Anyone else remember the year 2000? Creed? Backstreet Boys? Britney Spears? Not exactly pop music's heyday. I was one of the kids lapping up Kid Rock and Everlast. Oh, how I wish I would have hedged my bets a little and invested more time (and money) into music that I'd still find interesting and relevant today.
It was in 2000 that I downloaded my first track from Napster (when my last was, I don't remember). It was also the year that album sales in this country hit their peak: 785 million albums sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In a decade, file sharing has gone from a known vice, to a guilt-free, rationalized practice. SoundScan says just 489 million albums were sold in the US last year. That number includes the 1.1 billion tracks that were downloaded legally, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to the 40 billion tracks illegally downloaded in 2008, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Those numbers are staggering. Surprisingly, public sentiment isn't in the industry's favor. Among the more popular reasons given for the decline is that record labels aren't putting out good music. But do you remember what the top sellers were in 2000? They include N'Sync's No Strings Attached (9.9 million), Britney Spears' Oops!...I Did It Again (7.8 million), and Backstreet Boys' Black & Blue (4.2 million). 2009's top seller, Taylor Swift's Fearless, would not have even made 2000's top 10, coming in with sales of 3.2 million. And you can hardly argue they bested her in terms of quality.
As I perused the shelves of Ballard's Sonic Boom on Saturday, searching in vain for Record Store Day exclusives that had long since sold out, I thought about how great it was that independent record stores were getting a nice bump. I thought about how much I enjoy wandering aimlessly through retailers' aisles. And I couldn't help but think what a shame it would be if illegal downloading shut one of them down (not that it hasn't already). Why aren't those of us who spend money to support artists and retailers more upset about the folks who are pulling them down?
We don't talk about illegal downloading much anymore. It was a popular headline during Napster's heyday, and several years after. Then offending kids and their parents started getting sued, they were pegged as sympathetic characters, and the public turned on major labels. It was their fault their business was in the tank. They weren't progressive enough. They were giving away enough content online. This demonization of major labels has had an adverse effect on the entire industry and is, according to Barsuk Record co-founder Josh Rosenfeld, "driving people to feel like it's an ethically pure act to take the music without paying for it."
Illegally downloading music isn't something people are guilty about anymore, it's part of their routine. And sales are down even at web-savvy indies like Seattle's Barsuk and Sub Pop. Indie artists aren't excited about missing out on rent money, either. Singer/songwriter Laura Veirs, for example, recently told me kids have actually asked her to sign CD-Rs of her music at shows.
"I feel like that's just a sea change that's happening especially with the younger people," Veirs says. "They don't even feel guilty about downloading music for free. Artists will make art no matter what, because it's in their bones. But they will have an easier life and probably make better art and be more prolific if they can actually make a living at it."
We're no longer dealing with broke kids who buy records, and download what they can't afford. We're talking about hordes of illegal consumers--a Jupiter Research study found that most illegal file sharers do not buy music--who think nothing of downloading all their music for free. And a cultural environment that's less hostile to them than label bosses. Why aren't the people turning out at Record Store Day more upset about this? Why isn't the conversation less about the missteps of major labels, and more about what can be done to curb illegal downloading?
If the music industry's worth saving--and your favorite artists really, really think it is--we should be realistic about who the offenders are.