Music Business

Piracy Is What Made Me, Says Ed Sheeran

2While piracy is often demonized as an aspect of the industry which ruins careers before they've even really begun, the reality is that the illicit dissemination of music can in many ways help to grow an artist's presencein the industry, as was the case with Ed Sheeran.


Guest post by Timothy Geigner of Techdirt

We all know by now the music industry's mantra that piracy kills artists. Well, not kills kills, but kills their musical careers before they could even really begin, so destructive is the dissemination of free music amongst the public. After all, if the public doesn't pay for every last instance of every last bit of music, how in the world could musical artists ever make a living? This mantra is one that tends to be applied universally to the concept of free music by the industry, with zero in the way of nuanced discussions about potential business models that might work for some, or many, artists.

Except that that's silly. It ignores the power of freely disseminated music in helping musicians to be discovered in the first place, where they can then go on and make all kinds of money through what have always been better profit-centers for artists, such as concerts, merchandise and the like. Many artists don't understand this, swallowing the industry's mantra whole. But there are exceptions, such as Ed Sheeran, who began his career sans record label, promoting himself instead.

Beyond writing the songs, Sheeran also wrote his own rules about how to sell them. Like so many others, he had set off for London as a teenager, singing on street corners and in pubs. But he didn’t knock on record company doors or wait to be discovered. Instead, he began marketing his own stuff, releasing his music himself on websites until — inevitably — a record label came calling. He had already earned half a million from his independent sales, putting the music out himself.

“What I didn’t have was infrastructure,” Sheeran said. “They have an American label, they have a Japanese label, they have an Australian label. So that’s what I was signing for.”

3_FW-141_AMAnd that infrastructure is where labels can indeed provide some value. Except it's simply not the value for which labels have taken so much credit for far too long. There was no initial discovery and nurturing done by the labels in Sheeran's case. Sheeran did that himself. Instead, the labels came calling after the initial work was done and pitched even wider distribution in exchange for slapping their names on an already ascending star. This serves as a rebuttal to some of the reaction you see in cases such as Run The Jewels, with some complaining that their free music strategy chiefly worked because they were already a household name. Sheeran's case is the opposite, in which he became a household name because of his free music strategy. It's not that the strategy is easily portable to every artist in every case, but it does remind us that the blanket disgust toward piracy by the music industry is not supported by reality either.

But even after the labels were involved, Sheeran indicates a clear understanding of how and why his music supercharged his fame to the household status it now has.

Who helped him first? Fans, he says. “It was file sharing. I know that’s a bad thing to say, because I’m part of a music industry that doesn’t like illegal file sharing.”

“Code for piracy.”

“Yeah, but illegal fire sharing was what made me. It was students in England going to university, sharing my songs with each other.”

And what is his view on file sharing now? “I don’t think file sharing exists now.”


“Yeah, I think people rip off YouTube. That’s a thing. But I feel like it’s so easy to stream.”

2Sheeran's case goes beyond simply giving music away, of course. His treatment of his fans creates a bond as well, one that fosters a desire among the fanbase to support him. The free music alone isn't enough, he needed his personality and talent, as well, to make it work. Still, it's easy to read shrugged shoulders into his comments on music piracy in the present, and obvious gratitude for it in his past. It's unfortunate how rare this mode of thinking is, which is why it's a bit jarring to hear a star like Sheeran say something as profound as "illegal filesharing was what made me." You can almost hear the groan from label executives as you read the words from a man far too busy counting his money and making his art to care.

And, to counter another industry claim that any gain by an artist through piracy is short-lived, it's worth noting that Sheeran's latest work is selling, and selling well. At a record breaking pace, in fact, even as the concert venues continue to sell out for Sheeran's appearances.

Not bad for a young man who credits piracy for all that glory.

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  1. The “industry mantra” extends and is most relevant to songwriters/composers who are not recording or performing artists themselves.

  2. When Run the Jewels put out their first free album, they were hardly a household name, even if El and Mike had been around doing their things for quite some time. As they’ve said themselves, most RTJ fans don’t even know their solo music. I saw them on the joint tour for their 2012 solo releases. I had to drive over 2 hours and see them in a small bar that had plenty of room. They couldn’t even get booked in my major city. They played 1 out of 3 big cities in my state, to a few hundred people. After releasing 3 free albums, this year they not only came to town but sold out a venue, got bumped up to the larger venue and sold that out, too. They played and sold out at least House of Blues level clubs in all the other cities, too. I should add they did have some indie label support (Fools Gold/Mass Appeal) on their first 2 albums for the physical releases, but I think they were limited licensing deals. Also, I know some music websites helped fund their videos. They also had connections in place – El-P’s manager/ Def Jux co-founder Amaechi has been with him his whole career and done a lot in the industry, his ex-GF runs a publicity firm, he has friends in music journalism, etc. So I’m sure all that helped, but not as much as putting out the free music and playing the shows.

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