Online exclusive: To kill an album leak: How digital downloads have lessened music’s value, increased its spread – all at once
MGMT’s sophomore album “Congratulations” won’t be released until April 13, but leaks of the psychedelic-pop duo’s music have been available online for nearly a month. As a way to lessen the number of illegal downloads, MGMT posted the entire album streaming on its Web site, www.whoismgmt.com, in late March. The band posted a message to its fans: “Hey everybody, the album leaked, and we wanted you to be able to hear it from us. We wanted to offer it as a free download but that didn’t make sense to anyone but us.”
This tongue-in-cheek message to a fan base says a lot about the record industry as it enters the second decade of the digital music era. But first, a little history lesson.
In the early 2000s, as MP3 files began to accumulate on the Internet and organizing them became a pressing matter, Napster was king. The online file sharing service revolutionized ethical and legal questions surrounding issues of copyright. Thus, we entered a new age, an age where the value of music and the gradual degradation of physical-format sales has caused us to question what price, if any, we should pay for a work of art. After Napster was shut down by a court order, dozens of similar sites popped up on the Internet, some rising to more fame than others. (Among the most popular were Kazaa and Limewire, though their music organization was often plagues by incorrect track, album and artist listings.) At that time, downloading music illegally was about as easy (and as fun) as digging through a pile of smelly socks in the hopes of finding a clean shirt.
Today, the most common online file distribution Web sites are BitTorrent sites, which store an enormous library of torrent files full of pirated media. You can log on to torrent directories like btjunkie.org and, with the help of a torrent application that allows you to download files, you are just a click away from expansive pirated music libraries that include rare albums, early EPs and full artist discographies. To make a long story short, that pile of smelly socks from the days of Limewire is now an immaculately organized walk-in closet.
Back to MGMT, whose album was leaked weeks before its release date. They are trying to reduce the impact of the leak; it’s like saying, “here, listen to our album for free on our Web site, just don’t download it illegally.” MGMT is, for the time being, succumbed to the realization that its music is flying through cyberspace and no one is paying for it. The question is, will those same fans who are listening to pirated copies of a leaked album go and purchase that very same music once it is officially released? Perhaps some of them will, but certainly album sales will be hurt; on the other hand, people could have just waited until the day of the album released, then logged onto a torrent site and found the same album and illegally downloaded it then.
One thing is for sure: Music means much less to people, it has less value, when you can’t hold it in your hand. When you walk into a record store, you wouldn’t think about shoving a few CDs under your shirt and walking out, would you? And yet, by clicking your mouse a few times you can end up with the same product – music you didn’t pay for. I think it’s easy for us to forget where music comes from, to forget about those artists who have spent years trying to make it in the business. It’s easy to be cynical about the oligopoly of major record labels, but don’t forget about all those independent record labels that are trying to support new and exciting progress in the world of music.
I know most people have a lot of files in their music libraries that they didn’t pay for; it’s natural. Files are easy to download online, and its even easier to share and copy music with your friends. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I just want to say that when you love an artist, or an album or anything, you should want to pay for it. By purchasing an album, you are saying you support what a band is doing; you are saying, “this is the direction I want music to go.” Most importantly, you’re keeping the very music you love alive, so you can enjoy it longer.
At the same time, music has expanded in so many different directions that it’s hard to expect people to pay for everything that they want to listen to. Personal music libraries of 5,000 songs are not uncommon – does that mean those people should have spent (assuming a price of 60 cents per song) $3,000 on music? It’s hard to say, and there are no real answers, because we’re still living in a time of transition. The music industry is doing all it can to respond to technical and cultural changes surrounding the consumption of music; we are still riding the wave of change. It’s exciting to think we get to be a part of a moment in history that people will be talking about generations. We are the MP3 generation, a group of people who’ve come of age in a time where music went from being something physical to something intangible that flew through the air at unimaginable speeds, readily available to anyone with an Internet connection and a love of musical exploration. I’m excited to see where it’s going, where we’re going and how the dissemination of music will change in our lifetimes.
Columnist Jordan Jacobo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org