The Flipside Of BitTorrent - Why Many Musicians Still Hate It

Last week, I wrote a popular post on the continuing popularity of BitTorrent, and how some artists are now choosing to embrace it as a marketing tool to expose their music to a wider audience. But many activist musicians disagree with the notions that BitTorrent is anything more than outright theft. Singer-songwriter David Lowery of the band Camper Van Beethoven is a good example.

For this group of musicians, BitTorrent and other channels for often-illegal file downloads continues to represent a real and present threat to their livelihoods. The only debate in their minds is how to best squash the problem of BitTorrent.

Why BitTorrent Doesn't Work

You can tell the week probably won't go well when the first email you get on Monday morning comes from a pissed-off rock star, and he's none too happy with you. But that was my start to the week, as Lowery dropped me a line to bust my balls in a humorous way, as he put it, about BitTorrent Downloads Booming - And Benefitting Musicians

Lowery, whose skills go far beyond music and into mathematics and business - he's a lecturer in the University of Georgia's music business program - disputed the very idea that anyone could successfully make a go of using BitTorrent as a way of increasing exposure for musicians.

"In particular for the last 18 months I have studied in detail BitTorrent activity for my critically acclaimed cult band Camper Van Beethoven. I also have reams of data on file sharing and searches at Cyberlocker sites. You really think there are no lost sales in BitTorrent activity?" Lowery wrote. "Can I have some of what you are smoking? Why would you search for a song called 'Take the Skinheads Bowling' unless you heard the song? There are no current magazine articles on Camper Van Beethoven, TV shows, or mentions on squidbillies. They heard it and they wanted it. Occam's Razor, dude."

It's All About The Middle Class

In particular, Lowery is very concerned about the "middle class" of artists who are getting the worst hit by illegal file sharing. Big name artists, he argued, can weather lost sales, and smaller artists are busy trying to do anything to catch a break. But the non-superstar successes are getting squeezed hard by file sharing.

"You should hang out in a town like Athens, Georgia… where I teach. There are at least 60 small national/regional touring acts, The middle class of the music business. I've not met one that is honestly cool with people sharing files instead of buying them," Lowery stated.

So what about artists like Ed Sheeran in the UK, who recently said in a BBC interview, "You can live off your sales and you can allow people to illegally download it and come to your gigs. My gig tickets are £18 and my album is £8, so it's all relative." How does this position fit with Lowery's point of view?

"Ed Sheeran clearly has never looked at his own show settlement sheet, if he thinks he's making 18 pounds a show. He and his touring party is lucky to gross 9 pounds minus management and agent fees (15% and 20% in UK - much higher than US) Then he pays touring expenses. I bet he nets the same or less per fan live than he would from a decent record deal per fan. And of course most artists are lucky if they manage to play for twenty percent of those who bought/"shared" their CD that year," Lowery replied. "Still he's in the top tier, so I bet he makes a decent amount of money. For now.

"There are no major stars with significant sales that have used BitTorrent. Counting Crows did this year for an EP and then mysteriously pulled out after a couple weeks. No announcement. Totally scrubbed from BitTorrent site. Smells bad," he added.

Creative Conundrum

Lowery's experience in the music industry has led him to a pretty pragmatic insight demonstrating that BitTorrent doesn't really work.

"Most artists and labels are not creative thinkers. They follow the latest trend or style cause that's where the money is. When college radio or Grey's Anatomy is successful for one artist/label. Everybody tries the exact same thing," he explained. "If BitTorrent is really is a way for artists/labels to increase revenue they will be on it like a flash mob. That flash mob should have happened by now."

Lowery is certainly not alone in his disapproval of BitTorrent, but he's no ally of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Lowery's concern is mostly with that of the musicians like himself. He does, however, get frustrated with what he sees as straw man arguments that paint RIAA as an evil business monstrosity that somehow justifies the practice of illegal downloads.

It's Not Just An RIAA Issue

Lowery's concerns are mostly shared by Casey Rae, co-director of the Future of Music Coalition. But their preferred solutions are pretty different.

For Lowery, the solution is advocating and creating the environment for an ethical Internet. For Rae and the rest of the FMC, it's more about creating much easier access to music - so easy, in fact, that the desire to use illegal file sharing will be greatly reduced.

"We believe artists should be paid for their work," Rae explained, and that's the environment his organization is trying to set up.

It's not particularly easy. The major record labels in the US are still living in the past and their licensing process reflects that. Negotiating digital sales or streaming rights for a music catalog can take up to two years, and labels often want their cash up front.

The problem is so acute, Rae added, that when Spotify finally came to the U.S., the Swedish company had to give up some of its own equity to the three major record labels to get them onboard. "The music and motion picture industry are still working under a scarcity model," Rae lamented. "Unfortunately the Internet doesn't recognize scarcity."

And Rae does not care for the RIAA's tactics of litigation and legislation. "We need to wallpaper the Internet with available content."

That available content will probably be streaming content, if Rae's predictions hold. Even the "traditional" paid download services lie Amazon, Apple and Google are shifting to the cloud model, where local downloads become the backup for the user's music collection in the cloud.

If licensing music can become a more streamlined process, Rae envisions a world where illegal downloads will be pointless, since songs can be easily found and played on demand. Artists and their labels will receive equitable payment, and the wave of illegal piracy should start to subside.

The technology is already there. Now it's a matter for the business processes to catch up.

Lead image Courtesy of Shutterstock.

Camper Van Beethoven image originally posted to Flickr by Clinton Steeds. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.