Following reports that illegal downloading isn’t hurting the music industry, a little-known Brooklyn band has reignited the debate on music piracy via a billboard in New York’s Times Square.

According to the NY Timesa mysterious ad has been displaying different views for and against music piracy on a 15,000-square-foot video LED billboard above the American Eagle Outfitters store in Times Square. These have included labelling piracy as “criminal”, “progress” and “the future”. It asks observers to “pick a side” by using #artistsforpiracy and #artistsagainstpiracy on Twitter. A website has also been set up to keep track of the debate.

The advertising space has been booked for two weeks and is said to be worth about $50,000. So just how did it come into the hands of a small indie duo from Brooklyn? Well, the artist responsible, Ghost Beach, loaned their song ‘Miracle’ to American Eagle for use in an online ad and as part of the deal they were given the prime advertising real estate.

The band’s lead singer Josh Ocean was at first unsure what to do with the space. “Since we started we’ve given away all our music for free, so just telling people to purchase our music somewhere didn’t seem natural for us,” he tells the NY Times. So we said, ‘What if we take advantage of this and open up a discussion about the new music industry?’ ”

The Brooklyn pair have certainly managed to achieve that. The ad has been running for little over a week and currently the debate stands at 3,162 for and 406 against. “We never want to promote blatantly going out and stealing music. What we do want to do is offer choices that we think are right.” – Josh Ocean, Ghost Beach

But is it just a publicity stunt for the band or does it raise an important question about the future of music distribution?

Many artists are weighing in on the argument, with American rockers Cake voicing their anger on Facebook. They criticise the stunt posting “Which multi-billion dollar tech corporation do you suppose is behind this campaign? And is ad sponsored piracy is a land grab by internet BUSINESSES to steal money from musicians, artists, photographers, authors and other creators?”

Those tweeting against music piracy make the argument that piracy and giving your music away for free aren’t the same thing. Brooklyn recording studio The End tweeted, “You and you alone have the choice to distribute your creation for free.”

David Lowery of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker is very vocal on the issue and makes a similar point on his blog. “This conflates piracy and giving music away for free,” he said. “Piracy is eliminating your rights as artists, whereas if you are for copyright, you have the choice to sell your work or give it away.”

On the other side of the debate, music blog Electro Jams put in their two cents, tweeting “Definitely #artistsforpiracy as it helps promotion, creativity, and inspiration.”

Other pro-piracy advocates argue that the illegal downloading and sharing of music is how they discover new artists and songs. This is in line with the findings of a study that suggests music piracy hasn’t decreased online sales with people who download pirated music doing so as a ‘try before you buy’ means.

So what about Ghost Beach’s own position on piracy? Well, in the NY Times article the duo expressed an opposition to piracy. Frontman Ocean said, “We are against piracy in the sense that we are for new technologies and using the Internet in a way that wins over it by us giving away our music directly to fans.” So if you can’t fight music piracy, you can at least try to use it to your advantage.

“We never want to promote blatantly going out and stealing music,” he added. “What we do want to do is offer choices that we think are right.”

The pair also tweeted on the issue, “We are #artistsagainstpiracy. We believe in using new music sharing platforms to combat illegal downloading.”

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine