Note to the Entertainment Industry: Piracy is Good for You

Not an original proposition, I know. But is it an excuse, a rationalization – or a fact? I can offer some evidence from my own experience:

I used to download music from the Usenet, my favorite newsgroups being those which offered soundtracks and musicals. Contributors to those groups vie with each other to post the strangest and rarest albums, or to be the first to post the latest film soundtrack. For long-distance fans of the Great White Way, it’s a great way to keep up with what’s happening on Broadway. Probably the phenomenon most hated by those in the biz is the people who smuggle tape recorders into shows and upload full bootleg soundtracks, dialog as well as songs. I tried a couple of these, but found them merely annoying: the quality, not surprisingly, is not good (you hear a lot of audience rustles and coughs) and many shows are incomprehensible without seeing what’s going on. But for some show-starved fans far away who will never be able to see a show live, I guess it’s better than nothing.

Since I don’t live in New York (or London) and don’t follow theater news closely, these newsgroups were a way for me to keep up with new musicals and explore less-familiar old ones. I had not known that the John Waters film “Hairspray” was being made into a musical until the soundtrack appeared in a newsgroup. I downloaded it out of idle curiosity, and fell instantly in love with it, as did Ross. We listened to it in the car while visiting friends that weekend, and their teenage daughter also loved it (the girls’ favorite song was: “Mamma, I’m a Big Girl Now”). Both families bought the CD from Amazon, and we all wished that we could see the show in New York. The closest we could get was a New York Times review which included a video clip of one of the musical numbers.

About a year later, our friends got to see the show when a touring company came to Minneapolis. Ross and I saw it, finally, in New York in January, braving the big blizzard to get to the theater. To see a show at all was a last-minute impulse decision, and there were lots of others we could have seen that afternoon for the same price or less, many of them a shorter walk in the snow from where we were. But we chose “Hairspray” because we already knew we’d love it.

So the accounting on my original act of piracy looks awfully good for the show’s producers: an initial illegal download of the soundtrack turned into $40 spent on CDs right away, and $300 or so in theater tickets later on.

I know that not everyone who downloads music (and likes it) will then buy a legal copy and/or see a show (even if they have the opportunity). But a closer look at the behavior of the downloading population might pleasantly surprise the entertainment industry execs who are currently spending so much effort and money sueing people.

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