Next month, people who download music illegally may start getting anti-piracy warnings from their Internet Service Providers. If recent research is any indication, maybe they should be getting "thank you" notes instead.
Turns out that people who frequently download music without paying for it actually end up buying 30% more music than everybody else, according to a study from the National Assembly at Columbia University. This isn't the first research that has shown file-sharing to be beneficial to artists, but this comprehensive study blows yet another good-sized hole in the conventional music industry wisdom.
It makes sense, though.
That heavy-duty downloaders also pay for lots of music isn't shocking, considering they're likely to be much more passionate music fans than others. In Napster's heyday, I must confess, I routinely queued up albums to download overnight, which I then burned onto CD-Rs before walking to high school in the morning (this was pre-iPod). I quickly grew accustomed to the immediacy of file-sharing and before I knew it, I had ripped the audio from all of my CDs so I could get rid of them once and for all. When Napster shut down, I switched to Soulseek and blog searches to find MP3s.
I still paid for some music, especially if it was recorded by a smaller, independent artist whose work I wanted to support. But of the several-hundred gigabytes of music I amassed in the early 2000s, the majority of it was pirated.
Over time, though, my music consumption habits - along with my disposable income - evolved. So did the digital music ecosystem. These days, I spend $10 per month on a premium Spotify subscription and on top of that, am known to eagerly drop at least another $30 on vinyl records per month, on average. Last month, when I set foot in San Francisco's Ameoba Music for the first time, I may or may not have gone a little overboard. It makes sense to me that those of us who hopped onto peer-to-peer networks are also quick to throw down some actual money for music, even while others aren't.
That isn't to say that file-sharing hasn't done very real, palpable damage to the traditional business model of the music industry. It has. Put more accurately, the changes in music consumption and consumer expectations brought on by the advent of the Internet, have crippled the old model.
On one hand, that's hurt deep-pocketed gatekeepers who are widely perceived as having hampered innovation for years (instead opting to sue Internet companies and consumers alike). It's hard to shed too many tears about that. On the other hand, the decline in album sales has also hurt what musician and piracy critic David Lowery calls the "middle class of the music industry." Music might be easier than ever to create, disseminate and discover, but it's still quite difficult to make a living creating it.
As encouraging as the National Assembly numbers might seem, paying consumers like me are not enough to "save" the music industry, or at least the version of it that existed 15 years ago. It's gone. But maybe that's okay.
Perhaps it's time, as many have suggested, to stop thinking about recorded music as the cash cow it once was and instead treat it as a smaller revenue stream that has enormous promotional value to support an artist's other work: touring, merchandise, licensing their music and selling it in deluxe package with extras that fans can't download.
It's hard to picture overall music sales numbers climbing back up to their pre-digital heights anytime soon. Listeners are being conditioned to expect to find and listen to music instantaneously, with or without shelling out money for it. That trend started with Napster and continues today with more legitimate services. Today's teenagers instinctively search for new releases on Spotify. If they're not there, they check YouTube or SoundCloud. Some might pay for a download from iTunes or Amazon, but with so many free and ad-supported options, why bother forking over actual dollars?
In 2005, authors David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard imagined a future in which everyone carries Internet-connected media players and subscribes to a massive library of music in the cloud. "Music like water," they called it. That's exactly where we're headed with smartphones and services like Spotify and Rdio.
Early research conducted in Sweden suggests that subscription services help reduce piracy. Yes, the financial viability of the services model is still unknown, and many artists are nervous about the financial payoff. But there's still hope that with enough scale, those services can help the music industry thrive in the 21st Century. Even if it looks very, very different than it once did.