On Music Piracy

The golden days of music piracy are behind us. At least for the millions who used LimeWire to get their fix. LimeWire shut down last fall and now the easiest way to pirate music is by using FrostWire or using BitTorrent with torrent files from sites like The Pirate Bay or Demonoid.

I remember when Napster was in its heyday, I was probably 11 or 12 years old and everything I knew about it came from my older sister. This was at a time when iTunes didn’t exist yet and the only way to get music on your computer was to rip CDs or pirate from Napster. For many teenagers at the time CDs were just too expensive to casually purchase when they’d likely only enjoy one or two songs from it. But, Napster eventually shut down, Kazaa happened, and LimeWire took its place as the most popular music piracy software. But now, without LimeWire, casually piracy is starting to disappear. A recent NPD study found that the average number of music files downloaded from peer-to-peer networks has declined from 35 tracks per person in late 2007 to just 18 tracks in late 2010.

Of course, the technically savvy can also use Google to download music files but the average computer user just can’t figure out the right combination of words to make that work. And even if they do, It’s an uphill battle trying to figure out what to do with the dozen or more .rar files that just found their way into your downloads folder.

And don’t get me started on BitTorrent. I’ve tried to explain it countless times to several regular users and they just can’t wrap their heads around it. Port forwarding, peer exchange, magnet links, seeding, trackers — they just can’t piece it all together.

And then their’s FrostWire. I’ve never used the app and don’t know anyone who has, but I can’t imagine it being too different compared to LimeWire or Kazaa. But, FrostWire isn’t popular enough for the average user to know about yet. The NPD study linked above found that only 21% of file sharers used FrostWire. Compare that to 56% of file sharers using LimeWire just before it was shut down.

So, many of these file sharers have resorted to buying on iTunes while other have even gone back to buying CDs. Well, is this a bad thing? These people are paying for music that they might not have otherwise paid for. But, the amount of music that these people are listening to and consuming on a yearly basis has significantly decreased. These people might not have purchased the album but may have bought buttons, stickers, T-shirts, concert tickets, or other merchandise that their music budget can’t afford now or they feel less obligated to purchase because they’ve already bought the album.

What’s truly sad is that this puts more money in the pockets of the record labels and less in the pockets of the musicians who are actually making the music. Record labels hate music piracy because album sales are where they make their money. That’s why the labels push so hard to stop piracy while Radiohead makes $10 million charging whatever customers are willing to pay.

We’re also ignoring the idea that many of these casual pirates will purchase the music if they enjoy it. Here’s a perfect example that I’m willing to share. Earlier this month I noticed that Forever the Sickest Kids had released a new self-titled album. I wasn’t too fond of their previous album but loved their first two and decided to look for a copy on Demonoid. After the download finished I dropped the files into iTunes and synced my iPhone. I spent 3 or 4 days listening to the new album and absolutely loved it. I especially enjoy the track “I Guess You Can Say Things Are Getting Pretty Serious.” But what I did then may shock you, I opened iTunes, deleted the tracks from my library, and purchased them from the iTunes Store.

The Forever the Sickest Kids album is such great example because if I didn’t have the opportunity to pirate it before buying, I probably wouldn’t have purchased it. And, I can assure you that the 90-second samples offered in iTunes don’t cut it. The track I mentioned above I didn’t like at all when I first listened to it, but after I had the time to really listen to the music and understand the lyrics, I loved it. You can’t grow to liking a song with a 90-second sample.

What I wish is that more bands would forgo the record label and instead give their music away for free, just like writers do with their work on weblogs. The musicians could then try to make their money with concerts, T-shirts, and other merchandise. The more people listen to your music the more fans you’ll have, and what better way to get fans than by letting people listen for free.