Digital Music

Is Music Piracy The Problem… Or The Solution?

Music_piracy_blogYesterday in a comment left on one of Hypebot's Best of 2011 articles, one reader expressed a viewpoint that ending piracy is the #1 route to a professional career in the music industry. They went on to say:

“You can't have jobs where there's no money. People who aspire to professional careers need to learn who is robbing them of those opportunities.”

While it’s clear by now that piracy has caused the music industry as a whole to lose a substantial amount of its revenue, it’s important to examine the root of the behavior in order to fully understand piracy and the people who choose to participate.

Why Pirate in the First Place?

The word “piracy” can mean different things to different of people – both consumers and content creators alike. To some, piracy is and always has been an immoral behavior that must be dealt with in order to restore the balance to an ailing music industry. Yet to others, piracy is a welcomed distribution method that allows for music to be heard and shared across the world by millions of people.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, it's safe to argue that pirating music seems to be in response to both 1) a shift in consumer behavior and 2) an embrace of today's digital era.

In today’s downturned economy, people are no longer as willing to pay for the things that they can just as easily get on their own. We are dining out less and cooking more, investing in maintenance and care items that allow our goods to last longer, dramatically cutting our spending budgets, opting more for public education, and so on.

As valuable as music is on a transcendental and emotional level, for our purposes here in this industry, music is a commodity. And in the end, digital music files are just that – data. Therefore it would seem counterintuitive for consumers to have to fork over their hard earned money when the methods of consuming and storing the product are equally the same had they paid for it or not. Imagine owning an orchard in your backyard, and then going down to the produce store to purchase apples. Doesn’t quite make sense, does it?

This idea here is the same between, say, an iTunes purchase and a Pirate Bay download. The "barriers to consumption" are virtually the same:

Type –> Search –> Select –> DOWNLOAD –> Consume –> Store –> Repeat

To Embrace or Not to Embrace?

However, many artists are embracing the chaos of piracy and are no longer frowning upon their fans for doing so – in fact many are encouraging it. Take a look at the recent campaign that electronic musician Pretty Lights did with BitTorrent, or how Dubstep sensation Skrillex encouraged his fans to pirate his music if they couldn’t afford to purchase it.

What makes it “OK” for these artists to encourage the piracy of their music is that they’re both heavily touring musicians. Not only are these guys on the road hundreds of days per year (Skrillex is slated to perform 300+ shows going into 2012), but they also bring with them amazing live spectacles showcasing incredible lighting and visual displays – memorable experiences that simply cannot be replicated at home nor can they be pirated.

Now, I’m not saying that you should begin giving your music away for free and then add a fancy light show to your live performances. The takeaway from these examples is that both Pretty Lights and Skrillex make it easy for their fans to have access to, and eventually fall in love with their music. They then “reel in” their fans with memorable live performances that captivate them, and in turn, keep them loyal. These artists showed love first by giving away their music to anyone who would listen to it, and the audience returned the favor by spreading the word, attending the concerts, and buying the merchandise.

Today’s performing music artist needs to come to terms with the fact that their job requires them to be on the road quite a bit if they plan to build a sustainable career for themselves over the long haul. Nowadays, music sales and downloads are a means to an end. The point shouldn’t be anymore to sell as much music as possible. The point should be to build an audience that respects, loves, and appreciates you to the point where there is a clear demand for you and the product… to reach critical mass.

With this in mind, piracy can play a huge role in acting as a catalyst for organic and valuable word-of-mouth promotion for the artist, while catering to the mass consumers' economic position on the consumption and storage of their digital music files.

Author's Note: While the discussion of piracy extends far beyond the points made in the article, this piece was meant to examine how piracy has worked its way into the business models of a few touring musicians. 

What do you think? Is piracy here to stay, and therefore should it be embraced? Or should we continue to take measures to stop it in its tracks? Leave your comments below!

This post is by regular Hypebot contributor, musician, and music business professional - Hisham Dahud (@HishamDahud)

Share on:


  1. Piracy is here to stay no doubt about that. Taking measures hasn’t been very successful so far, so don’t focus on measures any longer.
    The key is convenience. Offer something better and easier than piracy. In that respect streaming services so far do the best job.

  2. Agreed, business models will always follow the path of least resistance for the consumer. Streaming already works great for movies.. and even better for music. I think, as the general public gets used to using Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and whatever else comes along, piracy will become a moot point. (and perhaps sales figures too). Probably the main thing we (musicians) should be concerned with, is to make music that’s worth listening to..

  3. Making music worth listening to is the basis of it all.
    Right now 100 Spotify streams make up for a missed sale of a single track on iTunes. So why all the fuzz? It can only get better when more people start streaming.

  4. First of all, as much as I agree that pirating music is here to stay. For generations people have been used to getting particular free music through the radio, tv, and films and now they can get just about any. Streaming shouldn’t be looked at as the savior it’s being touted as. Just because it may be drawing listeners from pirating that doesn’t mean the benefits are justifiable. Most streaming does not pay out enough to make that much of a difference. Plus, there is yet to be a system in place where listeners can stream whenever and wherever they are. No data or wifi connection means no streaming means no music, so owning a copy of the music is still king and therefore pirating is still king.
    Not all musicians can get on streaming services while they all can be distributed through pirating. Consider this and the fact that most major radio, tv, and films only play the same music over and over again, PIRATING is actually the savior of the music industry in general.
    Free album download at

  5. Pardon my poor sentence structure… I’m traveling on the road in a car, writing this from iPhone on a bumpy road and it’s hard to double check things…

  6. Piracy is definitely here to stay but it shows a massive shift in consumer behavior. When the consumer (or one who is supposed to be one) is illegally stealing the music they are consuming it really shows that there are no longer any consumers left. It may seem to be a gross generalization but when someone downloads something they should be paying for they aren’t consumers they are pirates and as such this type of argument should be constructed within those realistic definitions because their behaviors would make more sense. If you download something that isn’t free via P2P network like Bittorrent then you aren’t a consumer you are a thief. This kind of takes the business out of music.

  7. There is always a bigger picture here, more overheads today mean that REAL music fans and listeners have less to spend on their loved music.
    Costs continually go up and up with petrol, housing, food, public transport etc. So how else do you expect the masses to react?
    If people are downloading my music, i’ll take it as a compliment and then work with that to try to make sales elsewhere.
    Don’t blame the masses, they’re just pawns in a messed up world and getting away with what they can because there are no real freedoms anymore!
    I suggest you watch this video too:

  8. While I will never agree or accept people stealing, I also believe it’s imperative that artists make their music available for free, or at least as free streams, these days. Live shows and touring are a great way to create a memorable experience for fans, but with a little imagination artists can also create tangible items that are original & cannot be easily duplicated that also hold value to fans. Electronic artist, Moldover is one of my favorite examples of this:
    In a strange way, music piracy may be a blessing in the big picture. It has been forcing the music industry to rethink everything–distribution, monetizing and even forcing good artists to be great. It kind of sucks now, mainly because the future is uncertain, but it could be worse…we could all still be stuck with CDs as our only option.

  9. Hans baby, great to run into you here again.
    So, Music worth listening to? We all know that music is a subjective thing, it’s a matter of taste, after that it’s access. I believe if fans know an artist is being compensated fairly, they’ll do their best to support them. Perhaps that means a more transparent system (direct to fan) and lower overall price points ($.25??). The jury is out.
    Last we spoke you said it was 70 streams to the missed sale, I’ll assume the system is as volatile as I had thought… While we’re on the topic of piracy and Spotify, maybe check these links and tell me if you can find a link between the two…

  10. This article seems short sighted and shallow….the idea put forward is only relevant for specific kinds of music and artists. As always with pro piracy arguments, it’s ignoring other kinds of artists like nick drake for example, who never performed or got involved in the media circus, but produced some of the greatest acoustic albums recorded. This is art that’s being talked about – why should all musicians have to adhere to paths like this that don’t necessarily work for them….if all artists are forced into paths similar to the example in this article, it will leave a narrow or limited spectrum of music. Couple that with labels (including the indies) that are now only signing ‘safe bets’, and you’ve got a stale, withering creative landscape…

  11. What? Are you kidding? 100 streams on Spotify returns fractions of a penny. The most famous example would be Lady Gaga, who made just $168 from 1,000,000 plays of her song Poker Face on Spotify.

  12. I would have to agree with you Jon. I think that “freemium” content is the new model that many corporations in the music business (as well as other industries) will be following. Spotify, as you mentioned, is already comfortably used by the general public. For businesses and musicians the goal will be to master the art of the upsell, making our premium content offerings irresistible and worth paying for.

  13. Gaetano. The one cent per stream was a prediction. Currently the pay out is $0.0063 per stream. Check my blog for the full story.;)
    And about your links. Just because some people set up websites on how to rip doesn’t mean many use this method. Spotify is all about convenience and direct access. There is no need to rip at all.
    Like you cannot rip CDs or share your legal downloads. Come on…

  14. Hans,
    The numbers on your blog are of no use to me, as I mentioned, because on that blog because outside of just showing a statement you receive quarterly, you yourself still cannot show how those numbers are calculated….nor can you show why they fluctuate. You just champion a service while not knowing how it works.
    I think if you were an artist and those numbers were part of your livelihood, you would potentially view the system a bit differently. If you were at any other job, would you be happy if you didn’t know how your paycheck was calculated? If that wasn’t transparent?
    As far as the links, this is showing a very obvious and gaping issue within the Spotify. A user can sign up for free, rip every song they want and never pay a dime. By design, this makes it more efficient and easier to navigate than most torrent sites, while also it leaves no incentive to pay premium fees…which in the end help get royalties up.
    To me, this is a basic issue that you’d think the company would have addressed before touting that it fights piracy, it seems it just made it easier, with that lovely convenient, direct access.

  15. What doesn’t make sense is your ‘orchard’ analogy; in what sense does your access to this orchard give you ownership? It may be behind your house, hence, in your backyard, but you don’t own the property. You didn’t plant the fruit trees, you didn’t tend them nor spray them for bugs, you didn’t even pick the fruit. No, you’ve merely climbed a wall when no one was looking, and scooped someone else’s fruit from the ground.
    It takes nearly a generation for an orchard to become viable, and even after it does, the fruit isn’t in season year ’round. Furthermore, you might get a bit tired of eating the same fruit every day, or perhaps the owner of your ‘backyard’ fruit isn’t so diligent with the bug spray or there’s been a poor growing season and your ‘backyard’ fruit is of low quality; you might then wish to go to the market, to have some better choices. If all the other orchards have gone out of business by the time you get there, it’ll be just too damned bad.
    Speaking as an owner and manager of an orchard, I don’t mind if my trees are large and spread their branches so wide that some fruit falls on your property when it’s windy; that’s an acceptable cost of doing business. I also know that some folks are poor and can’t afford the best quality fruit, and that a few of these will be tempted to nick an orange or an apple in passing, and that’s also an acceptable cost of doing business. If, however, you bring in a shaker, pick all my fruit and set up a fruit stand across the street, that’s what my dogs and shotgun are for, freetard.

  16. Thanks for the response, Mojo Bone.
    To disclaim, I am a musician myself and empathize completely with the fight against piracy. I’m simply playing devil’s advocate for the purposes of this article and in order to understand the situation from a realist’s standpoint. I do appreciate folks like you and the rest of the commenters for bringing up valid arguments such as the one you’ve presented here.
    That being said, you bring up some good points in regards to ownership and quality of fruit of my orchard analogy. You’re right – those who pirate don’t own the orchards and are simply picking off a tree that doesn’t belong to them. So in that sense, my analogy could’ve used a bit more orchard management research.
    However, setting up a fruit stand with the fruit I’ve taken from that orchard would imply that I, as a consumer, have attempted to profit from someone else’s efforts. While your fruit stand concept may apply towards the creators of these file sharing sites, I don’t think this applies to the pirater, as the people who illegally download music typically do so in order to consume, not in order to resell.
    Sure, one may come across lower quality audio content (which understandably doesn’t do the artist justice for their time and effort in the mixing & mastering stages), and you may not find everything in one orchard, but the principle remains the same – it’s still just too damn easy. The dogs and shotgun approach will certainly work in the literal sense, but when there’s not even a wimpy online watch dog monitoring the online orchard, what’s stopping the pirates from doing their work?

  17. Thanks for your response, neo.
    To be clear, this is not a pro-piracy article. It’s simply an attempt to understand both sides of the piracy card in regards to musicians building sustainable careers. We all know the argument against piracy, I’m simply shining light on those who’ve chosen to embrace the chaos of today’s digital music space and who’ve continued to be successful DESPITE piracy. Nowhere in my article did I say that all musicians should follow the paths of Pretty Lights of Skrillex – I’ve just used them as examples here.
    But you’re right, going with the “safe bets” will definitely result in a stale music landscape. Thankfully though, we don’t have to limit our selection to those “safe bets” anymore, as we live in an age where even the most niche artists can still find an audience. Not everyone’s goal is to break the Billboard charts or be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Some people are simply happy to have their music heard by a fan base that truly loves and supports them at all – no matter how large or small that audience may be.

  18. Hisham,
    As an artist, and a consumer who has both purchases and acquires music other ways (and watched the formats and models change over 20 or so years) I think this topic is incredibly subjective, and there are many subtle levels of reason to how and why people do what they do.
    Your devil’s advocate is interesting at the very least because it stirs the pot, and we’re seeing passionate views on both sides, and what views/information people will attach themselves to.
    Everyone on all sides seems to make it very black and white, I made it, I offered it, you want it, you took it, you bought it, he gave it to me. It was good, it was mediocre, it’s worth it, it’s not worth it, I’m rich, you’re poor, I’m poor, you’re rich. You sold out, he bought in.
    I’m right, you’re wrong.
    Some people call what we’re in a “correction” within the industry, other’s a paradigm shift. I think the only thing we can agree on is that we’re in between two very disparate ideologies, within a capitalist, consumer based society.
    The rest is as subjective as one individual’s taste compared to another’s.
    Time will tell what one paradigm prevails in the end…and if there will ever be just one. We’ll lose some people in the process, some fans, some artists, some industry folks. We’ll gain some others.
    One man’s evolution is another man’s devolution.

  19. gaetano,
    Subjective is the word, as this is clearly a dividing subject. I loved your line “One man’s evolution is another man’s devolution”, though.
    Thanks for reading and offering us your views!

  20. Gaetano, I know you are not interested in the numbers on my blog. You don’t have to tell me this over and over again. I’m fine with it.
    Other readers are interested in the numbers, because not many labels publish their Spotify statements. People are entitled to know what is being paid to artists. That’s what I am trying to do.
    I know you want to know more. Can’t help you with that. Sorry.

  21. Nice! This is exactly what I preach ALL THE TIME!!!! Basically as artist/music industry..the goal is to pull or as you said “reel in” your fans.
    To me giving away music is like giving out a 3 minute flyer. Sell your live show, merch, bundle packages, etc.
    I agree with some of the other comments…make music worth buying as well.

  22. Well, if you’re merely advocating satanism, my epithet was unwarranted; you have my apologies. I tire of proffered sophistries and morally bankrupt arguments; artists whose work has value deserve to be compensated, it’s that simple. What’s complicated is the determination of that value, the method of payment and the division of the proceeds. It’s intellectually and ethically lazy to merely throw up one’s hands and declare the battle over for lack of ammunition. This is why I’m so disappointed in the otherwise intelligent writers who willingly buy Google’s line of bullshit that intellectual property theft must not be regulated in any way, shape or form or it will somehow ‘break’ the internet. We don’t tolerate child pornographers and neither need we tolerate art thieves, digital or otherwise. The DMCA has proven too weak a measure, which is why I support SOPA/PIPA. Please read the bill before replying; you’ll find there’s due process, clearly defined objectives and appropriate remedies for the unjustly accused, despite vociferous protestations to the contrary by financially interested parties and their paid mouthpieces. [cough cough]

  23. I’m sorry but this article is BONK. who is successful DESPITE piracy? seriously? you need to do your homework. Survival is Hardly Success! Where are these bands that have been developed and financed by The Pirate Bay, Grokster, Limewire, Etc? And why is it that those who think content should be cheap or free never actually invest in making or developing any, why is that? It’s because it is difficult and expensive, and all the more difficult when people steal freely and without consequence.
    And yes, Piracy is here to say, DUH. this is NEVER a conversation about whether there will be piracy or not, but about HOW MUCH piracy there will be. There is no reason that Piracy should be the Norm… not to anyone who aspires to a professional career anyway…

  24. “Some people are simply happy to have their music heard by a fan base that truly loves and supports them at all – no matter how large or small that audience may be.”
    And we call those people Hobbyists… Which is an entirely different conversation than developing a professional career.

  25. “The dogs and shotgun approach will certainly work in the literal sense, but when there’s not even a wimpy online watch dog monitoring the online orchard, what’s stopping the pirates from doing their work?”
    That’s why this is a legislative issue and not a technological one. It’s why I support Protect-IP and SOPA. And if those don’t pass there will be another.
    The conversation is not to assume the criminals have won, but rather to work towards effective change. The wild west was not wild forever and neither will the internet be.
    the only question now is who controls it, which so far looks to be freetards like google who know more about than your mother and sell that data for profit – awesome…. it’s time to wake up.

  26. Awesome Posts Mojo Bone, well done! As By my comment that inspired this article, there appear to be few professionals, or those with truly professional aspirations on Hypebot.

  27. Another aspect of piracy is that they end up being the historians as well. I’ve got a large list of music I can’t buy. The bands dissolved, their remaining discs sold out and …. now they are gone. With digital it’s even worse. The music they created can be gone in shorter and shorter time frames.
    This also applies to software for older computers. The fact any programs have survived has been due to pirates passing outdated software around between each other.
    Some of the most requested music on piracy forms, sites, are not the “A” list from major studios. It is out of print and stuff from 20-30 years ago.
    I can’t know if I’ll like a track from a 30 second sample. I think it’s unfair to expect all music to grap a listener within 30 seconds. Some music I have to hear in the context of the full album to really appreciate it – but I’m not willing to buy without hearing it first.
    Streaming does help fill that void however I have to be connected to the internet and the days of “unlimited” are drawing to a close there as well. Cable companies want a piece of the action too and some cap their premium service at 2 HD movies/week.
    So then what? Where does a person discover new music? Radio is dead. With caps on the internet, streaming is limited as well.
    Mp3’s downloaded are a poor replacement for a well produced commercial cd or dvd. A lot of the discs for home buring degrade fairly quickly (< 5 years). It just takes one hard drive crash to discover the value of owning a commercial disc and I doubt if I'm unique in that memories and events in my life are marked by the songs I was listening to at the time. A lot of this fear has been hyped up by labels who used to control most of what the public consumed and it's not that way any longer. They've already lost by loosing an entire generation to other entertainment such as gaming. There are more bands and music on the market now like there hasn't been before. But instead of a few super groups making BIG money and supporting the industry, there are thousands able to make money in the music industry - and they benefit without the cumbersome overhead of supporting the middlemen. If piracy is so bad because it's making money off other people's work - what do you think the major labels have been doing? They didn'y create the music, write the songs, perform them. the labels distribute music. Just like cyber-lockers and bt. License or make available alternate forms of distribution and everyone will be happy - except the ones who can't adapt.

  28. Say that to my 1400 songs that I got BEFORE I knew it was illegal, multiply that by 1.25$ if not 2$ for most, then spend the rest buying full featured albums… hmm lets see 2800 $, let’s include the iTunes cards which cost 13$ for 10$ worth of iTunes card, amazing! we just hit 3425$ pal (yup that’s how it goes in the Middle East), now let’s talk about the money I should spend for the fucking Assholes who never told me that that was illegal (since 2005), and I would get sued for shit I didn’t mean to, crap I could’ve sworn they meant this was for promoting new upcoming artists from the way the described it (definitely I didn’t get a single Wayne song). Ever since 2005 till 2011 I attended more than 50 of the events held by my favorite artists, and I bare no such ill-intention to steal their living away. But what the heck, it was most likely the governments’ fault for not even telling us that that was illegal, until recently (2012 ! Ya it took them that long), matter fact they even used many pirated copy righted material in their own facilities. I don’t mean to disrespect any musician who is actually working hard to create a piece of art for others to love, and relate to, but PLEASE understand that we are being ,on daily basis, cheated and forced into piracy, speaking for myself I have quit ever since; regardless, the way the US and other countries block content from us leaves us with no other alternative but to “steal” you hard work, from shady websites that have pornographic advertisement as main source of income (piratebay). Going radically like that was no way to treat a human, seriously it is just way too… unethical, it is even looked down upon in our communities to steal no matter in what way it was- other ways could’ve been introduced such as charging for music/apps from our cellular carriers credit, which most of the world now has, the ability for minors (which most of the songs are aimed at) require you to have a credit card or at least a Paypal (ya that is blocked as well) was and still a very common issue the Middle East in general, and Even we still would be blocked from purchasing “due to copyright infringement”. How do expect us to even pay when you totally surround us and treat us as “criminals” and thieves with no hope ever being “rehabilitated”.
    Just another BAD person

Comments are closed.