Is Piracy Good For Music?

Illegal downloading of music has been one of the most contentious issues in the music industry over the past few years. Major labels and distributors have invested a lot of effort into preventing such piracy, but draconian DRM and sporadic lawsuits seem to have had little (if any) positive impact. The question now should not be how to stop people downloading albums for free, but whether such activity can actually be good for music…

Responding To Change

Innovation drives change in any marketplace, and the advent of the Internet has completely reshaped the landscape of music consumption in a very short space of time. Musicians and labels who cling to the old models of monetisation will inevitably suffer, as they are left in the wake of more adaptable and innovative competitors who embrace such changes and seek to exploit the consequent opportunities.

Andrew Dubber created an interesting post in response to a musician who disagreed with his free music distribution philosophy. The musician in question is Ellen Sift of Worldwide Groove Corporation, and she is aggrieved that people she doesn’t know have been posting copies of her album on the Internet for other people to download.

It’s worth reading Dubber’s post for Ellen’s full statement (which provides many valid insights), Dubber’s response and also for the various perspectives offered by other comments underneath.

Piracy or Promotion?

Personally, I would be more inclined to adopt Andrew’s perspective on this issue. If 10,000 people downloaded my album for free (subtle hint), I would find that very encouraging.

As an independent musician, the biggest obstacle to making money is in getting people (more specifically, the right people) to listen to your music in the first place. Distribution is no longer a problem; getting attention is the problem. The current generation of music consumers download music voraciously – many actually spend more time downloading music than listening to it. Expanding the library can become a compulsion.

The Myth Of Lost Revenue

In this case, of the 10,000 hypothetical people who download my album, chances are that half of those people will never get around to even listening to it once. These are the ones who would never buy my album anyway – no lost revenue there. Of the ones that do listen, a small percentage might like it. Of this small percentage, a few might like it enough to seek out some more.

Without the free download it is unlikely that any of these people would know of my existence – much less listen to my music, much less actually go and pay for it.

Making The Right Connections

In the digital age, the money is in the upsell. It’s about connecting with fans, and profit is a by-product of that connection. If you create enough of those connections, and do it in the right way, then profit will follow. Received wisdom suggests that the surest way to not achieve happiness is to seek it directly; I think a similar philosophy can be applied to monetising music.

If every computer in the world had a free copy of my album on it, I would be delighted. That would mean pretty much everyone who might like my music gets a chance to listen to it. If even 1% of those people bought one CD as a result, I would probably be doing quite well…and if a smaller fraction of those became true fans, I would be, as they say, sorted.

However, there are many caveats to this complex issue. People’s attitude to consuming music needs to evolve; piracy is often rationalised (on an individual level) as a blow to the faceless bureaucrats of the corporations, but the impact on musicians tends to be lost in the overspill of this attitude. As more musicians cut out the middleman and become their own distributors, consumers need to realise that their money is now going straight to the artist – and if they want to continue enjoying the music, they need to make a contribution towards its creation.


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