Not everyone who illegally downloads an album prior to its release date is the selfish, thieving cheapskate the recording industry would have you believe.
Some fans just want to hear the music.
"The people who are actively going to search out and download an album three months early just because they want to hear it are people who just love the band," said Wilco superfan Ronen Givony, whose new Web site is quickly proving his theory. "These are people who are really antsy about hearing new music as soon as they can. But the music industry perceives us as thieves, people who are out to defraud artists."
Givony's 5-day-old Web site, justafan.org, is for Wilco fans who've downloaded the band's upcoming fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, due June 22, and feel compelled to show their appreciation for the band's music while also proving their willingness to spend their hard-earned dollars on something worthwhile. Visitors are asked to make a donation to the emergency medical-aid organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity the bandmembers chose when Givony pitched them his idea a couple of weeks ago.
After the first day of operation, the site tallied more than $1,500. At press time, the donations amounted to more than $3,600. Contributions range from $1 to $500, though the average is $15, about the price of a CD.
"These donations are a symbolic down payment or promissory note in advance of the album's release on June 22," a note on the site read, "and a show of thanks to the band for its continuing generosity and trust, on behalf of the fans of Wilco, and of real, original music everywhere."
Givony, who also runs www.bemydemon.org, a Wilco lyrics Web site, got the idea for justafan.org while verifying the lyrics to A Ghost Is Born with Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy, with whom he had a previous e-mail relationship. Like many fans, the 25-year-old Bostonian downloaded the album from a peer-to-peer network in mid-March, a few days after advance copies of the album were mailed out to press and radio outlets. He knew the way major labels work, and even though Wilco have sold more than 1.1 million copies in their nine-year career, Tweedy has admitted in interviews that the band makes very little in album sales compared with money earned from touring and merchandise. Givony didn't want to make matters worse for the band.
"It got me thinking about how an organized and passionate fanbase could come up with an alternative to the ancient model of record sales and distribution that we have in place today," Givony said. "I wondered if it wouldn't be interesting to try having fans send a payment to the bandmembers themselves — through some kind of PayPal system, say — instead of having the $12 or $15 we spend on albums end up in a marketing department's campaign for the next Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake record."
The site's co-creator and designer, Jeff Dashley, who also heads up the Wilco fan site www.viachicago.org, foresaw too many legal issues, so they came up with the charity idea.
Wilco have long been open-minded about posting their music online (see "Wilco Stream New Album Online While Shopping For Label"). The success of justafan.org opposes the underlying hypothesis of the Recording Industry Association of America's litigation campaign against file-sharers: that people are downloading music instead of buying it.
"The RIAA needs to look at the reasons why people download," Dashley said. "A lot of these people are in the middle of Iowa, and their only choice to buy music is Wal-Mart or Best Buy. If they don't have a credit card, they can't order from Amazon or iTunes. They can't find Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes at Wal-Mart, so they have to do whatever they can to get it. There needs to be a better way to reach those fans, and branding them criminals is not the way to do it.
"Hopefully this will show record companies that when you have smart fans, and you have smart, interesting music, you're only going to create situations like this."
For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.