I recently watched Downloaded, a documentary movie about the revolutionary music sharing service Napster. I found it to be very interesting, as it shows how the recording companies at the time still thought they were in the "selling music" business, and were desperately trying to jam the genie back into the bottle.
Yet here we are 15 years later, and you can pretty much stream any recent song by any artist for free on sites like YouTube, SoundCloud, and BandCamp. Disruptive innovation happens no matter how big of a tantrum the entrenched companies throw. The only thing they can do is delay the inevitable, and make themselves look foolish all the while.
It brought back memories of me using the service. Once I got over the novelty of it all, I started using search terms "acoustic" or "unplugged" or "cover" to find alternate versions of songs I already loved. And I remember stumbling upon this gem by Sting, who did an acoustic cover of one of my top ten songs of all time, Why Should I Cry For You?
The version I downloaded was a poorly-encoded 128 kbps. I looked everywhere for the CD that contained this song for a higher-fidelity version, but apparently you could only get it by buying the DVD or VHS video. So here's a case where I wanted to give the music industry money for a product that they apparently didn't think was worth making. Even to this day; I just did a search on Amazon and came up short. But Napster exposed me to it, and reignited my interest in Sting (his newer work just doesn't stand up, sadly).
Another story: I had bought Matchbox 20's first album, and loved it. I downloaded their second one—Mad Season—from Napster to check it out. My dad had just found out about Napster (he was a late adopter) and was going crazy finding obscure a capella music that was really hard to come by otherwise. He asked what I had listened to recently that I really liked, so I told him about Mad Season.
A few days later I got a package in the mail from him. It contained a CD of Mad Season with a note that said "If you like it so much, then we should support them so they keep making more great music."
A downloaded song is not a lost sale; it's an opportunity to connect (or reconnect) with a fan.