Almost one month prior to the release of pop-rock band The Ting Tings’ new album, “Sounds From Nowheresville,” all 10 songs from the album were leaked online. Once all figures have been tallied, the leak will likely cause The Ting Tings’ record label, Roc Nation, to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because fans will illegally download the album instead of buy it. Roc Nation scrambled to move the release date up a few weeks to negate the early leak of material.
It is situations like this, though, that have plagued the music industry since Napster first initiated widespread illegal file-sharing in June 1999. The music industry has been limping along ever since, struggling to fight off illegal downloads and sales declines. However, media outlets like Rolling Stone and Billboard, a music industry publication which covers all breaking music news, are not helping the situation. As collections of songs, studio recordings from an upcoming album or merely unreleased demos, are leaked online, these outlets cover the leak with a breaking story or a blog post. But they don’t stop there. Rolling Stone and Billboard often also will include a link within the story to listen to the songs that were leaked. Considering the news value of this inclusion, it makes sense to include the illegal material, supplementing the copy with the music in question.
Question: Yet, from an ethical standpoint, if Billboard and Rolling Stone are essentially pointing readers in the right direction, to the leaked music, are they not aiding in helping the Internet community find the material and consume it?
Because the digital music community is vast, extending across multiple continents, the consequences of any illegal leak are incalculable. In that same way, providing news coverage of the leak is like playing with an immense fire. With these considerations, then, should music media outlets like Billboard and Rolling Stone continue to cover music leaks, consequentially perpetuating the cycle, or should they cease to cover these occurrences entirely, as a way to quell the illegality with silence?
Since the introduction of iTunes and the digital music environment, the industry itself has struggled with an outdated business model. Fighting for the mighty dollar, record labels turn to promotion — often times misleading consumers into thinking the majority of albums or song collections can be expected to sound like the catchy single used to promote the album — and subsequently alienate fans and consumers. As an outcry to this discrepancy, in recent years fans have refused to pay for music because it was either overpriced or not in accordance with their sonic expectations. Even so, disappointment or unfair pricing does not justify stealing music and intellectual property. Although the music industry business model is broken, the means of stealing are not justified. As such, this situation, when considered wholly empirically, is a deontological one: fans should not be downloading music leaks — so the act of stealing is clearly wrong. However, providing media coverage of the leaks’ occurrence in the first place is not so clear-cut.
While there is no policy on media covering a leak, the practice is often to redirect the Web traffic centered on the leak instantaneously toward media outlets’ websites instead. Therefore, moments within the leak occurring, Rolling Stone or Billboard has a story filed online about the instance, and if there is a clip of the leaked song or songs included within the copy, search results will include these links near the top and site visits will spike — or at least that is the mentality. Yet this blood-lust-style of driving website traffic does not justify the inclusion of the leaked material, much less covering the news event in the first place. Instead, the free flow of information justifies it, since readers have the right to stay informed if their favorite band, like The Ting Tings, had its album leaked online.
Considering the stakeholders involved in any leak situation, the effects of leaks, which translate to illegally downloaded music and a loss of profit, can largely be attributed to the musicians and record labels involved. Media outlets are also considered, as aforementioned. However, fans also hold some stake in this situation. Ultimately, when a leak occurs, every fan or consumer has the right to choose whether to download the new music. Downloading is never forced upon them. Therefore, they have a right to know about whether a leak has occurred because they have the right to choose to benefit from it. They have the right to access all information about the song from Billboard or Rolling Stone, just short of how to actually download the music — and it is in these organizations’ best interest to cover the leak as a newsworthy event, for it would not be proper journalistic practice to ignore something of this magnitude, with so many parties involved.
In this ethical dilemma, one must consider the stakeholders as the foremost priority. The consumers should be considered most highly, since they are essentially driving the industry. Although The Ting Tings’ situation is an unfortunate one, it is not the responsibility of the media outlets to protect their recorded music from being leaked. Moreover, the included clips themselves are not downloadable, merely listenable. Ultimately, these songs have already been leaked; Billboard, Rolling Stone, and similar organizations are empowering readers by providing them the information necessary to make a choice — to illegally download or not to illegally download, that is the question. In this view, the media outlets have a deontological role, as their duty is to provide information and news.
While they may be pointing readers toward the leaked music by including clips with the copy, Billboard and Rolling Stone are not forcing their readers to download it. If anything, these services are providing a best-of-both-worlds solution, allowing the readers to enjoy the leaked music but not place it on their hard drives. This inconvenience — and it is a large inconvenience to visit a website every time fans want to listen to a song — would prevent fans from repeated visits and therefore repeated listens and potentially, in some scenarios like the one of The Ting Tings, promote the music and drive sales. Including a clip of the leaked song in the copy is far from unethical considering the alternatives. The ethics of songs illegal leaking is an absolute, a right or wrong, deontology — but providing media coverage of the leak is a little bit ethically trickier. With the understanding that covering a leak is like covering any other news event, for the sake and free flow of information and the reader’s right to know, including an embedded clip of the leaked song in the copy is purely a means of providing more information. Whether the leak itself is ethical is disregarded at this point; from a teleological standpoint, the ends (coverage) are not justified by the means (illegality). Sorry, Ting Tings, but it is entirely ethical to include the clip in the copy if it is for the betterment of the story and for readers’ awareness.