I’ve read two very interesting related articles this week. The first suggested that people who download music via peer-to-peer services spend more money on music than their non-filesharing peers. The second insisted that the net drop in CD and download sales overall has increased concurrent with, and as a result of filesharing.
It’s difficult to argue with either, since they’re both backed by respectable-seeming research and surveys - and yet they can’t possibly both be true. Until you realise the fundamental logical flaws in both positions: the presupposition that unauthorised downloading of music has a causal effect - indeed, is the only causal factor - on the fortunes of the music business.
Clearly, as soon as you take a step back and think about it logically, so-called ‘piracy’ cannot possibly be anything more than one of a whole range of factors affecting the music industry as a whole, simply because the world is a complicated place and people are complex and interesting. There are political, economic, social, cultural and technological factors all influencing the industry’s affairs - and it stands to reason that different influencing factors are pulling in all sorts of different directions.
To blame piracy for the decline of music revenues - or to single out pirates as the main source of income - overlooks that complexity, and merely provides a PR sideshow to the main story (that almost never gets covered in the mainstream press), which is that the entire ecosystem of music business is changing.
In the print age, sheet music was the main way in which we consumed music, and new technology threatened that orthodoxy. In the electric age, it was recorded music. We’re now in the digital age, and while recordings are still a significant driver of music business revenue, it is (as sheet music did before it) rapidly losing its hold as the main source of music business income.
But just as the music industry as a whole didn’t suffer (in fact, it boomed) when sheet music gave way to the recorded music business (though it’s worth reiterating that you can still buy sheet music, and some businesses do very well out of producing it), I suspect that the music business as a whole will figure out a way of surviving and thriving when it grasps the opportunities inherent in the new technological environment.
In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that’s already happening.
Chief Economist for the UK’s PRS For Music, Will Page has declared that overall revenue of the British music industry is up nearly 5%. Not the record industry, mind you - the music business. Those two things are not synonyms.
And while it’s easy to find scapegoats and heroes in this story, that’s never going to be the full picture. Peer to Peer filesharing platforms may well have an important role to play in this narrative, but it’s a complex and interesting one - and not the simplistic black hat / white hat melodrama playing out in the pages of the mainstream media.