Ed Sheeran: Piracy Is What Made Me

from the good-guy dept

We all know by now the music industry’s mantra that piracy kills artists. Well, not kills kills, but kills their musical careers before they could even really begin, so destructive is the dissemination of free music amongst the public. After all, if the public doesn’t pay for every last instance of every last bit of music, how in the world could musical artists ever make a living? This mantra is one that tends to be applied universally to the concept of free music by the industry, with zero in the way of nuanced discussions about potential business models that might work for some, or many, artists.

Except that that’s silly. It ignores the power of freely disseminated music in helping musicians to be discovered in the first place, where they can then go on and make all kinds of money through what have always been better profit-centers for artists, such as concerts, merchandise and the like. Many artists don’t understand this, swallowing the industry’s mantra whole. But there are exceptions, such as Ed Sheeran, who began his career sans record label, promoting himself instead.

Beyond writing the songs, Sheeran also wrote his own rules about how to sell them. Like so many others, he had set off for London as a teenager, singing on street corners and in pubs. But he didn’t knock on record company doors or wait to be discovered. Instead, he began marketing his own stuff, releasing his music himself on websites until — inevitably — a record label came calling. He had already earned half a million from his independent sales, putting the music out himself.

“What I didn’t have was infrastructure,” Sheeran said. “They have an American label, they have a Japanese label, they have an Australian label. So that’s what I was signing for.”

And that infrastructure is where labels can indeed provide some value. Except it’s simply not the value for which labels have taken so much credit for far too long. There was no initial discovery and nurturing done by the labels in Sheeran’s case. Sheeran did that himself. Instead, the labels came calling after the initial work was done and pitched even wider distribution in exchange for slapping their names on an already ascending star. This serves as a rebuttal to some of the reaction you see in cases such as Run The Jewels, with some complaining that their free music strategy chiefly worked because they were already a household name. Sheeran’s case is the opposite, in which he became a household name because of his free music strategy. It’s not that the strategy is easily portable to every artist in every case, but it does remind us that the blanket disgust toward piracy by the music industry is not supported by reality either.

But even after the labels were involved, Sheeran indicates a clear understanding of how and why his music supercharged his fame to the household status it now has.

Who helped him first? Fans, he says. “It was file sharing. I know that’s a bad thing to say, because I’m part of a music industry that doesn’t like illegal file sharing.”

“Code for piracy.”

“Yeah, but illegal fire sharing was what made me. It was students in England going to university, sharing my songs with each other.”

And what is his view on file sharing now? “I don’t think file sharing exists now.”


“Yeah, I think people rip off YouTube. That’s a thing. But I feel like it’s so easy to stream.”

Sheeran’s case goes beyond simply giving music away, of course. His treatment of his fans creates a bond as well, one that fosters a desire among the fanbase to support him. The free music alone isn’t enough, he needed his personality and talent, as well, to make it work. Still, it’s easy to read shrugged shoulders into his comments on music piracy in the present, and obvious gratitude for it in his past. It’s unfortunate how rare this mode of thinking is, which is why it’s a bit jarring to hear a star like Sheeran say something as profound as “illegal filesharing was what made me.” You can almost hear the groan from label executives as you read the words from a man far too busy counting his money and making his art to care.

And, to counter another industry claim that any gain by an artist through piracy is short-lived, it’s worth noting that Sheeran’s latest work is selling, and selling well. At a record breaking pace, in fact, even as the concert venues continue to sell out for Sheeran’s appearances.

Not bad for a young man who credits piracy for all that glory.

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Comments on “Ed Sheeran: Piracy Is What Made Me”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

Regarding the ‘Why would anyone buy music if they can get it for free?’ argument that some in the recording industry like to throw out, I think I can safely say that for me personally at least it’s because of access to free music that I have bought so much of it.

For most of my life the only music I listened to was the radio when someone else had it on, or the handful of free songs put together and tossed out by amateur musicians who enjoyed playing around with the software available at the time. Basic stuff, but it was good enough for me, and certainly better than the idea of spending $15-20 for maybe one or two songs I wanted.

And then along came Youtube, and more importantly Bandcamp

Now instead of having to luck across a song on the radio that I liked(and still be stuck with the idea of paying out the nose for one song), I had access to massive amounts of music I could listen to completely for free, with almost no effort on my part. I could go from one song to another, check out entire albums(often several times over) without spending so much as a cent beforehand, allowing me to sample vastly more than I could ever have been able to buy.

The result? More money spent on music in the past few years than I’d spent in my entire life up to that point, money that I almost certainly wouldn’t have spent had I not been able to discover and sample so much music for free.

‘Free music’ didn’t prevent me from buying, it caused me to buy, and I’ve no doubt that I’m not even close to the only one to have been like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

The best feature is to be able to buy songs individually rather than as a full album. $1 on the one good song of a set is better than the $0 spent deciding that the one good song on the album isn’t worth the $15 you pay for the crap that fills it out.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

Yeah, being able to buy tracks individually like that takes the CD dilemma of ‘pay stupid amounts of cash for one song or don’t get the song, period’ and turns it on it’s head.

Only like one song out of a dozen? Then you only have to buy one song out of a dozen, you don’t have to buy the whole thing, and as you note buying one song, while it may get the artist less than someone buying the entire album still gets them far more money than the alternative of no purchase at all.

kallethen (user link) says:

Re: Re: Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

THIS is what really ate the recording companies’ profits. Not piracy. In the 90s they gorged on huge profits from people having to pay approx. $15 for a full album when they only wanted the one hit song. Then in the 2000s we got services like itunes that allowed people to purchase singles again. $15 turned into $1, and the profits they gorged on disappeared.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

the ‘Why would anyone buy music if they can get it for free?’ argument

I guess what the people in the recording industry don’t realize is that unlike them, most people are honest. For the most part, people believe that content creators should be paid for their work, and are happy to spend money on that. However, the big change that the *AAs don’t get is that in the past, consumers had to pay before seeing/hearing the content – but now, consumers want to hear/see it first to determine if they like it and want to buy it.

I personally have no issue at all spending money for good material. What I do have a problem with is spending $10 for a movie, $15 for an album, or $50 for a video/board game, only to discover that I just bought a pile of crap. So yeah, try before you buy is the new norm.

flyinginn says:

Re: Two-hundred and thirty-three counter-examples and counting...

I used to listen to Radio Free 365 until it was driven off “air” by a change in royalty payment rules from proportional to flat rate. No warning, and they became instantly non-viable. Which was a shame for the artists they featured at no cost to listeners, because I used to hear a song I liked and buy the album, or several albums, by the artist. I bought pretty much every Suzanne Vega album after hearing Calypso from Solitude Standing. There were a lot like that, and mucho dineros for record companies. In the years since then I have purchased one album. Not a policy decision, just nothing crossing the radar. I could say the same thing about library books – I buy books based on what I borrow, at a rate of about 4 to 1. The booksellers should pay the public library for all that effective advertising.

Payola wasn’t good, but the opposite is even worse for both artists and potential fans. The problem with letting lawyers run your business is that everything looks like litigation – including adoring fans.

Anonymous Coward says:

> “Yeah, I think people rip off YouTube. That’s a thing. But I feel like it’s so easy to stream.”

Or put it another way, file share has been rendered obsolete by easily streamed music. Music which listeners can rip if they’re so inclined, or as it was called in the old days “record it off the radio”.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem that the recored labels have with free music, is that it helps make the artists an income via concerts, without them getting the majority of the profits. Also, for a long lived music career, concerts are the way to go, as s dedicated fan base enjoy the atmosphere and expect the songs that they know. A music label on the other hand expects new songs all the time, and will push an artists into a new style if that is the way to get that. However doing so is not the best way of keeping a dedicated fan base.

My_Name_Here says:

“Not bad for a young man who credits piracy for all that glory.”

Clearly piracy did it all. Talent, well written songs, decent production… none of that had anything to do with it.

Come on. They weren’t sharing the song because they could share it, they were sharing it with friends because they likes the material. Piracy is no different from pushing button on the photocopy machine, if you are copying shit, the copy will be shit and nobody will want it.

Ed’s music (not my personal style, mind you) certainly hits an interesting demographic, and would clearly be appealing to white college kids who sort of want rap but want it safe and happy, not nasty and evil. Piracy may have helped get him notices, but the quality of the music is what gets the glory.

Out of curiosity, Mike use to write these soppy piracy love pieces before. What happened? He seldom posts any more. Too much time with the lawyers, or did he get a real job to pay for this place?

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Piracy may have helped get him notices, but the quality of the music is what gets the glory.

Piracy helped spread his music to people who might not have heard it otherwise. Regardless of how they ultimately felt about that music, those people still had a chance to hear it. And yes, his music is what gets him "the glory", but he continually works to perform, improve, and market his music in a way that serves him best — and part of that is listening (and responding) to fans who became fans via illicit streams of his music.

Someone says:

Look at Incompetech.
Never had an intent to get a single dime for the music he produces, yet users willingly donate to him in varied sums, some give him free marketing including some prominent youtubers, and some whole companies and labels pay him royalty in massive sums even when they have no barrier for freely exploiting his works.
Because his stuff is actually quality stuff.

There have already been plenty of studies proving that using the pirate scene in a friendly relationship as a saddle for your product can leave a positive impression and up your sales if you provide actual quality product, mainly because pirates consume so much more media than the average buyer that their standards and addiction serve as a mental self-coercion to give money to what they see as precious, ergo there is also documentation that most pirates have massive Steam pages for games as an example, or pirates tend to be the majority of concert goers since they pick through so many labels that they are more likely to find gems to be supportive of than an average non-pirate since they can go swiftly through the hay.

It’s all about saturation filtering now. Whether in music or games or even TV shows, the markets are so oversaturated with crap you can’t filter through all of it to find stuff that deserves support without inadvertently funding literal garbage if you don’t use piracy as a litmus test, and if you decide to be legit it will take you years to be able to go through libraries before you attain some form of general insight and experience or standard.

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