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4 Reasons Why Fans Are File-Sharing Your Music (And Why They Can't Be Changed)

Last time, we looked at four reasons why fans are file-sharing an artist’s music—that they can change. These are simple solutions that any artist can act on and ensure that their fans aren’t motivated to file-share their music for reasons such as being unaware of alternative and legal options to consume their music or unable to hear the entire album before they buy it. Furthermore, new fans may not trust the artist because they don’t have enough name recognition or the artist has since changed their sound. Lastly, there may simply be too many “hoops” or clicks to jump through before fans can download or buy their album, so they resort of file-sharing it because it’s a proven, effective, and easy to use interface that works every time and is only a few clicks away; it’s also habitual.

These are all causes of file-sharing that artists can acknowledge and take steps toward preventing. In some cases, it’s simple solutions that matter. Educate your fans on the ways they can legally access your music, for free; allow them to stream albums before they buy them; build trust with your current audience and potential fans; and ensure that buying your music from your website or iTunes is the most quick and easiest way to access paying for music. If these general needs aren’t met, it could lead fans to download music that they may not have otherwise. Trouble is, these aren’t the only reasons why fans file-share. Here’s the four reasons fans file-share that artists can’t change:

1. Biased Mediums

Technology is biased. It encourages different ranges of social behavior. For instance, when a fan is buying CDs and is looking for a booklet to hold them, they don’t select the five hundred disc holder. They pick the one that is slightly bigger than the collection they imagine having. If a fan has fifty-five CDs and can imagine that in a year or two, that they might have eighty—that’s the storage container they buy. iPods are storage containers. They are often times much bigger in their capacity than the person buying one needs.

As humans, we fill containers. It does not make any sense that a fan can get an iPod that takes $30,000 to buy the music necessary to fill it. This is not to say that large iPods should be banned. It’s simply the most glaring reason why fans are file-sharing music. MP3s are abundant and if they come from your friends—free. As Chris Anderson argued in his latest book, “Free can encourage gluttony, hoarding, thoughtless consumption, waste, guilt, and greed.” MP3 file are taken because they’re there, not necessarily because fans want them. Yes, fans do want free music and would gladly go without paying. But, the iPod is a container and MP3s, when abundant, promote that behavior.

2. Decision Paralysis

“Decision paralysis,” in the words of Made to Stick coauthor Dan Heath, “is a finding from psychology that says: The more options that we’re exposed to, the more likely we are to kind of freeze up and go with the path of least resistance.” When a fan is faced with a multitude of options, all of which they deem to be as desirable as the rest, immobilization is possible. Rather than trying to differentiate between the options and deciding which is the best bet (i.e. making a purchase) they either opt out or file-share the music they desire instead. To them, file-sharing becomes the “path of least of resistance”—a coping mechanism for decision paralysis—where they can preview all of the options at once and forgo the symptoms that we associate with choice overload. The problem with this, beyond the legality of file sharing, is that once they do have all the options at their disposal, choice overload does not go away. The fan still has to make a real decision.

After experiencing all of the options, and probably having considered additional ones, they may still opt out entirely and simply choose not to choose at all, buying no music at all.

3. “Me” Economics

A number of fans file-share music for reasons that have nothing to with not being able to afford it or because they think the record labels are greedy. Fans have established their own Internet law of economics and can implement it because so much music is readily available for free. To them, it all balances out. But some fans are less fair than others.

For instance, if an album is grossly overpriced or they want payback for music that they bought that they felt was unsatisfactory; they’ll file-share it. “That is,” Nick Bilton writes in I Live In The Future & This Is How It Works, “sometimes [they’ll] buy a couple of songs and then download others, figuring that the total [they] paid balances out to a fair amount.”

When fans buy an entire album and feel that a majority of it was below acceptable, they feel cheated because there’s no way to return it. Next time around, they won’t trust that artist and may file-share their latest songs, in an attempt to breakeven. Now that music isn’t scarce and can be found anywhere online, fans are less willing to accept paying for something that they don’t like, thus, they even the scorecard—each in their own way.

4. Risk-Sharing

When a fan goes into a record store and buys an album, they’re taking a risk. Once they take the plastic wrapper off, the album is theirs. If, by chance, the record industry or artist pushed a questionable album into the market with few good songs and the rest is filler, fans don’t have insurance against that. Anyone who buys albums on a regular basis has ended up with more than a few titles that are either outright terrible or below expectations.

The net offers fans insurance against the record industry and the artists themselves.

They’re willingness to purchase an album and become stuck with it has lessened. Part of the reason fans file-share music is to minimize the amount of risk they undertake in their purchases. In the most extreme cases, the record industry produced acts that aligned with business efficiencies more than they did listener preferences. Record labels wanted to sell millions of copies of albums; a feat that had more to do with mass marketing than of the quality of music. In their hubris, labels created a scenario where fans undertook risks of buying an album that outweighed the benefit of having them find and develop musical acts, because fans ended up with a higher ratio of bad albums than good ones.

In the market today, fans are assuming more risk than ever and protecting themselves by file-sharing before buying; this theory was pioneered by Umair Haque in a 2004 essay.

Why They Can’t Be Changed

The digital music consumption systems and technologies promote different ranges of social behavior in fans; it’s part of the ongoing evolution of social music. Traditional systems and tech encouraged certain conduct, such as the gradual development of musical tastes and the act of collecting music in the physical form—both of which the record industry profited handsomely from. A new age brings new systems, technologies, and behaviors, to think fans and business models are frozen in time—untouched by these changes—is a fool’s errand. So too, there’s more choices in music now than ever and discerning which adds the most value to one’s life isn’t easy. Such an overload leads fans to pursue coping mechanisms like file-sharing. And, when fans fail to make good decisions, they feel burned and look for ways to even the scorecard with the industry and artists that brought those choices. That fans are getting more cautious about their purchases is a result of having more risk pushed onto them. To protect themselves from buying something that they didn’t want—they file-share music to mitigate the added risk and are so willing to do so that they put themselves at great legal risk in the process.

Kyle Bylin is Editor of Hypebot and Music Think Tank.

Reader Comments (11)

I completely agree on items 3 and 4, as I've often wanted to be sure that I was going to like something before actually purchasing it. It's especially necessary if your budget is only going to allow for a few releases each month. I prefer the approach of having all of your music available as streams online, so people can listen to it. It's not overly dangerous, considering they can't put that stream on a portable device. If they wanted that, they would purchase the tracks they liked. If a label or an artist does not want to do this because they know an amount of the album is filler or is less satisfactory, they aren't really in it for music, just for money. I realize music is subjective, but I would never release a track that I would not personally have bought if someone else had been the writer. If you can't stand by your own work, you don't deserve to be paid for it.

October 8 | Unregistered CommenterNick Olman

#1 and #2 were always with us. Hell, I remember buying records in the 1980's-90's, when labels would include little mini-catalogs with the CD cover (or mail order). I'd just discovered one band I liked, and here was a whole catalog of people I'd never heard of, but might like. I almost never bought any of them at the time. These problems have been made worse by the internet-driven explosion of content, but the only solution is to limit consumer choices - which is no solution at all.

But #3 and #4 are not unsolvable. They are consumer backlash against unknown product being forced on them. Both of these are easily solved - and you wrote about the solution. It's Reason #2 in the last article.

October 10 | Unregistered CommenterKarlheinz

4 reasons why articles like this are desperate rationalizations:

1. You are more or less saying it's human nature to steal music and whatever else you can on the internet and because its human nature- its probably actually healthy to own up to the fact that you dont own it and steal it anyway....... Hey girls... You know those really disgusting guys that will break any girls heart and fool around with all of her friends? When confronted he says that its in the male brain stem to spread his seed and procreate and that you should really understand....
Well, get to understanding, honey......

2. Risk Sharing? are you kidding? last time I checked Itunes gives you pieces of every single song on albums- between that and videos and fan blogs and on and on- are you really going to go THIS far to try to make a point???

3. Greedy Record companies???? are your kidding? Go to the bottom of the page of all of these ranters for illegal web activity- guess who owns or supports them? of course- the ISP's the digital giants, the entities worth hundred os billions of dollars from the internet. Why not write blogs about them having the NERVE to charge advertisers for al the crap on thier sites? the reality is that all of these Billion dollar babies are completely for "copyright reform" because they all benefit from either directly or indirectly from not having to pay for content . They actually get these clueless morons on line to scream nonsense about Madonna's Gulf Stream jet- All the while protecting people who literally get Madonna to play their pool parties. WAKE UP- You're being used- you're a tool.

4. I have CD's I bought a dozen years ago I still listen to. How many hours of use have I had from it? maybe hundreds..... now days a 3D movie costs more than a CD- 90 minutes and its over. If you enjoyed it you consider it money well spent- if you buy a DVD its maybe even 30 bucks- but tell me this- when you look at your stack of movies and CD's of music- which is far more likely to get that 3rd- 4th- 10th grab and spin??? in my house its the music- compared to books and movies I bought- my music purchases are FAR the best deals in terms of time spent entertaining me.
Once again- desperate rationalizations of file theives saying they are making the world a better place- yeah..... the world SO NEEDS more internet billionaires.

October 10 | Unregistered Commenterawake

I have a different perspective. People file share music because THEY CAN. A few years ago, before all the music streaming sites and youtube and myspace, you could argue that there wasn't really a place to properly audition a tune for your personal library or find that rare track, but that's certainly not the case now. You can't get out of paying your electric bill, but you can get out of paying for music and other creative content and rationalize it any way that helps you sleep at night. Furthermore, we give a complete legal pass to all the intermediaries involved in file sharing: the ISPs, the search engines, YouTube, user-driven content sites. These companies can profit from content without having to worry about policing their own site so long as they take down content when asked to do so. None of it matters though. File sharing will continue so long as users CAN file share.

Filesharing is possible because today's PCs are relatively open systems - anyone can write for them and put software on them. And they do. By contrast, your phone is a relatively closed system; only certain companies can put software on them, people with names, addresses, verified phone numbers, and TAX IDs. The app store- if your phone has one - is a single point of access - and also a single point of failure; any particular app can be removed from the entire market at the click of a button. The phone itself is a non-anonymous device - it's typically tied to an account with a monthly fee. This environment is a true evolution of the computing world because it provides for a more civilized business environment than the raw PC/internet world.

If people begin to move to closed systems as primary computing devices, file sharing will become less of an issue.

October 11 | Unregistered CommenterCathy

You call filesharing a "coping mechanism." That's bullshit, people share files because it's free. They got ipods and other MP3 players that they want to fill with free music and 99 cent singles, thats what it boils down to. It's a cheaper and more convenient way to consume music.

October 11 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor

I too would call these more rationalizations for people to give up selling music and to keep stealing it. I agree with Awake on most of their observations. I would add though to #1 if peoples ipod can handle 10,000 mp3, why not stop releasing them in that piece of crap format anyways? I don't spend 100 hours of studio time mixing engineering and producing a track just to have it sound like schwag because of format loss. I would prefer the industry standard to be digital high definition formats. Of course that isn't up to anyone but Apple, they make the format the device will play then sell the singles real cheap. Of course they want a format that is easy to transfer and takes up little room on servers, who cares if it sounds like crap anyways as those Ipod earbuds have no aural spectrum.

As for what we can do right now? Well My Senator, Patrick Leahy (D) and Senator Orin Hatch (R) have sponsored a bill to fight online piracy. Read the bill here,

The bill will be up for a vote in the next session, call your senator and tell them to support the legislation.

The bill isn't perfect, but it is a good start to the debate and will probably get better as congress adds in their ideas. Hopefully the new congress will support copyrights as opposed to copy left theft.

~ CrowfeatheR

October 11 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

@awake, @CrowfeatheR

It is clear that both of you do not understand the difference between normative ("what should we achieve?", "is this fair or not?", "what moral value should we ascribe to this behavior?") and positive ("how it works?", "why do people do this stuff?", "what is the psychological mechanism behind it?") analysis. This article is of the later kind but you try to attack it as being of the former. Stop conflating the two.

October 11 | Unregistered CommenterThe Rust Belt

Drugs are bad, Mmkay? So we need to stop people from getting and doing drugs. We need to go after the people who distribute them and punish the people that possess them. If we do that long enough, then I'm sure people will give up on doing illegal drugs and stick to legal stuff like cigarettes and booze. Because thats how the world works - its totally possible to expect that you can stop millions of people from doing something they really really want to do and have access to a constantly-shifting distribution network of it. Yep, totally realistic to expect that we can corall the majority of drug use into the "legal" realm.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

When you do drugs you hurt only yourself. When you steal you create victims and violate other peoples rights. Also, drugs are addictive so people have a lame excuse to do them, they need to. Music however, people steal because it's more convenient than paying the creator they are not addictive, there is no gut wrenching seizures and painful withdrawal if you pay .50 for that Justin Bieber track instead of ripping it from grooveshark.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

lol Justin, well said and currently true. You cannot stop the sharing of simple files. You can, however, change the product into something less file sharable. The device I use to listen to music today is not the same as the one I used 10 years ago. A lot can change in 10 years: devices, file formats, markets, networks, drivers, operating systems and hard drives. A significant evolution in any of these could make file sharing in its current form irrelevant. For example, it's possible to imagine a Google created device that plays free streaming music from a given server with local storage for those off-network times and paid, network connect music apps with premium content. Sharing would happen in a sandboxed app connected to a Google server. File sharing in the traditional sense isn't even possible. I'm not saying it's the future, but it's certainly possible to redefine the music landscape if people accept a closed device.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterCathy


Given the furore that erupted over DRM-protected files, a closed-device solution is not going to work. People experience music on a multitude of devices, so attempting to lock them in to one device or platform will only serve to repeat recent history; add in the additional investment of dedicated hardware and any proposal to that as a solution will be roundly lampooned.

Any media that is streamed to a computer can be ripped and stored as an unprotected file, which can then be shared to kingdom come, so a closed-device solution still won't work unless every single device under the sun accepts only media that is 'authorised' (and even that won't be infallible). Whereas the dawn of cassette recorders sparked record company fears that music sales would plummet owing to radio plays being recorded, ripping streamed tracks represents a much greater threat as the distribution channel for digitally pirated music is limitless. Cassette-based piracy was limited to tape-trading circles; file-based piracy can result in a single rip being downloaded by every user of a Torrent client. The only sensible way to prevent the distribution of pirated digital media is to reduce the volume and availability of pirated content, which means the internet needs to be policed far more heavily, i.e. the internet needs to be policed.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterMart

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