What’s A Download Worth Pt II: Recovery and Discovery

So, does the ‘massive downloader’ scenario I outlined in the previous post account for all download traffic? Of course not.

My own torrenting experience has been almost exclusively to get digital copies of music I own physical hard copies of. For me, torrenting wasn’t a replacement for buying music, rather it was a replacement for buying a USB turntable to legally convert my vinyl collection to MP3… or actually, borrowing one – I hope the BPI wouldn’t be in favour of people buying unnecessary hardware for limited use.

I’ve no idea if that would stand up in court, were I sent threatening letters for downloading music that I could produce the hard copy of. Perhaps it would be impossible for them to prove that they weren’t, in fact, mistaken and that I’d ripped it from my collection. Either way, it’s certainly not music I was about to buy again – I’m just recovering music that was lost to me thanks to obsolete tech.

The big record industry has relied for 25 years on producing new formats to get people to buy the same legacy product again and again. CDs worked for them for a time – sheer portability made them more useful than vinyl, and they were much higher fidelity than cassette, but the volume of back catalogue sold had precious little impact on new music. I’d love to see a sales curve for new vs back catalogue CD sales from 1986-2010… I’m guessing the fall off in back catalogue sales probably maps pretty well to the arc of the decline in overall CD sales, if not accounting for all of it… It certainly wasn’t compensated for by Minidisc, DCC or SACD…

And what of people who download music instead of buying it? All the research suggests that a pretty large percentage of youngsters just don’t see music as being worth paying for any more. So they download it. But what are they spending their money on instead? A fair chunk of it goes on computer games – all of which contain music, all of which is licensed and paid for and all of which generate income for musicians via the collection agencies, who bafflingly also supported the Digital Economy Bill.

As I’ve said before, spending on physical entertainment media is up, it’s just now shared between music, DVD/blueray and games. I’m a fairly big music buyer, but I’ve spent even more on DVD boxed sets in the last year than I have on music.

I have a friend who was/is a composer at RockStar games. That wasn’t a career that existed 20 years ago. Guitar Hero didn’t exist 6 years ago – and for its first few years, the Guitar Hero/Rock Band franchise was yet another locked-in major label ruse to squeeze more cash out of dinosaur rock hits. Now there’s a whole load of other music ending up on there, that’ll be paid for by the people buying those choonz.

So some kids copy music for free, brand themselves with it, and eventually that branding leads to them spending some money on product that contains licensed music…

Hasn’t it ever been thus? Back in the 80s when I was at school, it was common place for one person to buy an album and for it to go round a LOT of people being copied and shared. We also did compilation albums for each other – highly illegal, but which led to me buying a LOT of music – and there were certain albums I never bought because I heard them enough at friends’ houses to never have to buy them – entirely legal, but ultimately damaging the sales of the artists… Home taping, we eventually realised, did no more to kill music than ‘inviting people over to listen to records’ did.

So where’s this leading us?

  • All this is not to say that I think Torrenting is the future of music.
  • I don’t think ‘feels like free’ is the future of music, and
  • I have no truck with people who unlawfully repurpose other people’s work to make money (using free downloads of someone else’s music to drive traffic to your ad-supported site is pretty shitty…)

What I DO think is that the impact of illegal downloading on music across the board is absolutely nothing like the BPI figures that underpinned the desperate ‘need’ to get the Digital Economy Bill passed into law, particularly the ludicrous notion that file sharing ‘disadvantages new and emerging artists’ (who are the very people who benefit from it most, as a free alternative to the insane waste of money that passes for ‘promotion and marketing’ in the recording industry).

As lovers of music, we need to be aware of the influence and power the internet gives us as creators AND consumers. We can make music sustainable both by paying for it, AND by sharing it with others. We can be links in the chain of discovery that mean our favourite artists need to be neither hopelessly obscure nor debt-burdened thanks to wasteful promo.

The as-yet-unknown future will emerge out of the relationship between artists an listeners, as we seek to build web environments that are better than torrent sites, that give people a reason to come to us first, and find out what we’re about, and how and why we make music.

There’s lots more to be said, feel free to bat these ideas around in the comments below…


And here’s some amazing progressive jazz for you to have a listen to – Neil Alexander is an insane talent, not ‘famous’ by any stretch, but immensely gifted, imaginative and dedicated to his art.

If you like it, please head over to his site and pay what you think it’s worth – he’ll thank you for it, I’m sure!

12 Replies to “What’s A Download Worth Pt II: Recovery and Discovery”

  1. Nice post Steve. I do agree with you on the effects of torrenting on some musicians. I think the ones hit the hardest by torrenting are “one hit wonders”, because people are less likely to go and try and get the legal option for one song (but then again, iTunes helps with this).

    I’m not sure I agree people are spending their music on e.g. computer games. If you torrent music, chances are you’ll do the same with video and software too.

    I appreciate that you’re trying to say torrenting is overblown in terms of influence and in all those sectors the importance is being over-exaggerated. However, I’m still not entirely morally happy with people who torrent music/games/video that they can obtain for a very reasonable price elsewhere AND the artist is not happy with it. Ultimately, that’s the benefit of the different licensing models, people can choose what they want. I do believe that people should be able to protect their copyright if they choose, just not through draconian and privacy invading measures that put huge amounts of trust in corporations.

    1. Mike,

      thanks – your comments and critique are always helpful.

      The ‘one hit wonder’ situation is largely a fabrication of an industry that values short term fame over sustainability. If any particular band works towards building a relationship with an audience, rather than aiming one song at radio/MTV/etc. they are less likely to find themselves in that problem.

      Only a fool would argue that ‘no-one has been negatively impacted by torrenting, when compared to a hypothetical situation in which the internet didn’t exist’, and it’s also certainly the case that at least part of the constituency consider what they are doing to be theft – sticking it to The Man and all that utterly inconsistent bullshit.

      But, it’s also true that the people who are most downloaded tend to be those who are either a) massively successful or b) gambled on trying to *force* their digital product back behind a paywall and lost the gamble…

      Music and DRM failed because music is made for sharing. the Games industry still seems to be making it work – games for PC and Mac are torrented a lot, but console games are still selling in huge quantities, and while they have been hacked, the companies *still* seem able to sell games for £40 and up.

      Same with software and the proprietary app stores – sure, you can jailbreak an iPhone, but fairly few people do… Because the app store is easy and priced at a point where people will choose paying over the hassle of trying to pay.

      It’s tough to argue the moral imperative to use iTunes when the CD of the same album can be had in HMV for less than half the download price, making FAR less for the artist or the label… but somehow that’s supposed to be a sustainable business model? Same goes for the ‘territorial’ pricing of the various iTunes stores… tough one to argue in a global market.

      None of this is easy, much of it is a cultural issue, but what’s clear is that trying to treat the internet as an ‘online shop’ in the old sense is doomed to fail, and the artists who’ve made the most of it – and for the most part, the most money, are those who’ve chosen to acknowledge the way information and media are shared online and work with it, making their own web presence the most enticing place to engage with the art…

      Thanks again, Mike, always much to think about.

      1. Yeh, thanks Steve, I do agree with you.

        One of the saddest things about digital distribution, be it for books, music, video or music is that the price remains basically the same as shipping a physical product and, most of the time, the digital version is inferior [1]. This seems pretty unacceptable to most consumers and is why I buy pretty much all my non-indie CDs second hand. The problem is, the artists get as much money from second-hand sales as they do from torrenting so it’s hard to feel like a saint, even although I’m technically within the law.

        I think there’s many lessons to be learnt from you (and others e.g. the Humble Indie Bundle of games [2]) and others on this on how to make your audience actually WANT to pay you money because you are lovely people. I think even people who have had a reasonable amount of mainstream success (see Weird Al) can get a lot more support just through not being dicks.

        I think the hardest thing that content producers need to accept is that in a digital age you can never stop unauthorised duplication and some people are freeloaders and don’t really care if they push you out of business. However, I really don’t think these people would have paid before the internet either so you’re best to just write them off completely and pretend they don’t exist.

        [1] http://i.imgur.com/GxzeV.jpg

        [2] http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/05/12/humble-indie-bundle-makes-bundle/

  2. At the moment, Steve, “format shifting” is still illegal in the UK. We have no “fair use” exception that states we can make backups of material we’ve legally bought, and we cannot copy something from one format to another to use on different technology. We are expected to buy material again in a different format, or if the original product becomes damaged or unplayable.


    1. yup, another completely pointless law that the companies themselves make the technology to break… Sony have always made blank media, copying machines, USB turntables…

      As a rule, I tend to file the ‘no format shifting’ law alongside the one that said that cab drivers had to have a tiny bale of hay under their back seat to feed the horses, long after they switched to petrol/diesel engines…

      But, the inconsistency on such things is a big part of the problem – how can the recording industry take the moral high ground when they are complicit in making the technology that contradicts that position…

      1. Well indeed… The link I posted actually has “repealing-unnecessary-laws” in the URL. And you seemed to be unsure of the legal status of what you described, so I was only pointing out the current legal status.

  3. Perhaps the torrenting culture and the perception of music as having no monetary value is a consequence of a dislocation between listener and artist? The mental construct of the music industry creates a barrier and obstructs an emotional connection forming.

    The strongest example of this are the X-factor type escapades. The production companies are acting like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, saying, “We can take any old idiot and make them a star.”

    And they can, but even with the hours of TV coverage the relationship is a shallow one. Perhaps that’s why many of these artists are one-hit-wonders? The alleged connection is to a media construct not a person. Products are not people, mass broadcast marketing is not a conversation and there is no connection.

    If music is seen as a product at the end of an industrial process then why not take it for free? What does it matter because you’re not hurting individuals you’re hurting (barely) multi-national corporations? This antagonism is only multiplied by industry organisations suing people for downloading and sharing their product. If the relationship is perceived as “them and us” things will only get worse.

    Reestablishing a direct connection between artist and listener seems to be the best way to change this culture. That’s a necessity for independent/small label artists but it can be done for bigger label artists too.

  4. I’m responding to this post as a lover of music who, over the last 30 years has spent a good deal of money purchasing (and in many cases repurchasing) music of many genres. I am fairly new to the digital domain and downloading but have found that sites such as bandcamp and soundcloud have broadened my access to new / undiscovered musicians and allowed me to hear lots of different music I may not have heard previously. Crucially – and I think this is the point Steve makes very well – I have been able to build a relationship with the composers and give feedback and offer thanks to them for their work. I like the idea of ‘pay what you can’ as I am sure that the musician will earn more that way than through major label deals. Downloading for me has been an access point to new listening and I am more than happy to pay for the music created. I have also been quite vocal in ‘promoting’ my new finds to friends and colleagues.
    As a sign off, can I just say thanks for the music on this site and, like Arnie, “I’ll be back!”

  5. Thanks as always, Steve, for another enlightening post and the conversation it touched off!

    It gives me a constructive and clear way forward in trying to get my music partner (who is so old school he could be carbon dated!) to understand why we ought to at least try offering our music as free downloads and include the option to pay what you like or can, rather than barricading it all behind the paywall. I wish it wouldn’t take all day for me to translate these posts and a few of the comments into Japanese though……

    Sweet piece by Nailmusic – thanks for posting it – love the rainy drumming in the first track!


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