Why I Don't File Swap

This is the argument I use on my friends to guilt trip them into paying for music they like. It still doesn't work.
Photo: William Iven

It’s not for any criminal/fear of prosecution reason. If it was this would be a short essay! In reality, it’s because I love finding out about new bands which, more often than not, happen to be released on independent labels. So what does loving music have to do with not stealing it? Surely all those file sharing swappers love music too or they wouldn’t be spending their time doing it right? Wrong. At least if you follow my logic.

In order to create anything of decent quality, from a book to a comic to a painting to a musical composition, a person has to invest considerable time honing their craft to achieve a positive outcome. Just like a lot of things in life, practice makes perfect. But what separates a hobby from a profession, at least in the eyes of the IRS, is if you make money doing it. So me writing this essay for my zine is a hobby. I don’t make any money doing it but it's fun for me. This is the case for the vast majority of bands out there. They jam in their garage and maybe play at their friend’s parties but it’s never anything serious. It’s a hobby.

But the second a band takes the time, and more importantly the money, to record an album they are crossing the line between hobby and profession. They are actively trying to earn income by selling their album, either through a label or by themselves. In most cases, those outside of a home recorded CD-R passed out at shows for instance, the band or label has invested considerable resources in this process, from equipment to studio time to the manufacturing and marketing of the album. They are obviously aiming to not only recoup their investment but make an actual profit. Why? So they can continue to take the time necessary to practice, play gigs and write and record albums. Yes they are doing it because they enjoy it but everyone needs to make money.

So what do people do when they download an album a band/label put all that time and money in to for free? They are essentially rendering all the countless hours of sweat and effort, the scrounged up money, the heart and passion poured out through song for naught. Without regard to the very real people that have, in some cases, invested everything: their time, their money, into a project, file swappers enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor without giving anything back. This disrupts the entire creative process. If artists are not compensated for their time they are forced to get “real” jobs which in turn limits their time to devote to creating/perfecting what they do. In some instances, like when a band just sucks, the market is telling them they're not going to make it and this is a good thing, both for them and for us!

But what about the countless quality bands that have countless albums swapped every day, never making a dime off it? As you can see by concert ticket and merchandise prices, they are forced to make it up in other ways. I think some people naively assume that their favorite bands will just soldier on selling less and less albums, year after year without any real harm coming to them. I can’t say again how false this is. It’s not hard to imagine a world where only the biggest bands (a bleak world for indie music indeed!) survive off tour earnings only because no one pays for their records anymore. It sounds far-fetched but isn’t that the direction things have been moving in for the last few years? CD sales are off 20% this year while digital sales haven’t even made up a fraction of that.

So that’s why I do not download illegal music. When I pay for an album I’m directly investing in that band’s future ability to provide more music I can enjoy. Seems like a small trade-off for something that has brought so much joy and has been such a big part of my life. But apparently, like a child left alone in a candy store, the temptation of free loot is just too strong. Even the fear of getting caught hasn’t seemed to put a pause on the activity but maybe the next statement will. Imagine a world where young bands can’t put out an album because they won’t get any of the money back and they can’t tour because they don’t have an album out. Imagine a world where no one wants to be a rock star anymore?

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