Famine and colorful cd covers pave the streets of downtown Mexico City. In stand after stand, pirated product is being sold to feed poverty-struck families. Music comprises the largest percentage of such pirated sales, which run the gamut from old American westerns to well-known clothing brands. This creates an ethical dilemma for both the Latin American music industry and the people of Mexico. Is protecting the intellectual rights of artists more important than helping thousands feed their family? Does the well being of a particular trade trump seemingly more important issues, such as the economic survival of the poorest in society?
Piracy is a glooming ghost the music industry is too familiar with. The file-sharing capabilities of the Internet catalyzed an uncontrollable phenomenon, as the lines hazed around the rights of digital intellectual property. Since the creation of Napster, for instance, listeners around the world have loosely evaded copyrights protecting the work and efforts of artists. Besides, Napster is not only an example of copyright infringement, but also a prime instance of the synergetic power of the Internet. Since the file-sharing site was officially brought down and reconfigured, the music industry began to perceive that a future with digital music also changed perceptions about the value of music.
Yet, can one compare a teenage boy in Minnesota downloading and sharing illegal music files to the pirated mass market of Mexico? The issue easily becomes a matter of politics rather than economics. In a world where digital sales have transformed the recorded music industry, only approximately 23.9% of the global population has Internet access. Whether purchasing music or illegally sharing files, this small percentage of the population represents the future of the music market, as digital sales continue to supersede physical sales. In South America, statistics show that only 42% of the population has Internet access; in Central America the figure is 34%. Needless to say, these nations resort to more traditional forms of piracy to distribute illegal music: copying, burning, and selling CDs. In 2001, the IFPI recorded an astonishing 63% piracy rate for Mexico’s music market, where three in every five albums sold was a pirated copy. Mexico was one of the top piracy markets in the world.[i]
Nevertheless, what is the solution? A piracy raid in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2005 seized approximately one million illegal discs and resulted in the arrest of 25 major “piracy lords;” [ii] a small dent in Mexico’s massive piracy problem with a surely bigger impact on the families running these operations. World-hunger organizations estimate that 53% of the Mexican population lives in destitution, surviving with less than $2 a day. A less fortunate 24% lives in absolute poverty, earning less than a dollar a day.[iii] Whole neighborhoods devote their commerce to pirated music, such as the infamously violent Tepito barrio in Mexico City, which allegedly produces 70% of the nation’s contraband.[iv] Sixty-nine blocks of bootlegged material, mostly music and films, make Tepito a mere reflection of the country’s intense corrupt and turbulent economy. But drugs and violence are of more concern than music in this no-man’s land
Therefore, music in Mexico–and its war against piracy–is part of a complex matrix of politics and economics. Ethical consideration of a fair retribution for talent and music sellers take a backstage to other priorities. But the stakes are not inconsequential for the Mexican government. It is estimated that 300 million US dollars in tax revenue are lost annually in illegal music sales.[v] This is money the Mexican government could arguably utilize to implement social programs, help fight hunger, and perhaps increase Internet access for schools and youth.
Of course, increased Internet access would also feed more piracy. In 2010, Music & Copyright reported that as Brazil’s economy recovered, digital sales plummeted after an initial boom. Brazil, the largest Latin American music producer and market, began to see a critical rise in illegal file sharing as broadband and high-speed Internet subscriptions rose in 2009.[vi] Mexico would surely see a mobilization of piracy to the Internet. However, on the upside, it might help rid violent and backward neighborhoods whose livelihood are mainly associated with the sale of pirated merchandise.
Furthermore, increased Internet access would greatly help to promote Mexico’s vast array of talented new artists. Music has always been a prominent aspect of Mexican culture, as more than 60% of all music sales, pirated and legal, are comprised of local artists. Social media and viral marketing could mean a brighter future for promising Mexican talent. Like many American upcoming artists, they would have the ability not only to increase their public image, but also to release tracks directly to listeners, taking power away from music pirates and diminishing overall criminal activity, of which music is only a part. Internet access could ultimately salvage this otherwise stagnant music market, as artists gain the versatility necessary to connect with audiences.
Piracy in Mexico is a multifaceted problem. Driven by poverty and desperation, pirated music sales have become part of the daily life and business of the Mexican people. Ultimately, however, pirated product hurts not only the Mexican music industry but also the national image and public safety of this lively nation. Though plummeting music industry revenue has been a casualty so far, it has to be said that this is not a war for the music industry to fight alone. It’s the Mexican government’s responsibility to mobilize technological development and improve living conditions for the population. Sadly, until Mexico begins to advance economically, its music industry will remain stagnant and under the yoke of the pirates.
By Mariana Ramirez
[vi] Music sales and royalty collections rise again in Brazil, but digital sales stumble after initial early promise. Music and Copyright, June 16, 2010. Issue 414.