have the pleasure of visiting, but whose musical souls have reverberated with my own.

I have certainly been bludgeoned enough by artists labeled as "classic" (read "exploitable"). Hounded by media utilized by the real pirates (the recording industry), I have chosen to look elsewhere. And that elsewhere turns out to be the Web.

Your blog is one of my favorite places to find out what soul is, how people in far-away places relate to life, and to otherwise make connections with myself and with my fellow humans teetering on the brink of habitat eradication. Thank you so much for the education and for the joy!

Anonymous said...

“interesting how many musicians seem to be readers too. if it weren't for music sharing, I may have never become the guitarist that I am”

…me too, and looking at you tube lately there’s a whole new generation of good players ready to kick the lazy arse likes of U2 and Coldplay into touch with some real playing and singing! What with the credit crunch and Barack becoming president I feel there’s change in the air. Capitalism is evil, and being rightly threatened.

I too have become so much better at playing since blogging started ( I also wonder if people like Dylan secretly had access to massive ie columbia records cellarful of rejected albums all along?)

Radio companies now have more records than time, and therefore will only play ‘priority’ records, but that must mean ones that make most profit, not with most merit? Is that what we want…no. Keep up the good work irate, your country needs you.

fieldhippy said...

The world according to me:
As a person on the high side of middle age I must say that nothing has brought me more solace than the recent "blogspot" explosion. As a long time Beatles fan I have had to pass by all of those bootlegs that I would see at record conventions simply because I couldn't afford them. Keep in mind that I have purchased every official Beatles release (John, Paul, George and Ringo releases included) but the bootlegs were $30.00 for one disc and there were hundreds of them! No problem if you are wealthy. Not fair, not fair. One day, I turned around and Shazam!; Blogspots! I now possess almost all of the Beatle bootlegs that I have ever desired. There are out takes that will make you cry. Joyous! And it didn't cost me a dime. I feel no remorse for downloading that music, only sweet relief.

I download other types of "sound" from the blogspots: music, comedy, audio books, etc. Most of the material is stuff that has long been out of print. Again, I feel no remorse. Why should I? Who is hurt by me downloading a Bonzo Dog Band concert from 1969? Or Zappa and Pink Floyd jamming in 1969?

Luckily, I was able to get the Seammus Ennis tracks before they were pulled. I would note that finding his recordings is dfficult. Mr. Ennis is much revered and I feel that his legacy is watched over by some very dedicated followers. I have been looking for some time. Glad that I got them. That bein said, now what? I have them. I will enjoy them and I have shared one or two cuts with my cousin, but the game stops there. Who is harmed?

I love the blogs and hope to start my own soon.