The Persistent Lie About Music Piracy
7 min read

The Persistent Lie About Music Piracy

Hello! I don’t have a long introduction to offer y’all this week. If you do enjoy this newsletter, please recommend it to a friend or check out the Patreon. Otherwise, let’s try and unpack the contemporary world of music piracy!

Before I get too far into this topic, I’d like to problematize the term “piracy.” Individuals downloading music they didn’t pay for, watching illicit live recordings, and/or collecting unreleased tracks are all considered to be existential threats to the record business that could be framed under "piracy." (Similarly, back in the day, recording music on a blank tape or CD was also thought to be an existential threat to record sales.) However, academic research does not back up this narrative. An acknowledgment that record labels colluded to inflate CD prices in the 90s and eventually led to the bubble burst makes it hard to believe that a single company (like Napster) or a few dedicated internet users could bring down an entire industry simply through file-sharing. It’s an absurd American tall-tale where a few individuals in their bedroom can ruin a global industry rather than the reality where numerous multinational companies should be blamed for the misdeed.

Instead, my concern with that era of piracy, which I covered earlier this year, is the RIAA’s prosecution of individuals with onerous lawsuits that were designed to ruin the lives of average people overtaking pennies from an industry worth billions. That the narrative of piracy allowed for such punitive abuse of power is far more troubling to me than any threat of copyright theft.

Now, the reason for this newsletter is that there’s a little fact that the record industry is hesitant to report: Piracy allegedly continues to decline. A recent report by the IFPI shows that there was an 11% decrease in piracy to 27% for self-described “pirates”. One could rightfully quibble with the cultural salience of calling one a “music pirate” in 2019 but, either way, the number declined. Yet the IFPI rang the panic alarm by calling piracy a “threat to the music ecosystem.” (This is where I note that the music business isn’t natural and that music survived without providing a profit to billion-dollar companies for millennia.) The reported decline in piracy offers a nice opportunity to recontextualize exactly what it even means to ‘pirate’ music in 2019.

The Classic: File-Sharing

The concern over music piracy is rooted in file-sharing, where people would exchange digital files of music from computer to computer. I won’t drill down into the different variations of this practice because in a way it’s an almost quaint quality of this particular form of music consumption in 2019. The removal of the computer from how people consume music is a strong explanation as to why streaming took off so quickly throughout the last five years. When a physical MP3 player was needed to listen to music, one needed music files, and so people were given the option of buying music on a legal platform like iTunes or heading out onto the web where several other illicit paths could provide them with the music for free. This entire path of consumption broke apart when one could simply stream his or her favorite songs on YouTube or, eventually, via Apple Music or Spotify on their phones. Suddenly the value of a download cratered.

The 00s were a time full of early album leaks that could impact album releases (see: Deerhunter’s Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.) but eventually, the more impromptu model of modern streaming (though certainly not always) muted the power of leaks. The other factor is that leaks can now be fairly absorbed into the promotional cycle for a major artist and though cases like Playboi Carti do exist, his leaks further solidify his fan base. Suddenly, a new layer of fandom is allowed to exist purely through trading and collecting rare loose songs. Certainly, record labels will figure out how to adapt to this dynamic in a way that benefits them.

Don’t Fear the Stream-Ripper

The method of music piracy that currently terrors the music industry is streaming ripping: the fairly easily process of finding a streaming platform link and a website that will convert said link into an MP3. The headlines are a bit extreme: “Stream-Ripping: What Are YouTube, Spotify & Deezer Doing About it?” or “RIAA's Annual List of 'Notorious' Copyright Offenders Includes Stream-Rippers, Telegram.”

But the RIAA’s paranoia over stream-rippers isn’t—in my opinion—totally unfounded. The current music consumption model requires that all listening be monitored for advertisements or subsidized through a subscription service. The ability to freely collect MP3s for one’s own personal usage entirely undermines that prospect. The understated purpose of music streaming was always, since the days of MusicNet and Pressplay in the early 00s, for ownership to be eliminated.

However, the 2019 IFPI report showed a 32% decrease in stream-ripping to 23% over the last year. So, the paranoia becomes exaggerated and it becomes harder to present stream-ripping as a threat to the entire music industry. What’s become more obvious in recent years isn’t just that piracy is decreasing but that often the perceived threat of piracy was overstated because it served the business interests of some, not all, record labels and provided the RIAA and other recording industry groups a more righteous reason for existing. This is why academic research is fairly mixed on whether or not piracy can even be blamed for causing the decline in music sales during the early 00s.

The Everlasting Boogeyman of Piracy

One reason why I find the topic of piracy so interesting in the contemporary context is that it was so all-consuming in the conversation around music and the internet barely even a decade ago. The early moments of utopian thinking around getting access to all recorded music were actively suppressed by the RIAA in a quest to placate, some, not all record labels. It should be, but isn't, easy to recognize the extent to which piracy obscured the fact that record labels were often the ones ready to embrace the internet, so long as it kept producing money for them, even if to the detriment of artists.

That’s why the narrative of streaming and Spotify offering a solution to piracy is so strong. Working musicians and all music workers must either accept that streaming is the only way forward or accept being thrown back to the wolves of copyright thieves. This false binary-only serves those already in power and stifles the imagination towards what a music industry could look like if it were re-imagined along with some kind of more equitable lines. That’s why when last week I mentioned the idea of an OC Streaming model that would redistribute streams revenue as a step beyond the idea of user-centric streaming, it was explicitly to fight the aforementioned closed-mindedness. In many ways, the paranoia around piracy continues to frame many contemporary music streaming issues and better contextualization of its role can help to untangle such cluttered thoughts towards more fruitful ends.

Unheard Labor

The American Federation of Musicians is currently protesting Disney in an effort to improve profit-sharing, as the historically anti-union company continues to stiff musicians that work on its properties weeks before the launch of its new streaming platform. This is one of many fights the AFM is waging as more companies expand into the streaming world. The Music Producers Guild in the United Kingdom reported that 71% of engineers and producers have worked for free in the last three years... In extremely sad news, Kickstarter is engaging in an aggressive anti-union campaign, so the union that joined the Office Professional and Service Employees Union is seeking public support for voluntary recognition. Obviously, support this fucking union!

Spotify’s market cap value has fallen by $15bn in 14 months. Is declining ARPU freaking investors as much as record companies? - Music Business Worldwide /Analysts have opinions on Spotify’s declining share price - Music Ally

Honestly, the first headline here by MBW is so good that I don’t want to step on its toes. Yet, I’ll just add that Spotify appears to have been overvalued and this decline may not, in fact, be bad at all. Now, if they continue to free fall, then sure, break the glass on the panic button.

Is There a Fairer Way for Streaming Services to Pay Artists? - Pitchfork

User-centric streaming continues to enter more mainstream discussions but I’ll just direct readers to my thoughts from last week on the topic. In short, we can do better.

Congressman Jerry Nadler Talks Terrestrial Radio Battle, and the Importance of Unity in the Music Industry - Variety

If one couldn’t tell, over the last few months I’ve become far more interested in the legislative battles regarding many issues of the record business, so this was an interesting recap of a recent New York University panel that featured the Congressman.

Music labels wary as Apple tries to bundle subscriptions - Financial Times

The fact that I’ve spent the last year writing about how the music is held by a handful of tech companies and that this cannot be good news for the record industry feels pretty good right now. Well, except for the part where this is certainly bad news.

‘We’re Still Here and Stronger Than Ever’: How DatPiff Found Its Niche - Complex

Do not trust this headline but certainly do read this feature about a company that has passed its prime but still holds real rap history that should be publicly archived rather than held in the hands of a single private company.

US Antitrust Probers ask Spotify to Detail Alleged Apple Abuse - Financial World

The enemy of my enemy is my enemy, but Apple’s monopoly of the App store is disgusting. The fact that Apple’s been given such a long leash in regards to how they manipulate the App store is ludicrous, so good luck to Spotify here. However, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.

The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can at his website. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is My current job is Curation Analyst at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to