Illegal Downloading – Good or Bad for Musicians?

Image taken from http://soundmuseum949.blogspot.com
Image taken from http://soundmuseum949.blogspot.com

The subject of illegally downloading albums is a very thorny one – and musicians aren’t slow to speak out about it. But what irks some people is that those who speak out loudest against downloading – Metallica, Lily Allen, for example – tend to be the very people who can live comfortably on money they’ve already made from their fans. Or else they’re working for major record companies, and definitely won’t have to turn to panhandling any time soon.

Often the people speaking out for illegal downloading are independent musicians, ironically the people who make little to no money from their craft, or promoters who work with musicians and keep a DIY approach to their work. It’s not that they believe necessarily that all music should be free, or that musicians should make no money from their albums – rather, they would see themselves as having a ‘realistic’ point of view. Their ethos tends to be: don’t jail or sue people for uploading to torrents or illegally downloading, let them do it – but ensure that people still support bands in other ways.  To them, making money as a musician is getting harder and harder, but alienating your fans is not a good way to go about moving ahead in your career.

Back in the day.....(click for link to original site)
Back in the day.....(click for link to original site)

Then there are bands like Radiohead, who (sometimes) have a pay-what-you-want ethos. With the release of In Rainbows, Radiohead took what at the time seemed the risky step of allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted for the album. It didn’t, as many suspected it would, backfire on them – but of course the cynical of you could say that as Radiohead probably aren’t likely to cause their bank managers stress anytime soon, it wasn’t that risky at all.

One independent musician who has entered into the fray is Dave Nelligan. He’s a familiar face to Corkonians who has been performing both solo and in bands since his teens. A few months ago, he started thinking about how to get his music out there to people. Rather than take the usual route of relying on people buying the music at gigs or from local record stores – though he’s sure to employ both methods – he decided to make his tracks available to torrent.  So anyone, anywhere, can access his music for free. He won’t make a cent from those downloads, but that’s not his aim. Instead, he sees making his music available for free as being invaluable to helping him progress in his career.

I put some questions to Dave about his decision – as well as some general questions to set the scene for those who aren’t familiar with him – and as you can see he feels very passionate about it. If you feel passionate about this subject too, please leave a comment with your thoughts.

Note – I sent these questions to Dave by email, and he certainly had loads to say! I’m actually glad I didn’t do a face-to-face interview because he’s very adept at putting across his thoughts in an informative and very humorous way.

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Hi Dave, welcome to the Sweet Oblivion blog! First off, for any readers who aren’t familiar with your music, can you tell me about how you started your music career?

Career is probably a misleading word to use at this point. In my late teens, music became my passion and took over my life. I never made a living out of it. I was in a couple of bands when I was still in school, played lots of gigs. Lacking any formal musical education, I was learning as I went along. When I went to college I started playing solo gigs, just me and a guitar. And I enjoyed it a lot before everybody got so sick of ‘singer-songwriters’ in the mid-noughties. By then I was addicted to home recording, developing and expanding musical ideas in new, unexpected ways, hitting a learning curve so sharp it took a couple of years to catch my breath. I played in lots of bands through this time, quite aimlessly in terms of carving out a career, but all worthwhile experiences. A lot of factors need to be right for a band to have a fighting chance. I’ve never been in that situation, with the right musicians who have the necessary time and commitment to offer a project. We’re all part-timers and day-jobbers, wracked with nerves, insecurities and mortgages. We knock our girlfriends up and randomly move abroad for a year. Not necessarily that but, you know, complications. We complete masterpieces and never show them to anybody.

How would you describe your music?

There’s a very long answer to that question. There’s a very short one too. The short one is ‘altpopfolkrock’. That’s what I spontaneously put in ‘genre’ when I was ripping the MP3s. Edited highlights from the long answer include the words ’emotional’, ‘melodic’, ‘harmonies’, ‘idiosyncratic’ and the phrases ‘social commentary’ and ‘confessional tone’. Lyrics are important. Good lyrics pull me in. It’s hard to describe yourself as a musician or a band without name-checking influences. But once you get into that, you could be here all day. There are too many. I was never ever happy with answering that question. Talking about it is nowhere near as much fun as getting on stage and showing people what you can do.

Nothing’s ever been perfect. Even when you’re lo-fi, on a budget of nothing, perfection is something you strive for.

How has your music changed over the years?

It’s improved no end. People with a love of music are always learning new things or seeing things they knew in brand new ways. I wrote songs continuously and compulsively for years. I got all the obvious songs out of my system, made all the obvious mistakes in writing, in recording, in arrangement, in live situations, in rehearsals, in performance. I made the obvious mistakes and a million other not so obvious ones. I was figuring out what works for me. I was developing my uniqueness, honing my instincts. I recorded hundreds of demos. Nothing’s ever been perfect. Even when you’re lo-fi, on a budget of nothing, perfection is something you strive for.Through the constraints and the compromises, you’re forced to find more creative uses for your limited resources. I’ve never made anything perfect. But then I’ve never loved anything perfect.

You persevere for a while with your rinky-dink mike and your cheap-ass keyboard, then your mind is blown when you finally get a decent microphone, a kick-ass digital piano, drum machines, computer programs, a mandolin, a Tele, an E-Bow. You pimp your acoustic and FireWire your Midi. I even got excited when I bought my first kazoo. A home studio is a Frankenstein’s monster, you keep adding new limbs, replacing the rotting ones. Great analogy, Dave. My music hasn’t changed dramatically, it’s just got more sides to it.

As a musician I’ve increased in confidence and competence. When I write lyrics I try to think outside the box. I still like songs to be fairly simple and melodic. That’s what people respond to. That’s what I’ve always connected with most. You can build songs up and have amazing creative arrangements but the best songs will usually still sound good all stripped down. My songs would probably work with a ukulele round a campfire.

The internet is very accepting and open-minded. Anywhere with that much porn has to be.

You’ve recently taken the step of making your music available through torrents – why was this?

Given my chequered history of lengthy and engaging but ultimately fruitless adventures with various doomed bands, I never got around to releasing any music in my own name. This felt like a shame. I started messing around making music videos for my songs with public domain stuff, vintage cartoons and instructional films. YouTube will take anything. When I had picked out a few songs I thought went together well, I decided to take it a step further and release a mini-album as a torrent. The internet is very accepting and open-minded. Anywhere with that much porn has to be. My seven song mini-album is a drop in the ocean. There is so much free music online.

There are a lot of headaches involved in selling music. There’s a lot of debate about things that are up in the air. It’s hard to sell music. But it’s easy to give it away. The songs on Junk from a Past Life were chosen carefully. They fit the mood of the moment, the release format, the videos. The artwork was supposed to be on the cover of a CD I recorded with a band early last year. It never got released but I had paid for the use of the photo, which I loved. The title Junk from a Past Life bound it all together as a weird abstract biography. It felt right. I did it.

The internet is giving people powers they never had before, like the power to raise your own profile.

There are varying opinions on downloading, with some proclaiming it as the saviour of music, others as the worst thing to happen for musicians…. how do you think that downloading benefits independent musicians such as yourself?

Unknown artists have nothing to lose. I gave away my music for free because no one would pay for it, nobody knows who I am so why would they? The internet is giving people powers they never had before, like the power to raise your own profile. Tiny chain-reactions are occurring in fledgling grassroots movements. People are grappling with all the new opportunities and possibilities.

I’ve listened to more music in the last three years than in my whole life before that. It’s been a revelation. Is it morally right that record companies had such a stranglehold on something as beautiful as art? They had the whole system sewn up for so long, screwing countless bands and fans, growing rich and fat and corrupt and useless, that they thought they had a right to our money. And during their fifty-year reign they abused their position of privilege as the gatekeepers of culture by knowingly and with intent developing and promoting increasingly banal commercial tripe. It was as blatant as boy bands by the late nineties. Take the kiddies money and shove Ronan Keating down their throats. Honestly, people get into good music if they’re exposed to it. Truly, daytime radio is evil.

People would respond to good music if they heard it, if they ever heard it, if they had ever heard anything like it in their lives. But the radio only plays the number one song, which was ordered by the record shop, based on projected sales from the marketing departments at the record companies. Those units in the record shop made it number one before a single end-customer had bought it. It’s number one in the charts now, it’s on TV. All the time. It’s on TV. In the pub. On the radio. All the time. In the shop. All the time. On the bus. All the time. Naturally, people go out and buy it. It’s number one. It’s popular. Don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t have it. The record companies took something beautiful, music, the music people love, and slowly replaced it with drivel. Gross oversimplifications of horribly complex multi-faceted situations aside, now the record companies are getting heavy with PirateBay and even end-users. Pay up, Bub. We’re bigger than you, we’ll just take everything you own and let you rot in jail. Sickening. Their paranoid belligerence in the current fertile climate of change is sad to watch. The fallacy that downloading an illegal copy of something equates to lost revenue for a record company is based on a false premise. They suppose that people would want all those CDs if they weren’t free. Okay, they might want them, but wanting them isn’t buying them. No sale. Free music exposes fans to bands. Play my town. Pack the house. That’s how bands should make money, by connecting with fans, fans who come to the shows, fans who buy the CD and the t-shirt at the merch stall, fans who play your music to their friends.

New business models are emerging, this whole industry is in turmoil. It’s a battlefield. I didn’t see the harm in firing a couple of shots, but I have no idea if we can win the war. The world has given away so much of its dignity to commerce. If record companies fell to their knees, I would see it as a first step to major reform in a creative industry that currently lacks stability, accessibility, fairness and sustainability. These words mean humans are suffering.

All the accumulated efforts to reach out to prospective fans can lead to unforeseen and exciting things.

Do you think these days that unsigned/independent musicians have to look beyond the ‘usual’ way of promoting themselves to help their music get out to different people?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to try and do things a bit differently. I released Junk from a Past Life as a torrent just to see what kind of reaction it would get. I made these promo videos and stuck them up on YouTube. Somehow I’ve blagged an interview on your awesome blog with its sophisticated, intelligent readership. [Ha!] Posting on forums, Facebook, MySpace, it all makes a tiny difference. All the accumulated efforts to reach out to prospective fans can lead to unforeseen and exciting things. People need a chance to hear what you’re doing. I try to make good music, and worthwhile online content. Innovative thinkers have a way of sticking out from the crowd. People should make more of an effort to be less obvious.

…I think I made it clear my disdain for their middleman, puppet-master approach to their place in the music ‘industry’.

Can you envision a day where downloading will be the norm, and not an illegal act? Do you think music will ever be totally free, or is it always necessary to put a price on it?

The music industry as we knew it is now an angry wounded beast. I can envision it dying but I’m not offering great odds. I envision it because I want to. It’s a fun thing to envision. Maybe a revolution will come, maybe a totalitarian world order will emerge. This illegal downloads thing has got everyone kind of twitchy. Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of Monster makes a great hate figure for this argument. He’s just so perfectly misguided, unenlightened and unimaginative in his thinking. Picture his face for a moment. Now let’s move on. Is it necessary to put a price on it? In my earlier crazy-rant about record companies, I think I made it clear my disdain for their middleman, puppet-master approach to their place in the music ‘industry’. Is it necessary? Hard question. Bands sell CDs at gigs and people happily buy them. Bands can make money without record companies. Stranger things have happened. Bands sell music online and if people are willing to pay, if the band has reached that plateau of success and popularity, then they’ve earned that revenue and I wouldn’t dream of saying they didn’t. But when Radiohead said pay what you want for In Rainbows, it was a great acknowledgement of the fact that some people will always take the music for free. And Radiohead don’t begrudge them. Those fans bought Radiohead albums since the early nineties. And Radiohead t-shirts and Radiohead concert tickets and Radiohead books and box-sets. Radiohead can afford to give it away. They’ll always have loads to sell. It was still a cool thing to do though. And some people are pissy because they’re not Radiohead. Picture Lars again. Now picture Radiohead. Now picture Lars again. See?

To sum up, some music will be free, some won’t be free and some shouldn’t be but will be anyway. And clever people will always manage to turn these changing circumstances to their advantage.

I could be a cult artist in Argentina.

What was the reaction to you torrenting your music? Was there a lot of interest in the torrents?

I released it as a featured torrent on Mininova. Featured torrents show up for about a day on the front page of the site. This generated a lot of random traffic on the first day, about three hundred downloads. In the last month it’s been downloaded from Mininova about three hundred more times. I recently noticed it’s turned up on nearly every torrent site I could find, so there’s no way of knowing how many times it’s been downloaded now. I could be a cult artist in Argentina. This is what I love about the internet. My YouTube videos have had about a thousand views so far, but a quick search confirmed that, yes, this content too has been co-opted by random mysterious websites around the world. At least people think it’s good enough to steal. And if you love something, you should give it away, no matter how cheesy that sounds. I love the idea that a couple of thousand people have heard my music in the last month and all I had to do was sit at a computer for a few hours. And now it’s out of my hands, it’s gathering momentum. People actually like it.

What are your plans for the rest of the year – have you any gigs coming up?

I’m disgusted at myself that I haven’t got a big gig to plug right now. I’m currently rehearsing with a newish band called Mystery Guest Stars. It’s too soon to call us beleaguered but I’m vaguely tempted to. It’s early days yet… I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be extremely awesome in the near future. Meanwhile I’ll be playing a solo set at the Cheeky (Tikki) Sunday Social in the Slate in Cork on Sunday October 18th. For the rabidly curious.

Thanks for the interview, Aoife, and reader, thanks for reading till the very end. Your reward… free stuff!

http://www.mininova.org/tor/2877976
http://www.youtube.com/DN0619

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6 thoughts on “Illegal Downloading – Good or Bad for Musicians?

  1. There have been a bunch of artists who have embraced the internet as a form of disseminating music and I think their listeners respect them for it. One that comes to mind is Imogen Heap; she has a huge online presence and her newest album was released online first. She knew it would get pirated and circulate but she used her personal interactions to ask people to pay and she ranked #1 in Internet Album Chart. (from http://www.audiotube.com/news/2278-imogen-heaps-ellipse-debuts-top-5-on-the-billboard-top-200.html

    I enjoyed your post and interview, thank you.

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