The Slow and Delicious Death of Music Piracy

By Tom Davenport on at

Digital music revenue is up by a quarter; subscription services are booming and UK artists are smashing records in the US charts. After a decade of limitless piracy, why the sudden turnaround?

Let's lay down the facts: new industry figures for 2011 say revenue from digital music surged by 25 per cent to £286 million, offsetting an £87 million drop in CD sales. As an extra economic boost, we're turning away from glossy foreign music imports and buying more from British artists, who now account for 53 per cent of the music we buy -- the biggest share since 1997.

And that's just on our shores. Adele has been leading an invasion on the US charts, where British albums count for one in eight that are sold. It's our best market share since Yanks fell in love with the New Romantic scene in the 1980s.

Compare this to the decade leading to 2010, a year where UK music sales still fell by 9 per cent, and it's looking like our glorious music industry -- one that nurtured The Beatles, Oasis and 2unlimited -- is finally getting back on its feet.

So what exactly is dragging music fans away from piracy and towards legal options? The answer: we're all lazy, and the music industry is finally smart enough to exploit it. Or to put it politely, streaming services have finally made torrents look like too much effort.

"It's convenience," Darren Hemmings, a former head of digital marketing at PIAS and now an independent consultant at Motive Unknown, told us. "Streaming services are now making access to music more convenient than ever, and with that I think people are finally seeing it as a viable alternative to piracy and CD purchases. Why buy something from Amazon and wait for it to be posted if you can simply add it on Spotify and listen immediately?"

Indeed, Spotify and its ilk are convincing the world that streaming is a serious option, and one that is here to stay. Subscribers to these services rose by 65 per cent in 2011 to 13.4 million global subscribers. At this rate of growth, if you believe Napster founder Sean Parker, Spotify will "overtake iTunes terms of contributions to the recorded music business in under two years." Sure, he sits on their board of directors, but the goal of dragging pirates towards legal options is really happening.

These are positive changes, but labels are constantly adapting their tactics while the digital sand shifts beneath their feet.

Hemmings says a key development is the focus on creating shareable content for social media. It seems obvious, but there's a distinction between this and the older megaphone approach of bands broadcasting to fans from fan pages. "Spotify exclusives are a good example of that. You can really get word out about your artist purely from the plays it receives," he says, referring to 'frictionless sharing' on Facebook which publishes your listening history in real time.

David Emery is head of marketing for the Beggars Group, and gives credit to the social economy for driving sales, telling us that "the rise of Facebook and Twitter have increased the opportunities for conversations about music -- both from artist or label to fan, but also fan to fan as well. And it's very powerful -- far more powerful then MySpace was, even though that was focused on music."

Times, they are a-changin'. Subscription services are bringing brand new money into the music economy, and social networks have turned fans into free marketing staff. The result is greater revenue and investment in our artists. Artists like Adele, who is smashing sales records and in turn supporting an entirely new generation of songwriters. Now that really is convenient. [Guardian, Billboard, Business Insider]

Image Credit: Adele from Shutterstock; digital music background from Shutterstock

Tom Davenport is a freelance tech and music journalist from Wiltshire, and occasionally dabbles as a recording engineer too. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter here.