Book Review: The Piracy Crusade by Aram Sinnreich

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In The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties, Rutgers University professor Aram Sinnreich makes the case for music being more than just entertainment packaged to be sold:

“Music and the marketplace haven’t always been so deeply intertwined; in the scope of human history, it’s a relatively new development… scholars such as Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin have argued that music is one of the most complex and comprehensive aspects of human consciousness, and that music not only was central to human evolution but remains vital to our cognitive and social processes from infant development to the treatment of age-related dementia. In short, music isn’t just something we manufacture, like cars and shoes; it’s something that shaped us as a species, and continues to shape each of us as individuals through our lives.”

It’s this consideration of music beyond mere entertainment product that permeates The Piracy Crusade and makes it an important read for anyone who takes music seriously.

After brief but illuminating history lessons on the origins of piracy, Sinnreich gets right into the post-Napster era and examines what exactly caused the implosion of the record business. Were pirates to blame? Or were they a convenient scapegoat for the failings of the industry itself?

To anyone who has studied the digital collapse of the industry, it’s clear that so-called “piracy” has and always will exist, and dozens of studies have proved these “pirates” are super-consumers of music, and pay far more on average for it than the average consumer.

In fact, there are so many books written about the digital music debacle, one might be skeptical that Sinnreich can shed any more light on the situation. And yet, he does so brilliantly, categorizing each phase in the post-Napster record industry decline as a parallel to the K├╝bler-Ross model, also known as the “five stages of grief”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

The industry at first denied digital music was going to be a big problem, believing, as in the past, that technologies could be easily co-opted as innovators developed them. Even when there was clear evidence that technology was moving far too fast to control it, it was easier for executives to point to the dip in recording revenue as a hiccup in the system that would soon be addressed.

As soon as anger took hold, the industry sued tens of thousands of individuals — as Sinnreich notes, some of these lawsuits targeted children, the elderly, and the deceased. Dozens of innovative companies were also sued out of existence. We’ll never know exactly the kind of music industry we lost due to the wrath of the RIAA and its cronies.

Once it became clear that the lawsuits were having no impact on stemming the tide of free access to music, the industry began the bargaining stage with fans and artists. Digital rights management was instituted as a severely flawed strategy to mitigate sharing, and the labels made feeble attempts to launch digital music companies of their own to replace the tech companies they sued away in the early 2000s. Sinnreich’s insights here are particularly interesting because he was a digital music consultant to many of the big players during this time.

Of course, as well know, none of this helped to step the multi-billion-dollar bleeding, and the industry sunk into a sort of depressed state a few years ago. After sulking around and hitting rock bottom, the acceptance stage started, which Sinnreich suggests is unfolding right now. DRM-free iTunes downloads, streaming services and experiments with open access all show that the industry is finally moving on.

The second third of the book gets into detail on peer-to-peer technology. This part may be a little redundant for those already familiar with the subject, but as with the entire book, Sinnreich has a skill for condensing epic, complex topics into clear and concise text.

With so few people focusing on the positives of digital music — and there are many — we appreciate the author pointing to economic growth in performance rights royalties, sync rights, live events, sponsorships and endorsements, and hardware royalties. He cites other statistics to show that the musicians’ share of the music economy grew significantly thanks to digital music. He also goes through famous cases like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails to illustrate the new options for musicians to monetize the fan relationship directly.

The second third of the book also reviews the “bubbles and storms” that predated the digital music revolution to expose the absurdity of the popular narrative that everything was going great for the industry until Napster. Anyone who’s studied the history of the business knows that it has constantly struggled to co-opt new technologies, social and market trends. There have been countless challenges to the music industry oligopoly… the main difference with digital music is that the industry seems to have finally met their match.

This leads to the question: “Is the music industry its own worst enemy?” A litany of examples are provided in support of this hypothesis.

The book concludes with a series of chapters that seek to measure what we might have lost, and what we might continue to lose, if this copyright crusade is allowed to continue.

Again, Sinnreich’s insight that music can be so much more than packaged entertainment product comes into play. The economic effects to the music industry, he argues, pale in comparison to what has happened to the companies who tried to innovate new music tehcnologies. He also points out the detrimental social and cultural effects of criminalizing fans and co-opting musicians, including a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality that leaves a huge dent in our civil liberties.

The author’s final rhetorical question, “Is democracy piracy?” leaves the reader with many examples that answer in the affirmative. He brings us up to present-day with a glimmer of hope by highlighting the efforts of organizations and movements that have sprung up to challenge the social, cultural and economic damage wrought by copyright-industrial complex.

We very much recommend you read this book. It’s very well researched and yet doesn’t read like your typical stuffy academic work of non-fiction. The points made are lucid, clear and rapid-fire. This is a conversation more musicians and fans need to have. It’s a hard pill to swallow for the industry, but they must swallow it. There are already new disruptions on the horizon, and if they don’t want to repeat the loss and grief of the post-Napster era, they’d be good to read this book too.