Why They Download Illegally

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last week, I asked KCRW radio listeners who downloaded music files illegally to tell me what motivated their actions. I received dozens of letters in response.

One thing is clear. Those that responded love music and seek a strong personal connection with it in their lives. Almost all took the time to articulate in detail why they chose to download illegally on a regular basis.

There is not one simple answer to the question posed. Respondents felt accessibility and convenience were primary considerations. Most wanted to download music files easily from an open source, and to audit the whole song without making a financial commitment first. Though they did so illegally, many were quick to point out that most of the music they downloaded was not satisfying, and they never listened to the tracks again. In their mind, purchasing those files would have been a waste of money.

It's an understandable problem. Back in the 60's, commercial radio play lists were more adventurous and generated the majority of record sales. In addition, a lot of record stores had turntables so customers could play any record before they bought it. But in the 70's, this service of auditioning music fell by the wayside and for the next 20 years, most stores offered very little. There is a lot of backlash from those days as many respondents feel like record labels had ripped them off, buying albums that only had one or two good songs on them. In the 90's, when in-store listening stations came into vogue, the consumer could hear some music beforehand, but only a limited selection. Simultaneously, local radio began tightening their play lists, making it far more difficult for consumers to find new music. Nowadays, with commercial play lists as tight as they are, consumers listen online before purchasing.

Another major factor in illegal downloading was pricing. Most who responded felt that digital files were overpriced.

That's also interesting, given the iTunes news this week. On Monday, iTunes and EMI Records announced a new pricing structure for EMI digital files, to be launched in May. These new files will have no rights management code or DRM attached and will have enhanced audio quality. Customers who previously purchased EMI music files on iTunes will have the opportunity to upgrade their collection for the cost of 30¢ a song. Otherwise, the new files will cost consumers $1.29. The enhanced files will be available along side traditional files on iTunes for customers to choose.

I'm afraid some of my respondents will not be impressed with the new iTunes announcement. Only a couple of listeners complained about the DRM code on music files, and practically everyone complained about the high prices online. Adding 30¢ more will probably not turn these illegal downloaders around.

What is clear is that record labels need to stop trying to rebuild their outdated business model and instead try to respond to the lifestyle needs of their customer base. With or without DRM, labels still need to address hardware interoperability, lower pricing and music auditing to win back some of their most loyal fans.

Music is a part of everyone's life, but the record business is not. Labels should never overestimate their importance, and should open their eyes to why their customers are getting music elsewhere.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.