In January Georgia Wonder threw its five track debut EP into an ocean where it smashed into tiny pieces and reassembled itself in the fishing nets of those who knew it’s name. Unlike normal wreckage anything thrown into this particular ocean lasts for as long as people want to fish for it, becomes as abundant or scarce as demand requires and by the time it is pulled onto dry land it has assumed it’s original form. It is a modern day miracle of supply and demand and of course it is the ocean known as the internet, and our songs are simply files that swim in it.
BitTorrent, the technology behind the ebb and flow of much of this new media ocean has been in the news a lot lately, especially surrounding the trial of The Pirate Bay, one of many websites that enable people to keep track of what’s floating around ‘out there’. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand you will know that the four people involved in The Pirate Bay have recently been dragged across the beach, with sentences of a year each and fines totaling £2.3 million.
However, the BitTorrent network still exists and The Pirate Bay is still running. If fining some of the most famous ‘pirates’ in the world and putting them away for a year won’t change anything then it looks like the pirates are anything but washed up. So why bother going after them?
To understand what this is all about, one needs to accept that ﬁle sharing has become a mainstream activity. The idea of it being an underground pursuit, ten years after itʼs conception, is absurd. File sharing has become a part of music discovery, as much as Top Of The Pops or chart radio ever was. We have a generation who sees ﬁle sharing as a birthright, and the internet as a necessity. Are these people pirates or henchmen?
People old enough to remember the ʻhome taping is killing musicʼ era can probably recall buying knockoff cassette tapes from strange men on holiday islands where piracy was part of the experience. In this case piracy was about organized gangs mass producing copyright material to sell for proﬁt. Buying a dodgy cassette tape never morphed anyone into a pirate back then, although I have known people feeling raped and pillaged when their Elton John bargain turned out to be a full 45 minutes of Turkish polka music.
The music industry has spent the last decade promoting the concept that sharing music on the internet is piracy, and uses cases like The Pirate Bay trial as part of a larger arsenal of online bullying in an attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. But if sharing music on the internet really is piracy then it stands to reason that all oceans must be the same and ‘music pirates’ should have a lot in common with ‘real pirates’. So let’s talk about some ‘real pirates’ for a moment.
Some ‘real pirates’ boarded an oil tanker recently and held it for ransom off the coast of Somalia. There was only one oil tanker and it belonged to someone else, and it’s uniqueness (and therefore value) gave the pirates negotiating power and they demanded a ransom. If the real ocean acted in the same way as the oceans of the internet then the oil tanker would have replicated as soon as the pirates boarded the vessel, unaware that by their very involvement they had created another one, and while they screamed ransom at the original owners their voices would have been lost in a sea of identical oil tanker clones, while the originators simply thumbed a lift on the nearest oil tanker copy and sailed home.
To my knowledge this has never actually happened in real life, but in the demand driven world of the internet the more people want something the more of it there is. Peopleʼs music habits have changed in line with technology, naturally following the path of least resistance to get what they want. According to one set of research results, last year 40 billion songs were shared online (40,000,000,000). About a quarter of the people in the world (1.5 billion) are connected to the internet meaning that on average, every home with an internet connection shared an average of 27 songs last year - equivalent to roughly three albums worth of material.
If you live alone with only your broadband connection for company then your Broadband Pirate Intake is probably much higher than 27. But if these 40 billion songs had been paid for at the current iTunes pricing (79p each) they would have generated over 31 billion pounds in revenue, roughly fifteen times the gross domestic product of Somalia. It seems that using the pricing from an era where people’s media consumption was totally different from today’s gives wildly inaccurate results of a song’s true retail value and it is safe to say that downloads don’t equate to sales by a colossal margin. It’s try-before-you-trash nowadays, and the game now as an artist is to try and be heard and then try even harder not to be deleted.
While iTunes, Spotify and a host of other music startups are innovating in an ocean of opportunity, the major labels have been firing their canons indiscriminately into a sea whose ports they used to control in an attempt to hold back the tides of change using methods more akin to King Canute than Sir Richard Branson. They're waving their fists not just at the so-called pirates but at the oceans themselves, conveniently forgetting that the unbundling of the song from the album has done more to downsize the industry’s value than any other single factor.
The pirates are an impotent myth at best, jumping to order while music lawyers shoot at their imaginary feet.
Unfortunately this swashbuckling fairy tale has been recounted verbatim in the corridors of power to the point where some of the politicians are starting to believe it. There is a chance that the previous rulers will get the go ahead for their war on terror and once they’ve finished taking out targets left, right and center under the auspices of hunting down Pirate Bin Laden there will be nothing left but military rule in a cultural desert where the only water is bottled.
Georgia Wonder are a two-piece band from the UK - Stephanie Grant (vocals) and Julian Moore (music). Their debut EP ‘Hello Stranger’ was the only release from an unsigned artist in the Pirate Bay top 100 music chart for a week in January after climbing to the 14th position in five days following a free promotion on Frostwire. You can find the torrent by doing a Google search for ‘Georgia Wonder EP’ using your favourite internet provider.
Georgia Wonder Website
References / Further Reading
Pirate Bay Trial Verdict
Music Like Water
1 Billion Songs A Day Shared Online
P2P File-Sharing on the Purchase of Music: A Study for Industry Canada
Serving Your Fans - The Trent Reznor Case Study
Unsigned Band Breaks Into Top 20 Most Shared Music On The Planet