4 Reasons Why Fans Are File-Sharing Your Music (And Why They Can't Be Changed)
October 8, 2010
Kyle Bylin

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.

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (http://www.musicthinktank.com/).
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