Music Piracy and The Digital Age

Last month, business analysts at The NDP Group reported that the number of users illegally downloading music in 2012 had fallen to 21 million, which, whilst still far from a modest figure, amounts to a rather significant 17% decrease on the year before. On top of this, the rather wordy International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) announced that global music sales rose by 0.3% over the same period — the first growth the industry has seen in well over a decade. But, despite a grueling, messy war of attrition between labels, governments, software companies and the ‘pirates’ themselves, these shoots of recovery are not the natural consequence of all the money spent on anti-piracy campaigns, lawsuits and P2P embargoes, but as a direct result of the music industry finally beginning to harness digital technology rather than continuously vilify it. However, do these stats really tell us the whole story?

Take Spotify for example. Launched in 2008 by Swedish pair Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, the service allows users to digitally stream millions of tracks from thousands of different artists for ‘free’, generating income via adverts that litter the software. You can pay to have these adverts removed, and you can pay some more to get extra hours of audio pleasure. Then, Spotify take these funds, skim some off the top, pay the labels for supplying the tracks in the first place, who in turn finally pay the artists their well-earned royalties. Problem solved, right?

Spotify Headquarters

Well, probably not. Aside from reports that the artists only receive a ‘tiny’ fraction of the profits, Spotify is a closed circuit, offering no real exposure to those who need or deserve it. And therein lies the paradox — streaming actively reduces piracy by legally offering music for free that would ordinarily be acquired via peer-to-peer software, but does nothing to serve the artists financially or otherwise. This is the exact same criticism that has been leveled at piracy since the first mp3s started popping up on encrypted FTP servers in underground bunkers 20 years ago– the only difference is The Man is now profiting from the process.

But, there is another side to the story. In the gritty underground scene, it is often the labels who are at the forefront of fairness, tirelessly promoting music they love for little or no profit; a far cry from the stereotypical ‘man in a suit’ that most people associate with industry heads. Indeed, platforms like Spotify are bypassed altogether, and bands find success through a community-driven approach instead, with live shows, social media, well-crafted vinyl and merchandise sales at the center.

..Streaming [on Spotify] actively reduces piracy by legally offering music for free that would ordinarily be acquired via peer-to-peer software, but does nothing to serve the artists financially or otherwise

It’s not uncommon for these bands and labels to stream demos and albums for free on platforms like Bandcamp, taking full advantage of the site’s fantastic sharing and e-commerce features to generate a fanbase and some tangible income. This smart use of digital technology allows anyone, for good or for worse, to gain exposure, and it further removes the need for piracy, no doubt contributing to these new, reduced figures.

Taking a step back though, I think it’s important to look at why music piracy has been so rampant over the years. Usually, you hear that CDs are too expensive, code for ‘I can’t afford it’, or the desire to try before you buy, code for ‘I’m taking this album with no intention of paying for it later’. Are these valid justifications for the stealing of an album? Probably not, no. But then, what is the difference between flagrant piracy and so-called ‘file-sharing’? Just by changing the words around, you go from stone-wall thief to renegade champion of the people, sharing your love for music whilst simultaneously flipping off the conglomerate labels for their extortionate methods. I think these are all sketchy topics that are open for discussion, but I think it’s worth bringing up that a recent Columbia University study found that frequent users of peer-to-peer ‘piracy’ networks in the U.S. legitimately purchased 30 percent more music than non-P2P users.

I started this article by saying that piracy has gone down, and whilst that might be statistically undeniable, has it actually improved the music industry in terms of fairness for buyers, labels and artists? Perhaps more critically, does driving out the ‘pirates’ actually put more money in the pockets of those who create and promote great music? The reason for all the questions is that I don’t really know, but for all the media-spin these figures will no doubt stir, I know that I’ll remain as cynical as I ever was.

Isaac Powell
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Isaac Powell

Isaac is Editor-in-Chief of Noted, and prefers his music loud and steaks rare. Lives and writes in Nottingham, England.
Isaac Powell
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