The thing about downloading music for free is probably not about morality...most people know that making music costs money, and that the musician does want to profit from the recordings. I've read various opinions, the worst being that musicians should give away their recordings and make their money from live performances.
Which is absolutely silly...an artist doesn't record a song simply to promote live performances. It also represents the time and money it took to record it, and most importantly, it's the one concrete thing that most artists will leave in this world. If the artist wants to give it away, that's different.
One thing that's obvious...if music is free, most people will take it. If someone puts copyrighted music on the internet in a file sharing situation, of course people will download it. The reason music is downloaded isn't because record companies rip off consumers (maybe that's true, maybe not), that some artists are too rich and don't need the money, or that a piece of music becomes something the buyer can do whatever they wish with.
The main reason people will download music is simple...it's worth getting for free, as it's something that they would probably pay for if there was no other way to get it. Music has value.
Most people who download also know that when they do so, the musician doesn't profit from it. I've read the various rationalizations, ranging from downloaders also buy music to it being a compliment to the artist. Probably true to an extent, but I also think, and this is my opinion, it also has to do with how musicians and music are perceived.
It wasn't that long ago that musicians were basically servants. There's always been folk music, of course, but in terms of professionals, only the rich nobility could afford music. That's because it had to be performed live, and as a rule, the cheapest way is to make the performers into servants. Common folk could rarely pay for music, and thus it was often created communally. This changed over time, at least for some, and I've read that we're in an aesthetic age, where artists have been elevated into an elite.
That's sort of true...the most popular are treated like royalty. The problem is that unless you are popular, the audience's perception of you will be all over the map.
Some will respect the skill it takes to even present cover numbers in a dance club situation, some won't, and will tend to treat musicians as a servant class (and treat music simply as sound that can be "captured" for free)
I remember my first gig as a musician (unpaid of course). It was as a teen, and at the time I played bass. A group of us had been invited to jam at a teen night at a local recreation center, and the organizers hoped that we could play for a few hours.
Which we did...but my main memory of that special night is that during this one jam (on a Santana number), a girl stood in front me while I was playing, and kept screaming in my face "Play 'Get Ready," Play 'Get Ready," play something we can dance too"!!!! No one else did anything about it mainly because, like most novices, we were playing so loud that I was the only one who could hear her.
I'd have chalked that up to youthful exuberance except it also happened once at a party when I was in my 20s. I showed up to play, and we were just jamming, and this drunk guy waded into the musician area and started yelling at us to play something he could dance to (I'll grant that maybe we weren't). Another time, like at a wedding I once attended, a drunk sat on the drummer's seat (while the band was on break) and began to bang away on the drums while the crowd laughed and applauded. The band came back on and were good sports about it, but I know that it made me cringe to see that. Most musicians absolutely hate it when someone just grabs their instrument and plays with it without permission.
My point isn't that people treat musicans like dirt...most don't, and they truly appreciate the music. It's just that the perception of music even now isn't always that far away from the folk conception, and thus a sort of communal property. Copyright law is a relatively recent concept. Even classical composers like Handel and Bach treated copying someone else's music (or having their's copied) as a compliment.
Prosecuting down loaders is wrong headed. If for no other reason, that's going after the customer and that never works. It just adds to yet another public perception that's just as important to the question of downloading as the public's perception of music.
That perception being that many musicians are arrogant, rich, and have a low opinion of the audience that made them stars.
True enough...in a court of law, we'd have to stipulate that as fact. Which will, right or wrong, give people the idea that taking music for free is OK. It really has nothing to do with whether downloading is stealing or not, but if the industry is smart, they'll realize that they, the artists, and everyone in the industry depends on the public's goodwill. It may not be fair in a sense, but if you produce music in some isolated room for artistic satisfaction, you can do what you want with it. If you want someone to pay for it, then all the usual rules of business apply.
In the case of music piracy, the customer may not always be right, but he or she is the customer...and there is no alternate route to stardom and recognition of the music. If people don't like you, or don't want to buy the music, there is no music industry...period.
Music has been both a public property, and a valued one by the noble class, and in a more democratic situation, the musician is perceived in wide variety of roles, from entertainer to star, from hack to artist. As long as music is being sold, any attitude about artistic worth or lack of it is irrelevant...art is for it's own sake, art for money is in the realm of entertainment, and the customer is king.
Which leads us back to the question (hopefully, if my narrative flow was good), is piracy OK?
Of course it isn't...and if music was worthless, no one would steal it.
The real question is, since you can't put the customer in jail, how do you get them to pay? Frankly, for all the screaming the labels do, most of the customers do pay, and the situation hasn't been made better by arbitrary claims of the financial damage caused by downloading (bootlegging, that's another subject) or imposing massive fines on housewives and students. Getting the ISPs to cooperate (or forcing them to as the government is doing) does help in the short term, though it's really like trying to kill off an ant colony with your feet.
The real solution is to change the public's perception of what music is in the digital age, and to recognize that due to the extraordinary changes in how music is delivered, that a new model needs to be developed, and in the short term, not to punish the consumer too much until the new system is perfected. In a free society like ours, oppression doesn't create obedience, it creates rebellion. Most of the piracy systems (like peer to peer) are not created by the public but by individuals, and their cooperation will make or break any effort to make the digital music industry into a viable one.
...and until the next paradigm, the digital music industry is what we'll have for quite a while. Better to fix and perfect the delivery system, and stop wasting time treating the people like criminals for taking what's there. Plug the holes for sure, and most won't go looking hard for the new one...but fine some single mother or student 100,000 dollars for downloading, and the industry will be kidding itself if it thinks the public will be cheering them on...in the old days, when the principal lectured the students or punished one in public, most sympathized with the punished. Same with the current trend of fining down loaders higher amounts than drunk drivers.
In part three, I'll talk more in detail about mp3s and other digital formats...and more about modern bootlegging which in the long run is the real problem. Once again, these are my opinions and thoughts, and don't represent industry or consumer opinion.