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Illegal downloading and the social function of music

Illegal downloading of music has had a massive effect on the record industry. In 1904 Enrico Caruso released the single ‘Vesti la giubba’, the first record to sell more than one million copies. Each sold for $1.50, roughly comparable to £25 now. Today this song can be downloaded for free, along with almost all contemporary recordings. Music sales in the US have dropped by 47% since Napster debuted in 1999, and it is estimated that more than 71,000 jobs have been lost as a result. This trend shows little sign of slowing down. The effect of this would seem to be a decline in professional musicianship, since recording artists will find it increasingly difficult to make a living. However, in the long term illegal downloading may bring about a positive change in our attitude to music and its social function. Instead of seeing music simply as a commodity to be bought and sold, we may be forced to reemphasise its communal and social aspect.

We are used to seeing popular music as a product to be sold by professional musicians to a consuming audience. We browse albums on iTunes before adding them to our ‘basket’ to purchase. This attitude perpetuates a division between audience and artist; the audience consumes, the artist produces. In this relationship the artist is seen as ‘special’, someone with an exceptional talent or gift. Music making is left to a select and professional few while the audience does not participate creatively. If musicians can make a living from their art it is assumed that this will improve the quality of this music, since without the need to work another job they are able to devote more time to their art. There is a concern that if illegal downloading brings about a decline in professional musicianship then the quality of music will suffer. In fact the relationship between ‘quality’ of music and financial incentive is probably more complicated; there are plenty of examples of ‘sell-outs’ compromising the quality of their art for financial success, or acclaimed musicians living in poverty who have made next to no money from music. However, even if we accept the claim that the ‘quality’ of music will suffer, we need to better understand what is meant by ‘quality’ in this context. It is in fact a very narrow definition of the concept, and one that neglects the social and participatory power of music.

Music is more than a commodity. The collective experience of making and experiencing music in a group has extraordinary power. Playing guitar with a group of friends around a campfire, or singing protest songs at a demonstration can be just as affecting as listening to a James Brown CD. In what way is this music of a lower ‘quality’? The musicianship is probably less skilful, but this does not mean it is less valuable. It connects people in a way that is rarely achieved by listening to records, and has the potential for enormous political, emotional and social power. This communal aspect to music is not new; music was probably first developed by humans as part of group ritual and ceremony. In fact before the invention of sound recording this was how most people usually experienced music, by playing and participating in it themselves. Despite the ease of illegal downloading, people still pay huge amounts to attend concerts or DJ sets, showing that we do recognise the social power of collective experience, even if the participatory input is minimal. This is a whole aspect to music that is largely lost when we treat music simply as a commodity. Perhaps with a decrease in ‘professional music’ this is an aspect that will be increasingly emphasised.

Illegal downloading will make it increasingly difficult for people to make money from professional music. In the short term this will mean job losses and economic hardship for musicians, and this is clearly a concern. However in the long term the decline of the ‘professional musician’ may bring about a new attitude to music and its function in society, with an increased emphasis on shared experience. The increase in illegal downloading seems to be fairly inevitable; it is certainly unclear how it could be stopped.  But the long-term impact that it will have on music will not necessarily be negative, and may force us to reassess what it is we think music is for, and why it has value. Perhaps instead of listening to ‘Vesti la giubba’ on an iPod we might actually have a go at playing it.

By Martin B, LUU Revsoc

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2013 by in Culture and tagged , , .

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