Remember when this headline, featured on the home page of thepiratebay website, made a splash at the height of the SOPA protests in early 2012?
“Under SOPA, you could get five years for uploading a Michael Jackson song, one year more than the doctor who killed him.”
Well, seeing as how Murray only served two of those four years of which he was convicted, shall we rephrase that to…THREE more years than the doctor who killed him?
But how did Michael himself feel about the subject of pirated music and downloading, illegal or otherwise? Many music artists have taken a hardline stance against illegal downloading and file sharing. I can’t say that I blame them, entirely. After all, much of an artist’s revenue comes from the royalties of legally purchased music. Prince, for example, has been known to even go as far as to police uploaded videos of his music on Youtube.
But in an era that has found many music artists at war with what seems an increasingly turning-and futile-tide, Michael’s own views were surprisingly progressive. Then again, perhaps that shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us who have already been long aware of Michael’s activist role in the music industry. We already knew that Michael had spoken out against racism in the industry, and worked tirelessly to restore song rights to many black artists who were often bereft of their own royalties. But did you know about this?
In 2003, two Democratic lawmakers, John Conyers and Howard Berman, had introduced The Authors, Consumer and Computer Owners Protection and Security Act. The bill, if passed, would have made it a felony offense to illegally download music.
Michael delivered a press statement that apparently packed quite a punch in the summer of 2003. If he alone was not responsible for delivering the bill’s fatal blow, he nevertheless could certainly be credited for strengthening the public opposition against it.
“I am speechless about the idea of putting music fans in jail for downloading music. It is wrong to download but the answer cannot be jail,” Jackson said in a statement. “It is the fans that drive the success of the music business; I wish that would not be forgotten.
Here in America we create new opportunities out of adversity, not punitive laws,” he said. “We should look to new technologies, like Apple’s new Itunes Music Store, for solutions. This way, innovation continues to be the hallmark of America.”
What exactly did he mean by “creat[ing} new opportunities out of adversity?” Simple. In 2003, the music industry was in a huge slump, with physical CD sales plummeting. While many blamed the new technology for the music industry’s demise, there were just as many who also had the foresight to recognize it as the wave of the future-in fact, the only way to go if the industry was to survive at all. Apparently, Michael was one of those far sighted individuals who was already predicting that Apple’s Itunes, as well as the digital downloading markets then being developed by Amazon and others, was the way to go, and that the industry would have to find ways to adapt to change, rather than fighting it.
One thing that surprised me somewhat after I discovered Michael’s 2003 comments is just how far reaching his statement became (especially impressive considering this was the year of Bashir and the Arvizo allegations). It seemed from that point forward that almost any media article on The Authors, Consumer and Computer Owners Protection and Security Act anti-piracy bill was doomed to include at least a truncated version of Michael Jackson’s vehement disapproval.
Ouch. That must have hurt John Conyers and Howard Berman aplenty. Here they are, presumably fighting the good fight for artists, and here is the King of Pop himself giving their bill the proverbial finger. Michael’s statement was loud and clear, and one that apparently shook the core of the bill’s support. “Don’t send my fans to jail for downloading my music.” It must have been especially a little unsettling for Conyers, who likewise has fought for the protection of legendary artists:
However, I think that Michael was taking a much more far sighted view of the music piracy issue. Music artists cannot exist in a vacuum. It takes both the artist who creates the music, and the fan who listens to and appreciates that music, to create the partnership-or, to be more poetic, it takes both artist and fan to create the dance. It’s important to note that Michael never claimed he was in favor of illegal downloading (well, of course he would never have admitted as much publicly, anyway). But, obviously, he recognized that bills intended for the sole purpose of taking punitive measures against fans were not the answer. Certainly they were not the answer to what had become the music industry’s biggest conundrum in the early 2000’s. The technology was there. To think that music fans would not find ways to take advantage of it was absurd. Clearly, the music industry was going to have to change the way things were done. The digital age had arrived. Uploading and downloading-legally or illegally-was here to stay. Michael Jackson may have been one of the first major artists to recognize-or at least to speak out and say publicly-that the old way of doing things had to change. I’m sure his endorsement of Itunes, which had only recently launched, was nothing less than a juggernaut shot in the arm to the fledgling company. (For the record, Michael was a staunch supporter of Apple and Apple products).
His views are interesting when you consider the sheer wealth of bootleg Michael Jackson music, videos, and concert footage that was available while he lived, and that proliferated even more just after his death. While Youtube videos featuring Prince songs were routinely yanked as fast as they were uploaded, it was never a problem to instantly find most any Michael Jackson song freely available on the internet. This was true for many years prior to 2009. And indeed, the sheer and staggering amount of bootleg material available could only lead to one foregone conclusion-that Michael had never gone much out of his way to stop it. Perhaps there could be a number of explanations. Perhaps, in the wake of the trial, with all of the mounting lawsuits and all of the other crap he was having to deal with, he simply didn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to go all over the internet policing his own work. Perhaps, knowing how he felt about Sony and the rich record companies in his last years, he really could have cared less. Perhaps, as at least some people I know have theorized, he may well have been the very person who was responsible for “leaking” much of it. But let’s also keep in mind that this was the man who had donated millions’ worth of royalties to various charities; the same man who had donated all of the proceeds of his record-breaking Dangerous tour to charity.
In Michael’s case, the vast proliferation of free music and bootleg material available seemed to point to something much more than just his being too overwhelmed to care or to be bothered-or, for that matter, about making any statement to the record industry. Rather, it seemed to fall more in line with his general philanthropic principles. Art is meant to be shared. And in Michael’s case, he believed his music was a gift from God. It begs the question: How can one effectively “own” and “sell” a gift that has been merely channeled from God?
But before going too far astray with that idea, let’s have a reality check. Michael wasn’t stupid, of course. He worked hard at what he did, and he expected to be compensated for it, just as we all would. Let’s not lightly cast aside the fact that this was a man who, in 1991, successfully negotiated the most lucrative recording contract in history. Michael certainly didn’t achieve his mass wealth by giving himself away.
But deep down inside of him, he must have never completely lost touch with what it felt like to be a poor kid who maybe just wants an upbeat tune to listen to, perhaps to escape the hell that is his life, if only for five minutes. The idea of sending a kid to jail just for downloading “Beat It” is what shook Michael to the core, and spurred him to speak out. If you want to know my honest opinion, I would say hell, yes, Michael knew exactly what was out there in the pirate cyberspace world. And frankly, what he said to the world was, yes, I know it’s out there. And I don’t give a good damn if it is. Enjoy.
Ironically, it seems it has only been since his death that the iron grip has tightened considerably. I have noticed that there aren’t nearly as many Youtube clips of his songs, and the ones that are posted tend to get yanked with fair frequency. Also, the amount of available bootleg material has also accordingly diminished since 2009. And, given the views that Michael expressed in 2003, we can only imagine what he might have made of stories like these:
If Michael, speaking out in 2003 against anti-piracy laws, could have foreseen that two fans in 2012 could successfully hack his entire Sony catalog, he might have at least had a good chuckle. (Somehow I doubt he would have been either shocked, or horrified). But how’s this for compensation?
Today, Michael Jackson albums consistently rank among the top selling Itunes and Amazon items, with the Number Ones compilation alone having recently passed the 5 million mark. That’s not even counting the continued sales of classics like Thriller, Bad, Off The Wall, and Dangerous. Digital downloads count for over 50% of all music currently sold.
When Michael spoke out and took his stand against music anti-piracy laws over a decade ago, the digital downloading age was still in its infancy. Everyone suspected it would change the future of the industry, but there was no way to know for sure how it would go. Digital downloading, for sure, was either going to destroy the industry, or completely revolutionize it. In the wake of that revolution, Michael’s words spoken a decade ago bear repeating:
“Here in America we create new opportunities out of adversity, not punitive laws.” We should look to new technologies, like Apple’s new Itunes Music Store, for solutions. This way, innovation continues to be the hallmark of America.”-Michael Jackson.
One of the greatest joys of being a Michael Jackson fan is the continuous discovery of new and unexpected things to admire about him. I had known for years that he was an unsung civil rights activist who had struck a nerve with his eloquent speeches against racism and the treatment of artists in the industry.
But I hadn’t known until the discovery of this 2003 press statement that he was just as fiercely outspoken and protective when it came to the rights of music fans.
For that, we should at least owe him a tip of the hat.