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Music Piracy Hasn’t Disappeared, It Has Only Changed, and It Is a Big Problem for Artists
November 13, 2020 — Music piracy is thought of as a 21st-century problem, but it has been going on since at least the 1950s. Back then, popular rockabilly music was banned in the Soviet Union, but that did not stop Russian music lovers from getting ahold of copies. The intrepid pirates would press albums onto used X-rays and sell the bootleg copies underground — the copies were eventually nicknamed ‘bone records’.
In the 1960s and ’70s, vinyl ruled the music scene, but that did not prevent piracy either. While it seems to be a closely guarded secret on the internet, people in those decades would make physical copies of vinyl records using wax. In the ’80s and ’90s, the cassette tape ruled, and piracy became a part of pop culture with the advent of the mixtape; people would record popular songs off the radio onto blank cassettes.
It was not until 1999 and Napster’s rise that the term ‘music piracy’ came about. The rise of the internet created a massive problem for the music industry since a single music file could be shared with millions of people worldwide. Napster was eventually sued out of relevance, and the music landscape changed rapidly in a decade — from paid singles on iTunes to the rise of streaming services like Spotify. Now that music libraries are available to stream over multiple services for nominal prices, many believe that the age of piracy is over, but that is not the case – piracy has not disappeared; it has only changed.
As internet service providers began to crack down on torrent downloads, pirates had to find a new way to steal their music, so they turned to a new technology called stream ripping. Stream ripping is a process in which software records a song streaming on the internet to create a copy stored on the computer — much like the ’80s when people were recording radio songs onto cassettes. Prominent music streamers like Deezer, Spotify, and YouTube have been fighting back against stream rippers, but the software and the people who use them persist.
Stream ripping is a big problem by itself since it is essentially stealing an artist’s intellectual property, but it becomes an even bigger problem when you learn how much artists are getting paid for those streams. Streaming services pay almost nothing per stream of a song, with YouTube being the lowest at .00069 per stream and the new Napster (formerly Rhapsody) paying the most at .019 per stream. So, on a platform like Spotify, a track would need to be streamed upwards of 30,000 times for the artist to make $1,000. For radio-ready artists, 30,000 streams may not seem like much, but it can be a high benchmark for an independent artist. When those streams start getting taken away because of stream ripping and illegal online sharing, it will absolutely hurt the artist.
Unfortunately, it seems as though pirates are always one step ahead of music distributors, and despite their best efforts, we can never rely on music piracy to be over. The good news is that, while the internet has caused issues for artists, it has also opened up new opportunities for those artists to make money. One of the most lucrative and promising ways for artists at any stage of their career to make substantial money is through synch licensing — a process in which a deal is made between an artist and media company for the artist’s music to be used in their productions.
Synch licensing is booming as independent and big-budget media enterprises look for fresh music for their projects. License deals are being worked out worldwide for artists to be paid to have their music featured everywhere, from amateur YouTube channels to major motion pictures and big-budget video games. Successful licensing agreements mean guaranteed money for the artist, so they do not have to rely as much on streaming revenue, and in some cases, the synch-licensing deals can net artists substantial income.
Music piracy has evolved over the decades, but it has not seemed to slow down, much less disappear. Stream ripping and several other factors have made it harder for artists to make money from their craft and some may be looking for safer alternatives to make a living from their work. Synch licensing will continue to be a potential option for artists at all stages of their careers to have another income stream in the rapidly changing music landscape. Since it does not seem that music piracy is going anywhere, it is up to artists to further advocate for themselves and look for more paths to earn the money they deserve.