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"I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone." — Bono

Stolen Songs: Not To Download

@U2 presents both sides of the 'Download or Not' debate
@U2
(Since the news spread that a CD with songs from U2's new album was stolen in France, U2 fans have been wondering if the songs will appear online and debating the pros and cons of downloading them if they do. Feelings and opinions are strong on both sides of the debate. Here, @U2 presents two articles addressing the hypothetical question "What if the songs become available to download online?": one taking the "pro" side of the debate, and the article below arguing against downloading.)


Why I hope you won't

Have I been counting the days to November? You bet. I've loved U2's music passionately for more than 20 years. I admire Adam, Edge, Larry and Bono enormously. Like millions of us, I've been wishing they would hurry up already, and I'm delighted to hear that the album is finally done. When it's officially released, I'll buy it and drive my neighbors mad with it 24/7. I'll roll the car windows down, bellow the singles in traffic, and play drums on my steering wheel. I'll dance in my chair in the coffeeshop when the barista puts on the album. But I won't download it from some yutz's website.

Among the @U2 staff, I'm at the far end of the spectrum on this issue. I think we should never link to snips of songs recorded outside the studio window, and people who put those recordings on the internet should be kicked to the curb. Oh well, fans say, if it's already out there and a million people are checking it out, it doesn't matter if I do too. But it does matter. Stealing and publishing unfinished work is a poisonous thing to do, and downloading adds to the problem. Not just because it's wrong -- although honestly, that ought to be a good enough reason -- but because it damages every fan's relationship with U2.

Here's the deal: the music belongs to them until they publish it. I don't know why people don't get this, or think it doesn't matter. Legally and emotionally, what could matter more? U2 doesn't just own the work: on some level, they are the work. This isn't just "music," it's a piece of them, a bit of collective soul filtered through four focused lenses. They have the absolute right to decide when and how it reaches us, and how much of the process they want to share. Would I want to sit in the studio and hear the work in progress? God, yes, and I would regard it as a gift, not an opportunity to swipe and swap with ten million of my closest friends. The folks who are invited in are lucky. I'm happy for them. But I don't assume it means we're all entitled to that experience just because one of us has so little respect for the band that he or she will put stuff online. In fact, we're entitled to nothing except to put our money down for a legal recording or a concert ticket. Everything else -- the autographs, the kind words, the dance onstage, the open studio window during rehearsal -- is a gift the band gives us. When enough of us abuse the relationship, I expect the giving will stop, and that hurts us all.

As a fan, there are reasons you might not want to download: you think it will spoil the experience of the finished work for you, or you worry that the Internet police will find out and ruin your day. And as a fan, there are reasons you might go for it: because you just can't wait, because even half-assed (or ninety percent-assed) U2 is better than any other band's best day, because everyone else is doing it and you don't want to be left out. Because you want to be the first kid on your block to hear the music. Or maybe, like Bill Clinton, just because you can. There's no real arguing with personal choices like these, and I'm not trying to, although they seem to turn fandom into some kind of competitive sport with U2 cast as the opposing team. What I would ask you to do is to consider the situation from an artist's perspective: the stealing of work, the destruction of control over distribution, and being faced with the reality that people who call themselves fans will step on your rights, your wishes, and your feelings in the mad rush to get some.

Anyone who's been stolen from knows that it hurts. If you think you are not adding to the hurt by downloading the music, you are wrong. It's not just about money, although there is a good business case to be made that the first two weeks of sales make or break the perception of whether an album is a hit, and that perception in turn influences awards, DVD deals, tour ticket sales, etc. Regardless, going out and buying the album after you download does not balance the scales. Because part of the hurt is that you make the choice to care so little about what the band wants. They aren't ready for us to hear it yet. It's not finished. When you steal it before it's ready, you send the message to U2 that your impatience is more important than their years of work, and that your curiosity entitles you to take away their control of their personal expression. That hurts, creatively, personally, in the wallet and in the heart. It damages our band's trust in us, the core connection that turns us from a bunch of people into a community, and that gives U2 the willingness to keep opening the doors for us. If we download, we are breaking our deal to respect their ownership and control of their work. If we download, we are hurting the artist in order to get the art. And that's not the kind of fan I want to be.

Maybe it's hard for people who aren't artists to understand how it feels. I hope not, because that would mean that fans have far less empathy and imagination than I've always believed. But I'm not just making this up. I'm a writer: I create and manage art for a living. It's very clear to me that my words are mine until I choose when and how to publish them. Sometimes I share unpublished work with people, and that's my gift to them: it is not an invitation to rip a copy of the file on CD and post it to the world. I know what it's like to have someone sneak into my personal space and read my work in progress. It made me feel vulnerable and betrayed. If that person had then extended the chance to ten people, or ten thousand, it would have been worse, because each individual choice to set aside respect for an artist's rights and feelings is a new violation, the death of a thousand (or ten thousand) cuts.

So let me make it as plain as I can: if U2 wanted us to have the music on the stolen CD, they would have given it to us. They would not have the police looking for it. They would not be upset about two years' work being removed from their control and distributed to an unlimited audience. I'd be willing to eat every word I've ever published if U2 were to say, It's okay, we don't mind, just be sure you buy the album afterwards. We all know they will never say that. We all know they don't want us to download stolen, unfinished music: and all the rationalizing in the world will not change the fact that doing so is a violation of their wishes and their trust.

I'm not simon-pure. I make compilation CDs and hand them out to friends. I have a live recording of a 1983 U2 show in Norman, Oklahoma, and a soundboard recording of one of the Slane shows, and I'm still sorting out for myself the differences between this and my stance on the stolen album. On some level, a concert is a "publication," certainly more so than an unpublished group of songs, but I'm not entirely comfortable with this position. Maybe I'll decide that it's all or nothing, or maybe I will continue to wrestle with my own dividing line between access and theft, but I am completely clear that the idea of listening to a stolen U2 album makes me sick. Because it's illegal, and disrespectful. Because it's a violation of trust, and a poor way of showing love. Because it spoils the relationship for the rest of us. Because if you've ever waited for hours to get into the Heart knowing it was the best place on the planet to be that evening, if you've danced in the twenty-seventh row with a line of strangers until your feet hurt, if you've dreamed of being invited into the studio or the pub, if you have ever cried to the music or had a song remind you of who you really are, then you have no business listening to the new album until U2 is ready to give it to you. Because that's the deal. And I believe the choice you make matters to U2.



© @U2/Eskridge, 2004.