Illegally downloading music is, as the name suggests, illegal. So technically, it’s a very naughty thing to do. Steer clear or you’ll be made to go sit in the corner, etc. The thing is, it’s become such a widespread activity that, well, nobody really pays attention to whether or not they’re officially allowed to do it. It is, arguably, now somewhat equivalent in people’s minds to underage drinking or defacing a coin of the realm. No big deal.
There is often a sort of idealistic mentality which accompanies music downloading, as well; music will be more widely and freely available, and it won’t matter whether a band is signed to a major label, an independent, or even unsigned. The exposure will be the same for all bands; it will be a veritable musical democracy.
This is, apparently, just idealism. Apparently, it’s not like this in real life. Boooo! Well, unless you’re already a big-selling artist, that is – according to a study carried out for PRS for Music by that well-known dream team of an economist and a media tracker.
They claim that big acts are just being made bigger by piracy, with smaller artists being left choking in the dust by the side of the information superhighway.
Talk about stating the obvious, to a certain degree. If a certain proportion of the population likes, say, the platinum-haired, teacup-wielding and slightly scary Lady Gaga, this proportion isn’t suddenly about to change just because the music is available for free.
Not to discount their point about popular artists’ popularity further increasing as a result of illegal downloads, but I doubt this is an accurate depiction of the full picture.
If people can get something for free, it’s more than likely that they will do so. You can deduce all you like from that about the bad side of human nature and how we always want more than we’re willing to pay for, but that’s, sadly, just the way it is. As such, it makes perfect sense that the most-downloaded songs correspond roughly to the most-purchased ones.
Exposure thanks to music piracy for smaller bands might not add up to more CD or download sales – for rock and indie bands it’s perhaps more likely to be seen in terms of concert tickets or merchandise sales. Music sales for these bands may not immediately increase, but there is the opportunity for a lasting fanbase to be built.
A new band might only receive X number of downloads, in comparison to the 500X downloads of a track by U2, but who’s to say that, without piracy, this new band would have reached X number of listeners? It’s difficult to quantify, but that’s not to say that the effect isn’t there.
IAMX, Laura Marling, Leonard Cohen, Belle and Sebastian – would I be listening to any of these bands if it wasn’t for the fact that I have, at some point, downloaded some of their music? Quite simply – no.
The industry might say no (of course they will, though; they’re out to protect themselves here) but it’s true that piracy does allow people to listen to music with no monetary commitment. What they choose to do afterwards is out of anyone’s control, but at least they’re listening in the first place.
The study was ostensibly carried out to see if the ‘long tail’ theory was actually much cop in terms of music piracy. The long tail theory being (bear with me here, as I’m not a business student) that if people are offered a greater amount of choice and the help to take said choice, they will do so. Survey says no.
I’m not entirely sure, though, where this “help” to take the choice of lesser-known music. There are music blogs, yes, which obviously provide a lot of exposure to new and lesser-known bands, but they are little contest for the likes of Radio 1.
The problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the habits of downloaders, but perhaps in the lack of variety offered by mainstream radio, instead.
The conclusion drawn by the survey was that the Internet, bizarrely, offers too much choice. I know – I was a bit confused by that one, too. Surely choice is a good thing?
Services like Spotify might be helping the crusade against illegal downloading, offering a literal library of music at users’ fingertips, but it’s doubtful that people will exhibit any different listening patterns here than they do when downloading music. After all, streaming music for free is only one step (if a great deal of legality) away from pirating it.
If the industry are this concerned about smaller bands, perhaps they should spend more on promoting them. After all, Jonathan from Spotify has a hell of a lot of ad space to fill.