Culture | Criminalizing music piracy solves no problems

How companies can deal with illegal music downloading

We’ve all seen the commercials – “you wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal a handbag, so why would you steal music?” Well, it turns out, criminalizing music downloading does not do the music industry much good, and despite the possibility of fines and imprisonment, many, if not most, people continue to download music irrespective of whether or not it is against the law.

Nowadays, it is easier and cheaper to acquire music than it is to buy lunch, due to internet streaming. The convenience of receiving music files on the go at any given time (conditional on the possesion of an internet-connected device) is unavoidably tempting, and more importantly, is supported by the difficulty of enforcing paid access. These realities will inevitably change the music industry, however resistant to this change it may be. A new study titled “Download or stream? Steal or buy? Developing a typology of today’s music consumer,” published by the Journal of Consumer Behavior in August has demonstrated it is in music companies’ financial interests to cater to the needs of illegal downloaders, as opposed to focusing their efforts on the criminalization of these practices.

Since companies have an increasing responsibility to treat their artists well, and better compensate them for their music, buyers wary about the mistreatment of artists will be happy to support larger companies who in turn support smaller artists. Knowing that most of the money paid for products will be given directly to artists may decrease streaming levels, shifting more money to streaming companies and thus artists.

“We demonstrate how responding to [consumers’] needs, [in other words,] participating, not policing, is a better way of reducing piracy, as can be seen with streaming,” Gary Sinclair, one of the authors of the study and a lecturer in the Marketing and Retail Division of the University of Stirling, explained in an email to The Daily.

Nowadays, it is easier and cheaper to acquire music than it is to buy lunch, due to internet streaming.

Multiple organizations and corporations within the music industry have been cracking down on piracy, attempting to erase it from existence completely. A recent example of this came with the shutting down of Iso Hubs, a prominent and well-known torrent hosting web domain that was one of the most popular websites for torrents other than The Pirate Bay. It is difficult to fully shut down these sites: when one site falls, it often quickly rises again with an alternate operating system, as was the case in the unsuccessful initial shut down of The Pirate Bay.

Studies of music piracy often focus on the dichotomy between those who pirate versus those who do not. In his study, Sinclair decided to expand the groups under examination by adding two other groups into the mix. One of those groups, the ex-downloaders, is comprised of those who used to pirate but switched over to different methods of music consumption. The other group, referred to as “mixed tapes,” consists of those who both pirate and consume music by other methods, such as streaming.

Sinclair conducted this study in order to analyze these two new groups in conjunction with the two frequently studied ones after realizing he had data on music piracy that he could work with. He spent the next four to five months carrying out the research with his colleague Todd Green of Brock University. This was done without any collaboration with the “music industry or police,” according to Sinclair.

Multiple organizations and corporations within the music industry have been cracking down on piracy, attempting to erase it from existence completely.

An object of this study was to analyze the patterns seen in the data, and to show that there are more than two categories of music consumers, Sinclair said. This is something that is often done by organizations and the media, and which tends to oversimplify the issue.

The study revealed that only one group truly felt indifferent in regards to music piracy, and that was the avid downloaders, or as Sinclair refers to the group, the “steadfast pirates.” According to the study, this group of people was highly proficient in downloading illegal music, and found no reason to switch to any other option due to the favourable opportunity cost gained from piracy over alternative methods. In addition, through piracy they believed they were not providing tacit support to streaming companies’ current mistreatment of artists wherein the companies make millions of dollars of profit and compensate artists very little for their work. Continuation of piracy, however, does little to positively support artists.

Still, the advent of streaming services has had an unfavourable effect on music piracy. “The industry figures and the early research show [streaming] is reducing piracy as pirates are migrating to streaming platforms. However, there are still issues with artist payment. The deals that record labels have made with the streaming applications are not good for the artists, who are receiving very little in way of royalties,” Sinclair noted. Some illegal music downloaders do indeed pirate music without feeling remorse. The study notes, however, that these downloaders are open to changing their behaviour if the industry can present a better way to compensate its artists. As it stands, Pandora, a free radio streaming site, helps to address this problem by paying artists depeneding on the number of listens they gain on the site.

“The industry figures and the early research show [streaming] is reducing piracy as pirates are migrating to streaming platforms.”

The two intermediate groups, the mixed tapes and ex-downloaders, still saw the utilitarian value of piracy, but differentiated themselves by concerning themselves in the ethics of pirating music. As such, the ex-downloaders in the study decided to switch to more convenient and what they saw as less harmful forms of music consumption, which included streaming services. Mixed tapes, on the other hand, strayed away from pirating exclusively, but still illegally streamed music occasionally.

Basically, two groups in question turned to piracy in order to get music easily with little to no expense. However, due to moral quandary, they eventually converted to streaming. The ethics of streaming services and the gross undercompensation of artists continued to be a concern, but it did not affect their consumption behaviour in the same way as the steadfast pirate group.

Legitimate streaming services do offer a great and cheap alternative to illegally torrenting music, with services such as Spotify and Apple Music allowing consumers to access comprehensive music libraries for relatively low prices. However, streaming services benefit the consumer much more than the artist, as streaming services have yet to modify their payment policies.

Thus, offering streaming services that fairly compensate artists is the best solution. Sinclair’s study shows that a tier of music pirates choose to torrent their content due to the unfair treatment of artists by large streaming conglomerates, even though this practice also does little to financially support artists. With the advent of companies like Tidal – artist-owned, high royalty percentages, no free streaming tier – ethically-conscious consumers will have the option to feel like they are directly supporting their favourite artists with their patronage. Hopefully current and future studies of internet piracy will send the industry the signal that it needs to modernize and pay artists a fair wage in order to avoid piracy.