By Dan Moore
This would have surprised me no matter who had turned it up, but there was a special irony in learning that illegal music downloads “aren’t hurting the music industry” from a beleaguered print magazine’s free-news arm:
— TIME.com (@TIME) March 21, 2013
I am a sucker for newsweeklies, which is why–against all odds–I follow TIME magazine on Twitter. They’re my own personal twee affectation: Some people smoke a pipe, or only listen to music on vinyl; I read a hundred-page summary of the news once a week on paper. But something about the headline didn’t sit right with me, which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that their tweet is a misreading of both the study and their actual article about the study. In their defense, I probably wouldn’t have clicked on “Illegal downloads are hurting the music industry, new study claims.”
It’s not the study’s methodology I take issue with so much how the question the study asks relates to the question @TIME seems to think they’re answering. Here’s the question to which they’re answering, “No, probably not”: Are illegal downloads costing musicians significant numbers of legal downloads? Absent a study to the contrary I’m willing to take their word for it.
But is that the question most people are asking when they’re asking questions about illegal downloads? It’s a remarkably narrow framing of the issue, like asking a pastor whether prostitutes are really a problem, seeing as they aren’t crowding out other kinds of anonymous sexual activity.
The damage recording artists and record labels complain about is the damage downloading did a decade ago–the devaluation of recorded music that necessitates they compete with free music in the first place.
iTunes is only the most successful, profitable reaction to that–and at this point hardly a first-line defense against it. The real competition for the hearts and minds of downloaders has moved to the supply side, where it’s more annoying to download music illegally than ever, and to even cheaper forms of fulfilling that demand.
That is, at this point bands are basically competing with leaks by leaking their own music.
Vampire Weekend’s SXSW-debuted “Diane Young” (which I love) is on YouTube, where music fans who can’t even be bothered to download illegally listen to music; the Strokes’ new Comedown Machine (which I also love, to my surprise) is streaming in its entirety on Pitchfork before its release day.
Streaming is apparently big-enough business, by now, that Vampire Weekend could afford to set some vintage Saabs on fire, instead of donating them to a tenured English professor in need. But the music industry is only in a business this razor-thin because they can’t afford not to be. Behind YouTube, after all, sits Spotify, another service that all but gives music away because somebody else actually is giving music away.
Most of this, of course, was inevitable. Like Kodak and film sales, the major labels’ enormous legacy business was built on a coincidence–that the only way to distribute recorded music was on a physical object with huge profit margins. The internet meant that was going away whether Napster happened or not, and even a perfectly executed digital model at Kodak or Sony would have required enormous cuts and job losses. There’s just not nearly as much revenue–let alone margin–in digital cameras and digital music as there used to be in Kodachrome and compact disc.
But it doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that countries where downloading culture didn’t become nearly as ingrained or socially accepted prior to the emergence of sites like iTunes, like Japan, have seen a much slower decline in physical media sales than we have. Downloading would have happened anyway, and I’m glad; iTunes is much more convenient than Sam Goody. But the early emergence of free music in America caught the entire industry wrong-footed, and it’s taken more than a decade for them to react in a way that makes any sense at all. That’s partially their fault, but it’s not entirely their fault.