Earlier this month, the Department of Justice shut down MegaUpload in an attempt to curb Internet piracy. The FBI alleged that the file-sharing site was responsible for "more than half a billion dollars in harm to copyright owners," mostly affecting the movie industry. But the impact of the shutdown is also having a trickle-down effect that may especially impact the independent and underground music community.
Despite the demise of Napster more than a decade ago, music fans continue to use file-sharing sites to discover and share music. In certain circles, especially more underground and fringe scenes, music blogs and sites are indispensible ways of discovering new artists, as they're mostly ignored by mainstream magazines and websites. While some post copyrighted albums, the more popular sites only share files legitimately — usually they've gotten permission directly from the bands, or they post links to promotional streams on reliable sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud. Sometimes it's obscure music that's been out of print, or recordings of live performances that aren't copyrighted.
But, even so, using file-sharing services like MediaFire and Soundcloud to post legit files has its risks. While the Department of Justice hasn't gone after them (yet), it's possible that if those file-sharing hosts have any copyright-infringing material that its users knowingly upload (and that's pretty much a given) and which aren't taken down, they could also get shut down, leaving music blogs fewer avenues for sharing legitimate files. One online commenter noted that, while Soundcloud is not considered a site that encourages piracy, it currently has fifty pages of user-uploaded Coldplay songs that anyone can stream or download for free.
Even if they aren't yet targeted by the DOJ, some file-sharing sites are taking preemptive measures to avoid such a fate. As of January 23, FileSonic, FileServe, and Uploaded.to dismantled their sharing functionality, and some users are finding that their accounts have been suspended and their links dead. Meanwhile, popular sites like MediaFire and RapidShare continue to operate — at least for now.
The bootleg-sharing blog QualityBootz migrated to Filepost after MegaUpload was shut down and Fileserve suspended its account. But the next day Filepost changed its policies so that high-volume users couldn't use the service for free. As a result, QualityBootz' administrator, who goes by "Dave," said he would switch to RapidShare, even though the site doesn't work in all countries. "My current position is to stand firm, and try to continue to improve your blog but if Rapidshare goes... then it has been nice knowing each of you and I thank you for all that you have done to appreciate and encourage me," he wrote in a blog post.
QualityBootz has posted thousands of links since it started in 2007, consisting of live bootleg recordings of artists from Bruce Springsteen to Parliament. The site's tagline is "No Commercially Released Material. Period. Do Not Sell Anything Offered Here. Ever. Support the Artists. Always." Dave makes it clear that, unlike MegaUpload's founder, he's not making money off of downloads. "Some people think that I am getting rich running this blog," he wrote. "Hardly."
There are tons of sites like QualityBootz that could also be in jeopardy. Oakland musician Ian Miller says he "scours lots of music blogs to find obscure stuff not available elsewhere." "The ones I check regularly are Cosmic Hearse, Blog the Jerk, Blogged and Quartered, I Could Die Tomorrow, and a few more," he wrote in a Facebook response to a reporter's query. "If I'm looking for something specific, I just google around until i can find a download. It (almost) never fails." Those blogs all use MediaFire.
The health of the underground and obscure/out-of-print community appears particularly vulnerable to the shutdown of file-sharing sites. But the larger effect may be difficult to quantify. Mike Nelson edits the metal website Invisible Oranges, which holds particular sway in the local metal scene. Although Nelson is based in New York, several of his writers are located in the Bay Area, as are many of the bands featured on the site. While Nelson says the music they post is all legitimately obtained by bands and labels, he says it's hard to know just how much his writers rely on file-sharing indirectly.
"Let's say I get an email from publicist X which includes a promotional download of the new album from band Y," he explained in an email. "Because I get several dozen promo emails per day, it's likely this one will go unrecognized like so many others...EXCEPT, see, my friend told me about band Y a few days earlier...because he'd heard about them through his friend, who downloaded their record from a file-sharing site. If that file-sharing site were shut down prior to my friend's friend downloading that record, perhaps band Y never makes it to my radar and thus goes uncovered by my blog. But ...perhaps not? It's impossible to guess, really."
To be fair, piracy has no doubt hurt some musicians' ability to make a living. But it's also safe to say that file-sharing has bolstered underground and independent artists. Think about how many times you have used RapidShare or Dropbox to share an album with a friend, who then went on to really like said band and buy its merch and other albums and attend its shows. Most independent musicians understand this; in fact, it's become increasingly common for bands to make their music free for download and rely instead on fans buying their limited-edition vinyl or tickets to their shows. Fans who truly care about the music generally try to support the artists in one way or another. A major critique of the major-label music industry is that it tends to ignore this dynamic, leaving it A) stuck in an old-fashioned business model and B) fighting a seemingly unstoppable war.
Thus, it's entirely possible that the shutdown of MegaUpload is just one in a long line of failed attempts by the record industry to staunch the blood flow. After all, the shutdown of Napster obviously didn't stop file-sharing, and there are countless such sites still operating. According to tech news site GigaOM, the demise of MegaUpload may simply spell the end of the practice of rewarding uploaders with free, faster service if their files are downloaded a lot — thereby incentivizing a pirate cottage industry.
So perhaps there's nothing to worry about, right? Well, there's just one inconvenient detail: The recent threat of the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), while halted for now, will undoubtedly come back in some form or another. And now that the movie industry's top lobbyist has threatened politicians, saying "those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," it's questionable whether future bills can be defeated, given the lobbying power of Hollywood.