The problem of music piracy goes much deeper than the debate the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wants you to believe it is, contended a panel of international experts Monday morning at SXSW Interactive. Grey area music distribution is perhaps a better term for the phenomenon that is plaguing record labels, robbing artists, and challenging academics to devise potential solutions. But the phenomenon isn’t all bad — that’s why they call it “grey.”
For hundreds of years, artists have co-opted existing forms of artistic culture and recreated them for their own use and for the consumption of future generations. That, in a nutshell, is how art works. So, does this mean we’ve been going after the problem of music piracy in the entirely wrong way? Such was the thorny topic at the heart of the panel “Neither Moguls nor Pirates: Grey Area Music Distribution.”
“Culture moves ahead by borrowing,” said Jeff Ferrell, a professor at the University of Kent. “We are in some ways reinventing issues that have been at the heart of human culture all along.”
In the 1970s, punk culture borrowed existing headlines and recombined them with sounds and images to create something new. In the 1980s, hip-hop reassembled existing tracks to create an entirely new genre. Today, artists engage in mashups, remixes and sampling. The process of taking existing art and integrating it is a critical ingredient of any artistic endeavor. It’s also a controversial one.
“All media industries have used the word piracy with great abandon. They refer to this huge industry of unauthorized duplication on a massive scale,” said Pat Aufderheide, a professor at the Center for Social Media at American University. “They’ve also used it for downloading material that is freely available for sale, which is stealing.”
Partly as a result of unauthorized “stealing,” many artists like David Sylvian and Brian Eno have resorted to selling ultra-expensive, “luxury” box-sets of their music that contain all the goodies a hard-core fan looks for. Argued Heitor Alvelos, a professor at the University of Porto’s Science and Technology Park, “There’s nothing grey about these luxury editions, they assure a substantial profit so that they don’t have to worry about piracy.”
Sam Howard-Spink, a professor of music business at New York University and an expert in the music industry in emerging economies, contended that in countries like Brazil, piracy is not as much a moral issue as it is a pricing issue. “There is no actual competition of pricing made by western media conglomerates,” he said. “Maintaining high prices is the equivalent of when iTunes raised prices. They sold fewer units but made more money.”
In the US, piracy has been entirely an enforcement issue, in which the RIAA has taken people to court and won settlements in the millions of dollars for stealing as few as two dozen tracks. But in emerging countries, the pirate networks are actually some of the most effective sales venues for local artists to shop their wares, Howard-Spink said.
“Anything you’ve ever heard about numbers regarding piracy is complete bollocks,” he continued. “There’s no good journalism on this at all. The term ‘piracy’ employs total criminality. It blocks any form of discussion.”