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What’s really keeping you from where you need to be? (It’s not piracy.)

I spoke at a conference last weekend, where a woman in the audience was SO mad about piracy that she was physically shaking, red in the face, tears in her eyes, fuming spitting livid, asking how we can stop this rampant piracy.

I didn’t answer her concern well, but I said “More people are killed by pigs than sharks each year, but because shark attacks are more newsworthy, they seem more prevalent. Piracy gets all the attention, but I don’t think most of you in this room have lost more than $30 to piracy.” (I got a big “Booo” from the audience for this.) “Obscurity is your real enemy. Fight obscurity until you’re a household name, then piracy will be more of a problem than obscurity. Until then, worry about pigs, not sharks.”

The woman got so furious about this that she screamed at me with tears in her eyes, “I HATE YOUR POINT OF VIEW, BUDDY!” (and some other angry things I forget.) From her point of view, piracy was Enemy #1 and anybody ignoring this massive threat was hurting us all.

Driving away from the event, of course I figured out what I wish I would have said in that moment:

The thing separating us from where we are and where we need to be is not piracy.

It’s always something more internal, whether writing, communicating, producing, networking, promoting, or taking a wildly different approach to marketing.

Putting so much attention and energy into fighting piracy (as if, when solved, you’ll suddenly start selling 10 times more) - is misguided effort, distracting you from what you really need to be improving.

That’s the real reason I often tell musicians not to worry about piracy. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But energy spent worrying about it is energy better spent working on what you know you really need to do.

Reader Comments (17)

Naw, you're first answer was better. Getting so mad at piracy that you never get anything creative done is never going to get you anywhere. Of course, when people like her finally do get a creative work out there and it tanks like most do, they'll be even more livid, and blame piracy for their own failure. Everybody loves a scapegoat.

April 16 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Landrum

Derek - this is the best entry I have read on this site so far. It's all good here at Music Think Tank, but this is extra super solid. Thanks, Rob

April 16 | Unregistered CommenterRob Stefaniak

Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. I love your point of view! (Buddy) I've been thinking forever that piracy is not bad at all because it's free publicity and people should embrace it instead of wasting time trying to prevent it. If I was a recording musician and found out people were "stealing" my music, I'd be stoked that they wanted it that bad! Let them pirate and circulate your music - the more well known you are the more revenue you've got comin in in the end.

But, your point of view that fighting piracy is taking time away from the important things is great and I hadn't thought of that. Spend your time making more music, promoting, networking, learning, etc instead.

Rock on.

April 16 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Possing

I don't think piracy is a big concern as most people make it out to be. Especially in the sense of digital piracy. Physical piracy on the other hand can be a little more damaging. The way I see it is that there are 3 types of people in this world when it comes to online music piracy. There are those who never buy music and only download it illegally. There are those who buy some and download some. Last there are those who never download illegally and only obtain music legally. I think more artists and labels need to realize that piracy is just another additional loss that needs to be factored in.

Odds are that people who are downloading pirated music, never intended to purchase it anyways. Think about it like this, "Why bother purchasing an album you know is going to be an overall let down?" I would say that if anyone is getting hurt by piracy it would be the one hit wonders. They have the most to lose I would think.

Recently, I been thinking about which is worse, online piracy of music or the used cd market. In terms of who is making money off of what, I would argue that the used cd market is more financially damaging than online music piracy. If you would like to know my full opinion on that drop by my web page an check out my blog post about it at

April 16 | Unregistered CommenterAme one

Piracy was the best damn thing that ever happened to music.

April 16 | Unregistered Commenterevolvor

Before this whole piracy thing, musicians would distract themselves with simple stuff like learning to play all Van Halen's guitar solos or buying more t-shirts for the band.

It is easier now than ever to get distracted. In all these blog posts, we assume that people have got the music sorted, and now if they follow our lead they will do very well. This is obviously not the case and people are looking to get their houses in order way before they've even built a house.

Unfortunately it's much easier to attack piracy, start a blog, put up a website, create a mailing list, upload an mp3, join twitter, add comments to blog posts and create the feeling of activity than it is to lock yourself in a room for days on end trying to write a good song.

No-hopers in their thousands are now buying music self-help books and attending conferences about DIY music promotion. A whole new industry is being created to accomodate these people.

Myspace has something like 30 million bands on it. Myspace is built on the hobbyist with ideas above his station, as is most of the social music scene.

Now that everyone thinks they can do it, expect a lot more people to be arguing about it. I expect attendance at music biz conferences to be up, and attendance at musicians workshops to be down.

Music web 2.0 has attracted a lot of eggheads with guitars, and instead of winning their case with music they will argue their case with rhetoric. Which will not only waste their time, but the time of countless other musicians.

Piracy is only a problem if you are personally losing money to it. So the answer you can give to most people regarding piracy is 'it's not your problem'.

And then tell them to put their energy into improving.

April 17 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

Was this woman actually a musician, or an industry exec of some kind? It seems to me that such a response would be more typical of an industry audience rather than a musician audience (although I don't know what conferences you're going to, so I'm only guessing). If she was a musician, I wonder if she had any decreasing sales statistics that she could confidently correlate with the rise of digital music distribution (aka piracy). As mentioned by Sandra above, if you're popular enough to be pirated, you should be very happy, and looking to capitalise on this popularity. There are a million reasons why your music sales could be down, and piracy is only a small part of that picture...

April 17 | Unregistered CommenterDan Foley


Do you know how the software industry is discussing the "lost sales"?

There are so many unouthorized copies of programs on computers worldwide.
Often it is very expensive software - stuff like photoshop, ms office etc.
Do the companies calculate their prices with the unauthorized copies in mind?

April 17 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Blue


That is an excellent observation! I mean sure, I had always thought that $500 to $1500 for an Adobe product was a bit much but I attributed it to the enormous capability of the product. It had actually never occured to me that the price had possibly been based on a "Piracy Curve".

It does make perfect sense especially since Adobe, Microsoft, etc. did not have any real standard base price to contend with (i.e.: the $8 to $10 LP of the music world).

I think that it would be impossible for the major music companies of today to dare try escalating their pricing to compensate for piracy. Nor do I think it is even a relevant consideration at this stage of the game...given the points established here with piracy and file sharing = poularity and fanbase building.

Excellent observation Peter.


April 18 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

I totally agree with this, and specially with what Julian Moore adds later on. The problems always arrive when discussing quantity over quality. Why does no one discuss the REAL important issues?! Why is there so much rubbish music out there, banged in our head from all corners of the industry? Are they really replying to demand? I dont always think so. It�s more a case of them manufacturing cheap and effective ways of getting a producer in to program leaps and loops, then call it a hit everywhere; finally the people believe it, they believe it so much they go and get themselves a copy whatever the process (Piracy).
Those caring more about content and quality still download for free, but care about music. I totally agree with the comments posted stating that piracy affects the over-commercial cheap products more so than the quality ones.
Another comment, people should not get carried away too much with blogging when it comes to forming opinions...did i just do that?

April 18 | Unregistered CommenterJuan Zelada

Derek Sivers, I truly think you are missing the point that make many musicians upset about Music Piracy. It's not the fact that we as musicians have lost in sales because of people downloading our music illegally.

I will tell you exactly what music piracy has caused and it's affect on other musicians, that would like to make a living from selling there music on the internet.

When the internet first started out, the internet appeared to be a great place for musicians to sell music and it was, even someone that knew very little about music was able to mask a small fortune. Try that today and you'll be out of luck.

As time passed and the internet became a much bigger place and programmers and software designers began creating peer to peer programs and torrent programs and.... the more people that started using those programs to download music illegally, this in turn developed a sense among all those pirates, that they ought to be able to get music downloads for free and most of those pirates do not see themselves as stealing music.

They see it as sharing music. The same way as, back in the days when we all purchased music albums and would share them with friends or trade them. This is why many musicians are very upset, because of the new mind set and this is why people would rather not purchase music unless they absolutely have too.

With iTunes and some other types of outfits, they've made it hard for anyone to share or pirate music, but that still does not stop those that have the smarts to convert or use the "what you hear" gate for re-recording music on ones computer.

Derek Sivers I hope you now see why so many musicians are upset. Hopefully you can now give due respect.



April 20 | Unregistered CommenterAorphiA

AorphiA -

When the internet first started out, most people weren't on it, and those that were on it didn't spend much money.

Now there are more people online than ever, and people are buying more music than ever, (my company CD Baby pays out over $2 million per month directly to musicians for their CDs/MP3s sold.)

Yes there is also piracy, but it affects mostly famous artists that are easy to find on P2P more than it does independent artists that are not found on P2P services.

Even the cultural attitude you describe ("people would rather not purchase music") I think is mistaken thinking. I run a music store, and sales are up up up every year. Music fans really do enjoy buying music especially when they know that the music from their purchase is going mostly to the musicians not to a record label.

I'm sure you are quite set in your opinion and don't want your mind changed, but please at least realize that you're taking some real pessimistic opinions and assuming that they are fact, when in fact the complete opposite may be true.

In the end, you choose the mindset that you feel serves you the best.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterDerek Sivers

First let's tackle the semantics here: Piracy = The illegal reproduction and SALE of someone else's work.

This should not be confused with recording and sharing someone else's work...just like recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes (something that has happened ever since consumers could record music).

Equating the two together obscures the points being made by articles such as the ones above.

If we are going to go after every person that records a song and plays it to a friend, makes a mix tape for a friend, etc. etc...Then we need to shut down radio and Internet altogether along with confiscating any device that can record audio.

Not a practical solution to say the least.

CD sales are down BECAUSE mp3 sales are up (and actually so are vinyl sales).

Concert tickets are more expensive because CD sales are down and demand for the entertainment has grown NOT diminished. It does not take an economist to figure these things out.

One of the points made in the initial article still rings true (I will paraphrase):

GET OFF YOUR ASS AND MAKE SOME MUSIC...along with the other things needed to get your "Music Career" off the ground. Sitting around bitching about how many people are sharing music is no help to you at all.

I dare say that with a few rare exceptions (Lars Ulrich, and he certainly isn't suffering) the people complaining about "piracy" (which is not what I actually think they are talking about) have not had their music "pirated" at all.

They have not had their music heard in the first place.

Be thankful if your music is so good that people want to record it and share it...This will only help you create hits for your website (do you have one?), sell more t-shirts (have you made any?), sell tickets to your shows (are you playing any?), and generally create a buzz about what you do (do you actually do anything?).

Understand the difference in "Piracy" and "Fans".

Look forward to being so popular that someone is trying to make a buck off of your talent (do you have any?).

Obscurity is the enemy not peer to peer networking.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

What they just said

April 22 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

Well said Derk :)

July 25 | Unregistered CommenterColie Brice

Julianne said:
"Unfortunately it's much easier to attack piracy, start a blog, put up a website, create a mailing list, upload an mp3, join twitter, add comments to blog posts"

Oh my God, that's exactly what I've been doing for the past week, instead of making music! (especially the part about joining Twitter)

Milton said:
"and generally create a buzz about what you do (do you actually do anything?)"


Great stat about pigs and sharks... my favourite along those lines is "More people get kicked to deatch by donkeys each year than die in plane crashes".

June 1 | Unregistered CommenterRich Huxley

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