In recent times, there has been a dramatic change in the way artists and record labels release new music. From the golden age of vinyl to the cassette period, straight onto the compact disc (CD) era we have seen it all. Music is now largely digital, and consumers can purchase one song, an album or a range of mixes as they wish.
With this technological advancement in music distribution comes the question of black market tunes. The recording industry decries music that is accessed without any form of payment. It lays the blame of reduced overall sales and profitability on illegally purchased music. But is this a fact or a biased assumption?
A Background on Music Downloads
File-sharing outside of the official purchase channels for digital music is now a normal activity. But this has not always been the case. When the music industry began moving to the MP3 format (a salient digital music format among the many others that exist), consumers realized they could bypass paying for it.
One of the earliest and most famous examples of this is Napster, which availed music without collecting payment. Things have come a long way since and nowadays BitTorrent activity is the staple parallel music distribution platform.
BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer network where users can share content using clients. Once you are on the network, you connect to other users and download the content you desire. Unlike with Napster, BitTorrent enables sharing of files among several users at a time. Such efficiency has been a keystone in its popularity over the years.
Since BitTorrent users do not pay for any content, and neither is it gated in any way, the recording industry has frequently labeled it a sales killer. Piracy is the term used by content creators to describe accessing content on BitTorrent without paying for it.
Researchers have for many years tried to come up with a definitive analysis of whether music piracy does indeed lead to lower music sales. Over several years the results have been anything but conclusive.
One key missing aspect of previous research in the matter has been that researches have not been using a big enough pool of BitTorrent tracker information. It was this precise missing link that led to Robert Hammond pioneering his own study using BitTorrent trackers.
The North Carolina University assistant professor assessed download information of albums released between May 2010 and January 2011 and shared on the biggest private BitTorrent tracker. He combined this information with the reported sales figures of these same albums (purchased from Nielsen) to determine what effect unpaid BitTorrent downloads had on the official album sales.
The results of his study are anything but traditional. In his findings, professor Hammond indicates that when an album was leaked before its official release, it experienced an increase in sales. More specifically, when an album leaked 30 days to its official release, it led to sales of 59.6 more units.
Note that Hammond’s study included 1,025 albums of which 59.8% of them leaked in advance of their release
A clear implication here is that if an artist finds that their music is made available on BitTorrent before their planned release, they should not surmise that it must inevitably lead to poor sales.
Hammond’s line of reasoning is that when an individual album is made available before its release date, it builds a buzz around it. That buzz becomes a form of advertising for the said album, which goes to boost its sales.
Which Category of Artist Benefits?
A natural question here then would be what class of artist can benefit from the moderate boost by BitTorrent? Hammond shows that, contrary to popular opinion, his research proves that it is the popular artists who benefit more than their lesser known counterparts.
The professor believes that his research features an aspect that helps bring this particular nugget to light. Previous studies only focused on the number of files that were available on the BitTorrent tracker. Due to this, the greatest insight derived was the availability of these files and not which of them were more popular.
Hammond’s study looks at the number of downloaded files, which helped him discern the popularity of albums released beyond just looking at their availability.
The professor argues that music lovers who download using legal and illegal channels have similar preferences. As such, artists popular in the legal sales channel are also popular on the BitTorrent network.
The Internet is a major channel for music distribution, which is made through legal and illegal ways. Consumers use BitTorrent technology to download albums that they haven’t purchased, and this has been a major concern for the recording industry. Despite the popular refrain that piracy is killing music sales, extensive research shows that there is a moderate positive effect on sales when an album is downloaded via file sharing.