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21st Century Piracy: The Demise of the Music Industry

by Victoria Aitken

If you think of pirates as boat raiders off the coast of Somalia, or Johnny Depp starring in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” think again. A different kind of pirate is killing British jobs, closing shops on High Street, and destroying the livelihoods of our musicians. This crime is called Internet piracy and our government’s ministers are as soft as wet marshmallows when it comes to lifting a Whitehall finger to do anything to stop it.

Victoria Aitken. Photo credit: Zoobs.
Victoria Aitken. Photo credit: Zoobs.

In May 2013, I was at the Ibiza International Music Summit (IMS) and learned that dance music sales have been going up 50 percent every year since 2007. Much of the rise in music sales is due to ad-funded services such as Spotify; yet Geoff Taylor, chairman of BPI, a British music trade association, warns: “The size of the market continues to be constrained by competition from illegal downloads.”

At IMS I learned that Electronic Dance Music (EDM) digital track sales grew by three times that of any other major genre last year and that EDM was worth over $4.5 billion in 2012. In Las Vegas the largest EDM clubs make over $600m annually.

But the reality is that music profits should be much, much more. Last December, HMV announced it will close 40 of its High Street stores due to a slump in sales. This trend is gathering momentum. Waterstone’s, an HMV subsidiary that sells as many music CDs as it does books, is also closing 20 of its prime location shops. And similar unannounced closures are quietly happening everywhere. When did you last try to find an independent music store in a small town?

Like the big chains, once thriving small shops find that their basic trade – CDs – are not just a hard sell. They are impossible to move off the shelves because Internet piracy is devastating an industry that was once the showpiece for British music talent.

In the golden age of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Who – and more recently Amy Winehouse, Lilly Allen and Mark Ronson – great pop stars became rich because their albums sold well in the shops. The customers were happy to pay for them. Now the same albums are pirated for free by countless websites such as Pirate Bay, Snappy Music, and Real Music Now, making illegal downloading of artists’ work an easy steal. But it is time to face the fact that it is still stealing.

In response to my concern regarding Google’s search engines facilitating Internet piracy, the Global Communications & Public Affairs office tells me, “In Search, we want to help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily – whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu, or new music streamed from Spotify. So our search ranking algorithms take into account the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site, and sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.” However, considering new pirate sites go up so often, and every removal is replaced by a new illegal download, those removal notices do very little to solve the problem.

Additionally, as file sharing sites such as ZippyShare are being used to facilitate the illegal downloading of music, creators continue to lose. In a similar way that a railway station has lockers where you can store your suitcase and the station renting those lockers claims not to know what is inside, websites such as ZippyShare claim not to know what is in the files they host despite them often being labeled.

Today, a growing pirated music industry competes with a shrinking legal music industry. Pirates do not pay royalties, fees, or album production costs to the musicians. The closing of HMV and many other record stores tells the story, and, along with closure signs, should be a more truthful death notice: “Killed by pirate greed.”

If the battle of greed were just being fought between giant corporations, multi-billion dollar search engines, and anonymously financed websites, then perhaps we should not be shedding too many tears. But it is the small people who are getting hurt. They include shop assistants, album designers whose services are no longer required, and a long list of people in the music industry who can no longer earn their living – musicians, composers, lyricists, as well as the artists themselves.

Yet, according to Google, “copyright removal requests account for far less than 1% of everything hosted and indexed by Google. The vast majority of search queries for movies, music, books, video games, etc. return results that do not include links to infringing materials. For example, people search for ‘breaking bad free download’ only 0.01% as often as ‘breaking bad.’”

Unfortunately, for me, this response does not suffice. Though you may never have heard of me, in a small way I have been doing quite well in the music business. I write my own songs and have had six successive UK dance hits in the Top 20 Club Chart in the UK and Germany. My songs have had a lot of airtime on radio stations around the world. From this success, I ought to be earning a modest living. People often come up to me and say, “Wow! You must be making a lot of money from your hits.” Not so. Although I do earn from performing, I make next to nothing from the royalties and the CD sales that all artists enjoyed a few years ago. The Internet pirates have made me, and thousands of other musicians, walk the plank. We now have to swim in shark-infested waters where the big fish gobble up our dues and the pirates laugh their way to the bank.

I believe this basic injustice must be remedied – Internet pirates are white-collar criminals. They should pay the royalties they have stolen or be answerable to the law, like looters, burglars, and fraudsters.

Another way of bringing the pirates to justice is called blocking. There are a handful of private companies who are starting to police and block Internet piracy. These counter-pirate agencies have names such as Rip Block and Trackitdown. They can be hired by artists to identify a website which is illegally selling their music. Then, using state-of-the-art technology, “the police” zap the website and block its illegal use of the artist’s music. It works until the pirate starts a new website to continue selling music illegally.

From an artist’s point of view, this is a little like hiring the mafia to stop your shop windows from being broken by a rival gang. It leaves unresolved the fundamental issue: Is it not the job of the government, rather than private mercenaries, to crack down and stop this crime? Why should I have to hire someone to protect my music?

Unfortunately, the British government is feeble in tracking this crime. While communications minister Ed Vaizey agrees that there is a serious problem, all he offers is a stream of politician-speak saying that to introduce blocking legislation would be complicated and difficult.
By contrast, the US Congress has shown more muscle. In 2012, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act, and the Online Protection and Digital Enforcement Act (Open) were proposed in the US Congress. This legislation excited the opposition of lobbyists from Google and other search engine websites who claimed the legislation reduced freedom of expression online and undermined the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

Though this legislation did not pass, a serious battle for artists’ rights has commenced in the United States. Let us hope our government starts to fight the pirates here too. Otherwise, many more record shops will close and many more music industry workers will be on the dole. Ending piracy in the 21st century is as important a cause as it was in the 18th century.

About the Author: Victoria Aitken has published numerous articles in The Sunday Times, Style Magazine, The Daily Mail, Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, and has written for The Guardian. She currently has her own column at Seven Days magazine (in Dubai). She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, educated in Germany, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C, where she earned a B.A. in International Relations from Georgetown University.

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