Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 1
Created by EscapeTheClouds on 2/21/2012 12:57:39 AM

New contributor Mark Rossmore of Escape the Coulds fame gives us a look at Piracy and it's effects on the Independant Artist in Part 1 of a 3-Part series. 

By Mark Rossmore

Photos used with permission (Credit: Mark Rossmore & Elizabeth V Bouras)


“If torrenting was called ‘mooching’ instead of ‘piracy’ I think less people would do it. I mean, Jesus, pirates are COOL.”

- Caustic, Industrial Musician


Real-life sea pirates were nothing like the dashing anti-heroes we see in the movies. There were few swashbuckling rogues amid the ranks of seaborne murderers and thieves.

So, let’s not sugarcoat things. Illegally downloading music is theft. It’s a crime. Putting aside intellectual property and copyright violations, perhaps its greatest offense is the devaluation of an artist’s hard work.

This “mooching” has been in the news quite a bit due to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), failed legislative attempts driven by major record labels to defend their empires against music piracy. Had they gone into effect, these laws would have potentially damaged Internet commerce, threatened freedom of speech, and still failed to accomplish their goals.

Plenty of airtime was spent covering piracy’s effects on major labels and their artists. Where do the independent artists—the ones who make up the majority of steampunk music—fall into the mix?

Ten steampunk musicians volunteered their input for this article. In a modern world where their anachronistic art can be swiped with a mouse click, how do they find their music careers affected by a growing demographic that prefers to acquire its music rather than purchase it?

Equal Opportunity

Let’s clear up a common misconception: mooching does not only affect mainstream bands. Of the ten independent musicians interviewed for this piece, nine have been pirated.

When asked how they felt about it, the most common emotion was, well, a bit of resignation. “I am not pleased,” Unwoman said, “but I accept it. Pirates gonna pirate.” She’s found her albums on foreign-hosted download sites shortly after release.

“Piracy,” Vernian Process’ vocalist Joshua Pfeiffer said, “is an unavoidable problem, that has both plagued, and blessed mankind for as long as we've been trading goods. People will always find a way to get things cheaper or free than they would have to, going through any kind of retail outlet.”

It’s human nature. People will always want something for nothing. If they find a way to circumvent the system—and get away with it—they’ll take advantage of it, and tell their friends.

The latter is where some of piracy’s positive aspects come into play. After all, the act of uploading a torrent shows that someone out there is interested enough in the music to want to share with others. The Clockwork Dolls’ Allison Curval made note of this: “As an independent musician, it’s a mixed bag for me. Piracy has given me the opportunity to be heard in other countries and across a broad spectrum of individuals.” More exposure is a good thing, especially with independent artists who don’t have millions to throw at major media outlets. “It's cool to know that people know we're out here,” says Dan Orlowitz, manager of Japanese steampunk band Strange Artifact.

I can relate. When my second Escape the Clouds CD was torrented, I actually felt flattered for the reasons listed above. At the same time, it was troubling. My thoughts mirrored those of Robert Hazelton from Deadly Nightshade Botanical Society, reflecting on when he first saw his material mooched: “When we began to see it being downloaded in larger numbers, it was disheartening.”

Why? It undermines the value of an artist’s time and effort.

The Value of Music

At Dragon*Con 2009, a one-of-a-kind steampunk eyepiece was stolen from Brute Force Studios’ display booth. There was a general wave of horror at the act. Actual “Wanted” posters—with rewards—flew up in Internet forums and on Facebook walls. The nerve! Who would fathom walking up to a convention booth and swiping a piece of art without paying for it?

Yet, steampunk music is stolen daily, effortlessly, without any sign of remorse. Why? Perhaps because there is so little perceived value in digital products. Copy and paste an MP3 a thousand times and you’ve made a thousand more for only the cost of some hard drive space. How valuable can something be if it can be duplicated for free?

DNBS’ Hazelton hits the nail soundly on the head. “The most offensive part about piracy is this: digital and intellectual media has become an entitlement. There are many people who have the nerve to say that they shouldn’t have to pay for games, music, books, etc. And they believe it.”

The steampunk community, as a whole, tends to appreciate its craftsmen, the leatherworkers, woodworkers, metalworkers, seamstresses, and other makers. How many out there have fawned over the delicate stitches of Steampunk Couture’s collection or Jake Von Slatt’s practical, mechanical marvels? They are impressive. The time and thought that went into each rivet and seam is clear and present.

John Wass, guitarist for new band Nautilus ‘54, said, “As part of the steampunk community, we come to appreciate just how much work goes into everything that we have—from our clothes to our modified consumer electronics to our music.”

Making music is a craft like any other. Each song is the product of years of experience and education, blended with natural talent. Songwriting can be like giving birth: long, bloody, and painful, with lots of screaming involved, but worthwhile in the end. Every song and performance is a journey, a manifestation of an artist’s dedication to their art.

“We both love what we do and are very proud of the work we’ve put into it,” Hazelton said.

It’s a tough gig at times. Hellblinki’s Andrew Benjamin is no stranger to it. “I like to compare it to having a really hardcore job with lots and lots of overtime, 16 hr days and the like but being paid about the same as a really crappy part time job. Love it though.”

That passion is precisely why piracy can be so disheartening. Torrented MP3 files don’t spontaneously burst into existence, meant to be freely consumed like water or air. Just because pirated music is free to illegally download doesn’t mean it’s free to make.

“People need to understand why they should pay for digital goods,” said Joel Clayton, sitar player for UK steampunk band Sunday Driver. After all, these digital goods—like the new album his band has coming out in April—take more than creativity and dedication to produce.

They take cash.

Making Something From Nothing

“This isn't a hobby, folks. We're trying to make a living from this.” Clockwork Dolls’ Curval could not be more blunt.

It’s all circular, a lesson from Economics 101. An artist writes a song. The artist pays money out of their own pocket to record the song. The resulting track is then put up for sale. The money from those sales allows the artist to record the next song and maybe even keep some money for their own needs.

“We don't have a financial buffer,” Curval explained. “All the costs of producing a work comes out of our own pockets and we in turn take more of the financial burden.”

What are those costs? Recording equipment. Instruments and their maintenance. Recording software. Studio time. Hiring a designer for the album artwork. Mastering services to put that final polish on the recording. Paying a web developer to update the band site for each new release. Printing the CDs and setting up digital distribution. Printing fliers. Sending out sample CDs and press kits around the world to media outlets.

Then there’s the intangible cost: time. How many hours are spent writing, tweaking, recording, and mixing the music itself, and—for those who perform live—rehearsing their music for the stage?

I don’t believe a single musician interviewed would complain about the time put into the process. Still, that time and energy are worth taking into account when putting a price on the result.

“We place value both on the finished product and the hours we poured into it,” DNBS’ Hazelton said, pragmatically. “Praise goes a long way but it doesn’t pay the phone bill, keep the studio in operating condition or buy more merchandise. As an artist, I have to do many other things besides pay for some plastic [CDs]. I need to write the material, mix it, master it, buy the instruments (soft or real), buy the software & hardware to make this happen, update and maintain all of the aforementioned equipment, advertise & socialize it, create the art.”

There are artists in this piece—such as Unwoman, DNBS’ vocalist Dizzy, and Hellblinki—who live off of their music. There are others, like The Clockwork Dolls, Victor Sierra, and Eli August, who want to make it their livelihood. Another group, like myself and Joshua Pfeiffer from Vernian Process, don’t plan on leaving the day jobs but hope the music can cover its own expenses and, maybe, augment daily finances.

“Every song a person downloads is a stolen dollar from an artist,” Hazelton said.

The sale of a $0.99 major record label song sold via the iTunes store gets divided up as follows: between $0.08 and $0.14 to the artist, $0.35 to Apple, and all of the rest goes into the label’s coffers. An indie artist selling a $0.99 song via Bandcamp gives $0.15 of the sale to Bandcamp and takes the remaining $0.85. Yes, per song, the indie artist makes a lot more. However, we’re talking different economies of scale. The major label band will likely sell hundreds of thousands of songs. The indie artist? Well… not hundreds of thousands.

Put it this way: Tonight, someone torrents both a major label act’s $10 CD and an indie band’s $10 CD. They stole at the most $1.40 from the major band. They took a lot more out of the indie artist's pocket: $8.50.

“It saddens me,” Curval said, “that folks who claim to support an act and who comment on how eager they are to hear future releases are unwilling to chip out the cost of oh... two happy meals at McDonald's to support an artist who invests their own time and money into the works they create.”

While the situation is frustrating, it's by no means a lost cause.

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  To be continued in Parts 2 and 3 in the weeks to follow, be sure to come back next week!) 

About the Author:

Mark Rossmore crafts stories through both words and music. As Escape the Clouds, he creates exotic, vivid steampunk music via a flash fiction approach to songwriting. His music has been featured on sites such as,, and and multiple steampunk compilations. An avid writer as well, since 2008, nearly two dozen of Mark's fiction and aviation non-fiction pieces have been published nationwide in print and online. Check out all of his work–including his newest album Until the End–at .

Musicians participating in this article (in alphabetical order):


Relatd Articles
Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 2
Skull and Trombones: Music Piracy's Effects on the Independent Musician, Part 3
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