Every couple of weeks or so a new podcast or blog emerges that offers free downloads of out-of-print or rare recordings. Most of these sites also display a disclaimer, stating something to the point of: â€œWeâ€™re only posting these digitized high-quality recordings because they are otherwise unavailable. Weâ€™re not distributing pirated copies, no-sir-ee!â€
A great deal of music is out-of-print, including many recordings that have a viable, but small, audience. The recordings remain out-of-print in most cases because the cost of re-printing, re-pressing, and/or re-mastering is several times the amount of money that can be made by offering legitimate copies for sale. However, should this potential audience of perhaps several hundred individuals lose the opportunity to enjoy what in their minds might be a classic? Should art be not seen, not heard and not experienced because of its lack of commercial viability?
While the recordings may only exist in LP format or both LP and CD formats, the market for certain rare recordings on eBay and other forums can be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. One can debate the intricacies and justifications of free-market economics, but is it fair, or is it just for savvy collectors to profit off of the second-hand selling of art while the artist doesnâ€™t get a cut?
Enter the free download sites. They offer the entire album, either digitized from the original LP format, or ripped form a CD. Usually, the sound quality is quite good. The world, including the core audience of several hundred, can now experience the art. Life is good for everyoneâ€¦or is it?
It is debatable whether or not the original artist benefits from or would even condone this practice. And it will vary from artist to artist. Some openly encourage sharing of their out-of-print works while others prefer to maintain a stranglehold on the dissemination of their music (though the online market for free high-quality bootleg recordings is so enormous that this point is practically moot). But will the artist benefit or be harmed? Here too, there is no clear answer. A freely available high-quality digital copy of a recording might kill the market for a legitimate release of that recording, or it might seed the market for such a release and drive sales of the artistâ€™s in-print efforts. To date, no one has provided reliable data indicating that either of these speculative outcomes is more common than the other. Like artistâ€™s attitudes towards free downloads, the truth probably varies.
So is it considered â€œpiracyâ€ to offer high-quality full-length downloads of otherwise unavailable music? The ethics seem questionable. But is it right or wrong? Again, no clear answer emerges.
This may be one of those situations where you cannot change what happened in the past, so you can only plan to address the problem in the future. Independent artists should either launch their own websites or sign on to download services that, for all intents and purposes, will result in their music never going out-of-print, while allowing the artist to get paid per download. Artists that prefer to sign to a label should negotiate a contract that allows the rights of their music to revert to themselves after the label lets the recording go out-of-print.
And what about the devious collector who makes enormous profits on the resale of legit copies of rare recordings? Digital downloads wonâ€™t make the market for physical media evaporate, but downloads will push the market down the demand curve. However, the amount of time that collectors put into collecting is significant and there are relatively few sales of rare recordings that exceed $500. If you boil collector profits down to an hourly rate, it is likely to no more than minimum wage. So maybe the collectors have more in common with the artists than meets the eye.