The music industry has gone through an unbelievable amount of changes throughout the last decade. Everything shifts so quickly that it is hard to keep up to date with trends. We see new acts becoming popular overnight, digital stores suddenly shutting down, new tools to consume music coming to life, all in a very small amount of time.
If we look back at the early 2000s, we might recall what felt like a real danger for music creators and record labels: piracy.
If you were a teenager back then, you might have encountered, at some point, a file-sharing platform where music and films were illegally exchanged in digital format.
The medium, digital files instead of physical goods, was incredibly easy to find and share. The immaterial nature of it seemed to make people unaware of the serious crime they were committing by downloading these files. Or at least less guilty.
This borderline stage somehow led to the music industry we know today, where physical albums are just a sort of memorabilia and where music consumption only happens through digital media.
Until a handful of years ago, we were listening to new tracks by downloading them. Very recently, with the evolution of our smartphones and the possibility to connect to the Internet everywhere, we all switched from a download model to a streaming model.
For the first time in history, legal streaming platforms allow us to access an infinite catalog of music for free.
So what happened to piracy? In a world where people can access limitless musical content for free and legally, does it still make sense to turn to pirate websites?
Short answer: music piracy seems to have dropped in 2019, at least if compared to what happened with the illegal download platforms that are periodically being shut down.
In 2019, according to the Music Listening report by IFTI, the organization representing the recorded music industry worldwide, people have been listening to more music than ever. While in 2018 we spent on average about 17 hours a week listening to music, with the new year we increased that activity by one hour, for a total of about 2.6 hours a day.
How did we do that? 89% of listeners accessed music through an on-demand streaming platform. That’s a huge rate!
Why do so many people turn to legal streaming platforms?
62% do that to have ‘instant access to millions of songs’. 47% adds that it is the ‘most convenient way to listen to music’.
77% also state to have used YouTube to access music in the past month.
Having so much choice available for free and legally has surely made piracy less attractive than it used to be. However, there are two factors to highlight.
First of all, the reasons why people turn to streaming services are mainly the same reasons why they used illegal sharing platforms in the early 2000s: to have access to any music they wanted and to do that for free. In other words, the music industry has evolved and adapted to the consumers’ behavior, trying to survive to the massive technological changes that made digital music files possible.
Secondly, while music piracy is no longer what we are accustomed to knowing, in 2019 access to music through copyright infringement is still an issue. 27% of listeners, according to IFTI, ‘used copyright infringement as a way to listen to or obtain music in the past month’. The rate widens if we look at teenagers, as it reaches a disappointing 38%.
Moreover, 23% of listeners stream-ripped music in the past month. ‘Stream-ripping’ means creating a downloadable file from content only available to stream. For example: downloading audio tracks from YouTube videos (illegally) is considered stream-ripping. Among this new generation of music pirates, 62% admits that they would turn to legal on-demand streaming services if copyright infringement was no longer an available option.
These data show that music piracy is still a problem, despite changing its look.
The unanswered question is: why do people choose to act illegally when they have safe and convenient options to access music?
While many streaming services offer offline access to their catalog for a fee, stream-ripping guarantees to have music to listen to offline for free.
Due to this peculiar demand, a lot of stream-ripping services have bloomed on the net. Just like those P2P file-sharing platforms in the early 2000s, websites that allow you to download tracks from YouTube have been flourishing.
According to the MusicWatch’s Annual Music Study reportage, stream-ripping happens in bulk, with the top 30% of stream rippers copying on average more than 10 full music albums.
Incredibly, the same report has shown that stream rippers are, on average, quite rich: 48% of them earn between $75,000 and $199,000 a year and 34% of them are between the ages of 25 and 34.
It wouldn’t be fair to draw to rushed conclusions after looking at these data. However, these trends suggest that music piracy is not based on a material need. In other words, stream rippers don’t access music illegally because they are lacking the financial resources to do that. It’s a culture, an idea according to which we should all be entitled to free music content.
Of course, we would all love that, but how about artists? How about the technical staff working at recorded music?
How are they going to get paid?
The music industry might have evolved to compensate for the drops in sales experimented throughout the last few decades. However, it has failed in what was supposed to be the main issue on its agenda: educating the audience towards an honest and sustainable consumption of music.