My Two Weeks As A File Sharer


When David and I were in High School, we were part of a circle for six or seven guys who made cassette tapes for each other, and thus we were the subject of apocalyptic attacks about how theft of intellectual property was destroying the music industry.  We were and are banner examples of the contrary:  at 15 I already spent every penny I could on music, and if I didn’t have 150 illegal cassettes to complement my 150 LPs, no one would have made an additional penny – I just would have had less music to listen to.  No one has ever gone broke because I copied an album of theirs.  On the contrary, if it was any good they made royalties on four others that I bought as soon as I could.  In fact, not only have I later bought legal copies of everything I’ve cared about, but in many cases I have bought them twice, first on LP, then CD.   

About two weeks before the high quality file sharing community was shut down, a 25-year old I know through political activities invited me to join.  If I’d received this information 18 months earlier, and had been so inclined, I might have saved $1000 by downloading music that I instead bought on CD (primarily used, as it happens, so neither artist nor record company made any royalties from these purchases anyway), downloaded legally, or converted from LP – something David did for me, since I never figured out how to do it.  With 11000 songs already on my iPod, most of my backlist of desires already covered, and my general inclination to buy rather than copy new CDs that interest me as they come out anyway, I joined a file sharing community for the first time. 

Before I move on, I want to say something about that “inclination” to purchase I just mentioned.  My basic sense of the world goes like this.  Of course poor people steal, why the hell wouldn’t they?  Of course teenagers who love music will copy files they don’t have the money to buy.  That doesn’t mean that rich people should steal, as they all too frequently do, or that those teenagers won’t, by preference, choose to buy what they once copied, just as David and I did.  As a 40-year old professional in a two-income, one-child family, I’m closer to rich then poor, certainly by any worldwide standard.  I don’t feel bad for CEOs or stockholders about the theft of their “property rights”, but I too benefit from property rights and I’m not inclined to do the stealing myself.

I joined Oink to learn about how filesharing works.  Obviously, if you’re 25 or under you’ve just stopped reading, having gotten to the part where you realize that I am a dinosaur and everything I have to say on this topic is obvious and boring.  But really, what interested me about participating in Oink was not the need to save money or even the need to find rare tracks, since I had already paid the $75 for the CDs I wanted that I couldn’t get for less, and I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.  This is what I discovered about the appeal of Oink to people serious about music:

1.  It was a very fine library, better and more serious then any commercial source currently available.  It’s fineness came from the range of music, ranging from the commercial to the obscure and in time from the earliest recorded music to the present.  No single internet site, neither iTunes nor eMusic nor the Russian mp3 sites that are the subject of international contestation over Russian participation in trade treaties was as likely to contain as interesting a range of music as the range that was generated by music lovers exchanging their collections themselves.  In addition, it’s fineness also came from the policing of file quality:  files exchanged on the site were, according to the rules, always stored at 192kbps or higher, and most popular downloads were available at 320kbps for those who wanted the larger files.  As a result, the file quality was consistently higher then what you pay for from iTunes or other commercial sites.  This is not a small consideration to people running their mp3s through serious sound systems.

2.  New files were generally made available as a result of the request/request fulfillment system.  This not only made it possible to ask 170,000 people around the world if they had the rarities that interested you, but it made it easy to find new things that might interest you since you could trace the musical interests of the people who downloaded your requested material through their other downloads.  This is no different from other forms of “networking” that happen on the internet (Netflix:  “you may also be interested in . . .”), but it is a more organic and noncommercial and personal way of exploring musical connections then any other available.

3.  Oink had free, noncommercial chat rooms to exchange information and ideas with people who shared your tastes.

4.  The one and only unalterable rule of membership on the site is:   share your music.  If you did not maintain an acceptable share ratio (bytes uploaded from your computer to bytes you downloaded from others), you were out.  No wonder Oink was inhabited by the kinds of teenagers and college students and people in their 20s who spend every penny they have to buy the music they want, and the reason they are downloading is that they crave more music and this is the way they can get it.  These are the people going to concerts, going to clubs, buying fan merchandise, keeping the music industry wealthy.  They were buying CDs so that they have something to offer on the site to maintain their share ratios. 

Collectively, these four things made Oink an appealing place to be, regardless of whether you believe in file sharing. 
In other words, what I really learned from being on Oink is what kind of business model would be necessary for a record industry that was committed to making music available to music lovers and avoiding losses based on illegal downloads.  I am certain that a high quality music library of this sort, charging monthly membership fees (which presumably would then pay copyright holders for rights to their music) would attract a very significant percentage of Oink users as subscribers.  Indeed, if the fees were discounted to those who could show student status and/or youth, this could be a means to attract young people into the practice of paying for the rights to music rather than assuming it is free and copyable. 

Back in the day when I made poetry chapbooks and performed on the national poetry slam circuit, I made it a point to say in my chapbooks that others should feel free to copy my work freely.  So it may seem surprising that I am concerned about the economic health of the music business such that I should advocate that anyone pay for the music they listen to in the first place.  But I am and I do.  I do not want rock music to go the way of publishing, in which there are essentially no advances anymore, and anyone who wants to write, or to get an industry job, has to self-finance often for the better part of a decade just to get a foot in the door.  This is a recipe for making it impossible for anyone who is not rich to participate in rock.

It’s not just that artists should receive royalties for their work (and they should) – it’s that record companies do perform a socially necessary role, however distorted it is by greed and lies.  By providing the capital (studio time, advances on tours etc.) necessary to start careers in music, they permit a variety of artists to bloom that otherwise wouldn’t.  Investors in young musicians aren’t going away because the need for investment capital isn’t going away. 

But shutting down Oink, which the British police did in October, two weeks after I joined, doesn’t address the issues in an honest manner.  There was no justification for CD prices to be double those of vinyl records in 1988, when it was cheaper to mass produce CDs then LPs:  this was sheer profiteering on the part of the record companies.  And there is no justification for $.99 cent per song downloads.  Such prices guarantee the proliferation of file sharing sites, and indeed while the specific mastermind behind Oink was arrested and charged, there can be no doubt that the many many anonymous collaborators are now making plans to rebuild. 

Between the record companies who have profiteered off of my love for music for 25 years and the teenagers who are downloading illegally, I know who’s side I’m on.  Is there someone, perhaps a small entrepreneur of my age and music-listening background, someone who made tapes as a kid because that was the only way to get the music s/he craved, who will create the library built on legitimate principles that can compete with file sharing sites because it’s a good enough library on it’s own terms?  Do the people who will have to license the music at low enough rates to make the building of such a site profitable exist? 



One Response to “My Two Weeks As A File Sharer”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    In the ’40s (’20s?) the record industry tried, with mixed success, to prevent radio stations from airing records. Also around that time, when music publishing –not recording– was king, publishers wouldn’t let recording artists alter the lyrics, often even for mere gender reversal.
    So the music industry’s failure to understand what’s good for it goes way, way back.

    Although I missed the boat on Oink, its share-ratio rule seems key.

    Emusic’s limitations are its subscription plan and its library — no major-label music (although a bit of formerly-major label music gets on, which sometimes means the artist has bought out the rights), and too much current indie music available only briefly, with a time lag after its street date, or just never. The majors don’t like the lack of DRM (not only can you add it to as many machines as you want, but once you’ve bought it you own the rights — you can download it again and again — unless the album gets pulled from the site). But this didn’t stop Universal from actually owning emusic outright for a few years in the early ’00s.

    All that said, I recently doubled my subscription to 200 tracks a month — if ever I can’t find new hot things to download, I can apply my curiousity to some of their offbeat stuff, or go to their very deep collection of jazz from all eras, especially starting with bop, where most of the best stuff still isn’t owned by the majors.

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