To a Mother Concerned About File Sharing

A number of musicians today are blogging responses to this letter:

I have a teenage son who tells me his pirating music is no big deal. Since he is a musician himself, I point out to him that someday that’s going to be his money people are stealing. But he remains unphased.

He tells me the record sales make money for the record label, not the artist. He says that the artists make all their money from touring and live concerts. He thinks the pirated music promotes the concerts and therefore helps the artist make more money. I still don’t allow pirating in my house.

But tell me what you think – as artists out there having your work “shared,” are you just glad to have it being enjoyed, or does it bother you? Admittedly, he is stealing music that is recorded by major record labels, so maybe its different than the independent musician working for his living. But I’d still like to hear what you think.


Here’s mine.

First: Pirates are ruthless and violent criminals. Your son is not a pirate. He’s not even a thief. He’s just a kid who’s copying stuff.

Now, the copying he’s doing is illegal. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Here’s what I think: It’s about support, and about respect.


When you pay for music in a world that has so much music for free, you’re not really paying for the music at all. You’re paying for convenience, and for peace of mind, but mostly, you’re doing it to support the people who made the music. You give them money because you’re grateful that they made something you like, or because you want them to be able to make more things you’ll like, or both.

There are lots of ways to support musicians. Lots. Pay for CDs. Go to concerts. Send donations. Tell your friends. Provide lodging. Vote in contests. Sponsor recordings. Write fan mail. Host house concerts. Put up posters. Make mix tapes. Buy T-shirts. And on and on.

And, yes, make copies of music you like. Making copies doesn’t do a thing for musicians by itself. But some of the people who get those copies are going to like the music enough do those things I was just talking about.

Now, anonymous file sharing is about the least effective way to make that happen. Much better to give one friend a copy of a CD and tell her why you love it than to share a thousand MP3s with a million strangers.

But the key is support. Me, I don’t care if you’re paying for CDs. Are you supporting the musicians who make the music you want to hear? Are you going to those shows and writing those letters? Then you’re all clear by me.


That said, musicians disagree about this. We disagree a lot. If someone made some music you love, try your best to respect their own feelings about copying it.

I made the abstract argument above, but let me tell you how I really feel: I would love it if there were enough people digging our music that you could find it on LimeWire. I’m speaking only for myself here, not the band, but I don’t think they’d disagree.

But other musicians feel like if you copy their music instead of buying it, you’re stealing from them. I don’t agree with that, but if I hear them say it, I sure won’t copy their music for myself or anyone else.

Most musicians haven’t taken a public stance about it one way or another. That’s where your judgement comes into play.

This is actually the reason I mostly avoid bootlegged music from major labels: If, say, Bob Seger is in business with a label that has, through the RIAA, sued consumers for file sharing, and Seger hasn’t publicly disavowed the lawsuit, then I have to assume he agrees with them, and I won’t download his music. If that means he’s missing out on the alleged promotional benefits of my having an illegal copy of “Still the Same”, well, he and I can both live with that.

Speaking of major labels and differing opinions, here’s the best thing I found while I was researching this post: Paul McCartney teaching “Let It Be” to the Beatles, an ancient bootleg provided for you by the founder of Artists Against Piracy.


  1. Posted April 16, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t have said it better myself! Support the musicians you love and please help keep music in schools!

  2. Posted April 19, 2009 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    It’s a nice idea to support musicians. But take the analogy I used in my own response to this question: if this were the ice cream business, and ice cream theft and unlawful “sharing” were prevalent, would you suggest that it’s ok for people steal ice cream that they really like so long as they share it with their friends and spread the word about how great it is? This seems to be the position a lot of musicians and fans are taking but once you substitute another product for CD’s, it sounds pretty lame.

  3. Posted April 20, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex. Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. You’re right, I don’t think people should steal ice cream. I just don’t think copying digital music is the same thing.

    If I’m in the ice cream business, each unit of ice cream costs me time and money to manufacture and distribute. If you steal a carton from me, that’s one more carton I have to buy ingredients and packaging for, put together, and ship in a freezer to your local supermarket.

    Here in the music business, if you copy my CD from your friend, or download it with LimeWire, that act doesn’t cost me a cent or a second. You can say it costs me the money I would have made if you’d bought it, but “I didn’t make some money I would like to have made” is very different from “you took something away from me”.

    (Fundamentally, when you steal something from me, you deprive me of the thing I had. But when you copy something I have, I still have it. That’s a stark distinction, and it’s why we have separate laws for copyright and for theft.)

    Now, you know I’m not saying it doesn’t cost anything to make music. It takes time and money to record, not to mention buying instruments and other gear, and, except for the rawest punks, years of lessons and practice. But once I’ve put all that time and money into it, the added cost to me of each downloaded MP3 is zero. That’s just not the same cost structure as ice cream.

    I’m all in favor of musicians making money – I’m trying to make some myself. I just think we need to look at how to make it. What works for ice cream may not work for us.

  4. Posted April 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Just because it doesn’t cost the people who made the recording any “extra” money when someone downloads, doesn’t mean it isn’t theft. If it weren’t so easy and consequence free to acquire music files that you don’t pay for, then you’d be forced to either pay for it, or just not acquire it. Substitute some kind of “cloned” ice cream and it works the same: ice cream sales drop as a direct result of people acquiring something without paying for it. There’s no other word for this except theft.

    That said, if you read my post then you know that I don’t favor cracking down on file-sharing because I recognize the advantages of being able to distribute music this way. And now that people are used to music being basically free, they aren’t going to be able to go back to the old way without some serious backlash. We just need to account for the fact that the internet and computer companies are already making money on this and force them to fork it over to the people who actually spent time and money making the music.

  5. Posted April 22, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Yum, cloned ice cream.