Pirates don't kill music, labels do
When you first view the official figures concerning the pirating of music, they make for grim reading and you wonder how the music industry will survive. Roughly 7.7 million people have illegally downloaded tracks in the past year according to research commissioned by the BPI, the industry body that represents record labels.
The same research points to more than 1.2 billion songs being pirated or shared - roughly three quarters of all music downloaded - at a cost to the industry of around £219 million.
The BPI is now calling for new legislation to tackle illegal downloading, stating:
"It is a parasite that threatens to deprive a generation of talented young people of their chance to make a career in music, and is holding back investment in the burgeoning digital entertainment sector."
Grim times for the music industry, then? No, actually. Sales of legal downloads grew by over 50% in a year, from £101.5 million in 2008, to £154 million in 2009. This year, the industry has had its first single with over one million sales. The music industry seemed capable of turning over significant revenue in a recession where plenty of businesses failed.
It's fair to say the BPI are spinning their figures and making some flawed assumptions to support their cause, not least in claiming £219 million fortune in 'lost' revenue. The BPI is making the point if illegal downloads weren't an option then consumers would have paid up for the music, which is absurd. Plenty of people pirate of music on a whim, purely because it's free; if it wasn't they'd simply do without. That doesn't excuse illegal downloading, but neither does it directly equate to lost sales.
The other issue that the BPI still can't get its head around, is that it can't win the battle. Technology is progressive - it'll only become easier to pirate music, not harder. Instead of acting as if music is still a physical product bought off a shelf, the industry needs to find new models for retailing it.
In fact it's had a model sat staring them in the face for over four decades - radio. Through the likes of PRS, PPL and MCPS, the artists, performers and records labels make tens of millions every year from airplay on hundreds of UK stations, with these collections agencies taking a percentage of each station's commercial revenue (or in the case of the BBC, a flat fee). Last.fm, Spotify and the like have moved this model on further, to allow the consumer to increase the level of customisation for a price. Yet music labels to still reluctant to fully commit to it, because they think they can beat piracy and make more money for themselves.
Mainstream (or lowest common denominator) music will always exist, but it's no longer dominant. Indie labels and individual artists have the same distribution methods available to them. Piracy isn't killing all music, just that controlled by the old school.