The Independent, 18 September 2012

Who would have guessed that the people of Manchester – the city that brought us The Smiths, The Stone Roses, and New Order – are such big fans of Ed Sheeran? But if the figures are to be believed, they must be. Manchester is the piracy capital of the UK, according to a survey of the nation’s illegal downloading habits. And Sheeran’s album, +, is the most pirated album so far this year.

Since I have never knowingly listened to Ed Sheeran, as he looks too baby-faced and wholesome for my raddled tastes, I can’t tell you if the pirates are making a good choice in their law-breaking. What I can tell you is that Sheeran himself seems largely unfazed: he told Radio 1 that he has found a decent balance between people pinching his music from the net, but then paying for his concert tickets.

This seems like a wise response: plenty of studies have shown that the people who pirate the most music or films or television are also the people who pay for the most. Pursue the pirates too vigorously, and you criminalise your fans, the ones most likely to buy concert tickets, t-shirts, posters and the rest.

But even live music doesn’t pay what it used to. Ticket prices grow more stratospheric every year, but that isn’t always trickling down to the performers. A hefty chunk is taken by the venues and ticketing agencies, whose booking fees are now so surreally large that the comedian Sarah Millican has dumped one theatre group from her next tour in protest.

And while Millican performs solo, so can at least take the majority of profits from her work, other performers struggle. The American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer has upset musicians in the US because she is recruiting ‘professional-ish’ string and horn players to play her tour dates for hugs and beer.

And while plenty of musicians may well be willing to work with an artist they admire for pin money, doing it for hugs is a step down. Try paying the rent with beer and hugs and see how far that gets you (obviously, don’t try this if you have a pervy landlord).

Palmer funded her last record with $1.2 million of fan donations, so her audience is big, and financially committed to her work. Couldn’t she have gone back to Kickstarter (the fund-raising website) and asked them to contribute another couple of bucks each for the trumpet-players?

The vast majority of musicians earn very little. As listeners, we need to decide how much we want them to be able to continue. If we don’t buy their records, we can’t really complain when the charts are filled with nothing but trustafarians wearing Hendrix t-shirts.

Earlier this summer, I had a first: a completely plain letter from a charity I support – no leaflets, no disposable pens, no stickers with my address on – asking for money. They admitted that they get very negative feedback when they sent out the free crap. It turns out none of us wants a cheap calendar. But they also cleverly pointed out that they get more money when they send out the freebies, so this was a test run to see if they got the same return. As blackmail goes, give us your money or we pelt you with junk, is a sound move. I sent a cheque.

This week, they sent another letter with a lowest suggested donation of double what I usually give. I had to write the amount of my usual donation in the ‘Other Amount’ box, like a cheapskate. I know they have to make money, especially in a recession. But they’ve removed some of the joy of giving – I now feel scabby instead of generous. Isn’t it a risk that if people can’t feel good about giving, they won’t give at all?