Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Illegally Downloading Music Like It’s 1999

Tom Usher, Vice:

Eventually the music industry worked out that it couldn’t just bash people with the proverbial stick, and it created the carrot of way cheaper legal downloading and streaming services, while also going around closing down the websites that had almost destroyed its business.

That tactic pretty much worked, and today I, like everyone else, am more than happy to wrestle with the extensive catalogs of YouTube and Spotify rather than endangering my computer with dodgy software. But I do wonder what happened to those old pirate websites, whether they still exist in some kind of internet graveyard or whether they have all been expunged.

So, as I was feeling particularly blue this week, I decided to try download Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” for free on every old pirate website, to see if any of them had sprung back up in my absence.

It is truly remarkable how long it took for major music labels and movie studios to realize that they couldn’t fight pirates directly; it is equally as remarkable how quickly most of us have transitioned to a streaming world. For ten bucks a month, you can get a virtually limitless catalogue of music on loads of different platforms — from the good, to the less good. For another nine bucks a month, you can get Netflix’s huge library of TV shows and movies. It’s taking the movie studios and distribution companies longer to figure out that holding out on Netflix doesn’t necessarily make it more likely that people will pay to rent an individual movie or buy a whole television show’s season, but they’re coming around.

But if you don’t want to pay for music or movies, it’s as easy as ever to surf the web while flying the Jolly Roger, as long as you know where to look. The fight against piracy has driven these kinds of sites underground, relying upon a more distributed network. Private torrent trackers remain popular, and offer plenty of records and movies that are virtually impossible to find on streaming services or elsewhere. Music blogs remain popular and continue to distribute RAR files hosted outside of the United States, making it difficult to remove either the blog or the files.

They may be illegal and they don’t encourage support for the artists and creators of the work, but all of these files come with a distinct advantage: there’s no DRM or licensing disputes to contend with. That‘s something that the major studios and labels have yet to solve. While we’re being encouraged to put our media libraries into the cloud, we’re also told that we’re not entitled to any of this media. We’re placing yet another controlling party between ourselves and what we’re trying to do, and that party has a poor track record of balancing their own wishes with consumer desires.

There are now more obstacles between us and pirated media compared to, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But streaming media has replaced some of those with potential obstacles that show up every now and again.