The Slow Downfall of Illegal Downloads

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music, Tech

Earlier this fall, I decided to get Arcade Fire’s latest album The Suburbs. Like everyone, I get more and more music online, but in this case, I also thought maybe I’d go in to a record store and pick up an actual CD. It’d be nice, I considered, to have a physical copy, and the smell of a CD booklet is certainly nostalgic. After procrastinating my record store outing for weeks, however, I finally gave up and bought the album on iTunes.In retrospect, what surprises me about this whole experience is that I didn’t illegally download the album. In fact, I didn’t even consider it. Though I’m not ethically opposed to pirating media — I’ve done a fair share of it in the past and believe it has a legitimate place in the consumer music ecosystem — the thought just didn’t really cross my mind this time around. What’s more, some significant evidence suggests that I’m not alone, and that people are increasingly turning — if not yet stampeding — to legal channels to get their music. (Slate tech writer and NPR contributor Farhad Manjoo discusses some of these trends here.)
So why are my downloading habits changing? Why might everyone else’s be slowly changing too? Some in the media industry might point to the huge lawsuits the record labels occasionally bring — and win — against music pirates. Manjoo also points out in the article linked above that the download-now-use-later approach to music is starting to feel outdated in a streaming world. Or maybe everyone just realized that downloading was wrong.But none of those explanations really seem to explain my own experience. I’ve never been particularly afraid of a huge lawsuit, I typically want to download my music for later consumption, and I don’t think pirating is all that bad.

Instead, I think that gradually, without my even noticing it, legitimate music providers have gotten really good at what they do.

When I download something illegally, I take what I can get. Sometimes that means great quality files, but usually it doesn’t. Time and again I’ve downloaded pirated music only to find that it sounds tinny, or that I have to manually add album and artist information to the file before my music player will properly organize it. In extreme instances, it can even mean mislabeled songs, or files infected with viruses.

When I download something from iTunes or Amazon, however, I never have to worry about anything. I click a single button, and a few seconds later the file is on my computer. Magically, it seems, the song is linked to album art, includes all the correct artist information, and always works perfectly on my other devices. Though the sound quality may not compare to that of vinyl, it’s almost always as good as something I can get for free.

The point here is that, at least for me, the music industry is providing a tenable alternative to pirating. Instead of trying to punish anyone who gets free music, companies are increasingly opting to compete in the marketplace — and, amazingly, they’re sort of winning.

Though the end of pirated music may still be a long way off, greater ease and convenience are increasingly winning over consumers like myself.


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