By Tomi Mendel
For multi-platinum pop idol Madonna, music piracy is no laughing matter. Back in November, a song called “Gimme All Your Love” was leaked on the Internet, several months before its intended official release on Madonna’s latest album. In response, her manager Guy Oseary took to social media, tweeting, “madonna told me this morning 'my true fans wouldn't do this'... whoever is responsible for this leak, we ask that you please stop!" However, anyone who thought Madonna would stop at twitter was sorely mistaken. She and her team of lawyers launched an investigation known as “Operation Madonnaleaks,” which eventually resulted in the December 21 arrest of a thirty-one year old man living in Zaragoza, Spain. This self-proclaimed “big Madonna fan” was charged for the illegal Internet distribution of the song, copies of which the local police found among his belongings.
Madonna: not a fan of your illegal behavior.
While the act of piracy is, of course, illegal, the punishment seems extreme because of how frequently albums and songs leak to the Web before their official release date. Rarely do artists pursue the culprits with such vigor. In addition, tech-savvy music fans have been spoiled in recent years by a fair number of reasonably sympathetic artists. For instance, dubstep producer Skrillex recently tweeted to his followers, regarding his latest E.P., “"just like i always say, go pirate it if you don't have the money... i just want you to have it...or you can buy it here..either way i’ll love you.”
He sees you downloading and he approves.
There have long been artists on both side of this issue. A decade ago, in the heyday of Napster, heavy metal legends Metallica famously sued after discovering their entire catalogue available for free via the peer-to-peer file sharing service. They became the most famous and vocal opponents of the revolutionary music technology, recruiting many other artists and all the major record labels to their side. Some artists, like Prince, have been even more extreme. The visionary musician elected to release his 2010 album 20Ten via newspaper after bluntly declaring the Internet to be “completely over.” Furthermore, in recent years he has ruthlessly cracked down on any and all non-official sources of his music, including, infamously, attempting to remove a thirty-second Youtube video of a toddler dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy.”
However, not every musician was on board with this type of message. Around the same time as the Metallica controversy, the Dave Matthews Band boldly uploaded their single “I Did It” on Napster in advance of a traditional CD release. "I don't see the sense in fighting something that is the future,” said Matthews at the time, “I don't feel that I'm in the position to say I'm being ripped off by Napster in any way." Other artists such as Chuck D of Public Enemy also spoke in favor of the service. Ultimately the support made little difference for Napster and the big-name services which followed, most of which eventually shut down due to government pressure or became legal pay-based websites. On the other hand, one could easily say they won the war in this case, as torrenting and file-sharing remains a huge problem for the music industry.
Metallica’s song “I Disappear” suspiciously started getting radio play before they released it.
Even if other artists choose to follow Madonna’s lead and put money and authority behind uncovering those men and women behind these illegal leaks, it’s hard to say if there will be any change in the situation. As Dave Matthews astutely observed back in 2001, it is rather difficult to stop the future from arriving. At the moment, even though some have paid exorbitant fines for uploading or downloading music, punishment overall is capricious, inconsistent, and difficult to enforce. Few people live in fear of being caught for these acts. However, if musicians somehow start to more consistently and harshly prosecute song pirates in this fashion, it could likely prove effective in scaring off at least some of the unwanted file sharing activity. Meanwhile, artists like Madonna will have to try and shake the image of being serious downloading buzz-kills, even if they do have the law on their side.