Tom Townshend at MSN Music posits an interesting question: is illegal downloading dead? To be sure, asking any lobbyist fronting for the RIAA this question will result in a long-winded tongue lashing that compares today's "digital dimes" with yesteryear's "plastic money-printing machine." But the question is valid. Is piracy as much of a problem as the RIAA insists it is? Or has music consumption changed so dramatically that the old yardsticks no longer work?
Townshend points out some interesting stats on last week's chart toppers
Last week AC/DC finally allowed their music to be available to buy digitally. Prior to the 19th of November, the only way to own the veteran Aussie rock giant's songs was to buy them on CD, vinyl or cassette. Or to illegally download them.
But no sooner had the group agreed to sell their back catalogue in downloadable form, two of their classic hits entered the Top 40 singles charts (with several more popping up in the Top 75.)
Two tracks, taken from albums released in 1979 and 1980 respectively, broke into the Top 40, three decades after their debut. As Townshend points out, anyone over the past decade-plus could have downloaded these tracks and still had them in perfect working order. It would have taken next to no time at broadband speeds, but despite this piracy "opportunity" (created by AC/DC itself
), thousands of fans chose to purchase AC/DC's music from legitimate sources. After a decade of supposed widespread piracy, why would AC/DC's music still be in such high demand?
That's not the only anomaly in the charts, either.
This week's top 40 also features a new track from Rihanna's latest album, Unapologetic. And yet the song, Right Now, isn’t a record company promoted single. And neither is another of her tracks, Nobody's Business, which went in at number 63. The public have chosen to cherry pick songs from her new album rather than be dictated to by RiRi's promotional team. People power!
So, what's happening here? It looks as if the promotional money that labels constantly lament they'll never recoup is going to waste. Rihanna's handlers choose her singles... and the public chooses other tracks they like better. No wonder they're upset. First, the piracy thing, and now this -- a public that won't be told what to buy!
Why is Rihanna's label unable to pick hit singles? Possibly because "singles" don't exist anymore. Singles were an important concept when the endgame was album sales. But the public's not buying albums, they're buying single tracks
, a very different creature. Album sales might be at an all-time low, but people are still buying plenty of music. They're just doing it on their own terms.
And the fact that this is happening to music by Rihanna, the biggest pop star in the world right now, is even more significant when you take into account that her last album, 2011's Talk That Talk, managed to return to the number one spot this year with just 9,578 sales – the lowest sales ever recorded for a number one album...
The structure of an album is a throwback to an analogue age. The number of songs on an album was dictated by the constraints of the physical format they were stored on. But what sense does buying 12 tracks in one go make, when you have memory space for thousands? And why buy that many songs if you only know you like one? You can always buy another later. And another.
Hence, "singles" are no longer something a record company should feel inclined to push on the public. Sure, there's radio airplay for promotion of albums, but even that market is broken up by YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, etc. Instead of a top-down delivery system fervently pushing consumers towards album purchases, it's bubbling back up from the bottom. Radio/labels may expose new artists, but the fans are choosing the tunes they like -- even 30 years down the road.
The people who bought AC/DC's Back In Black didn't want a whole album of AC/DC songs. They just wanted that one. And the same goes for Rihanna.
Album sales may be decimated, but single track sales are huge
. The numbers put up by top-selling single tracks are on par with the heyday of the industry. The only difference now is that consumers aren't purchasing the other 7-10 tracks of filler surrounding the songs they like.
And in case you think it only takes a few hundred downloads to get a song in the charts these days, Rihanna and Calvin Harris's We Found Love has sold 6.9 million copies worldwide, so far. And it was only released in September of last year. In fact, a quick look down the list of multi-million sellers shows that singles from 2010 and 2011 shifted units not seen since the 1970s and 80s – the so-called golden age of the pop charts.
So, Townshend asks: is piracy dead? Is the industry still holding onto its belief that piracy is the only
thing holding them back from the heady days of yesteryear? Maybe it's their metrics. Last year, when the RIAA was pursuing the creators of Limewire in court, its "smoking gun" was a chart that plotted the decline of the recording industry, laying the blame for the steep decline on Napster. The chosen measurement? A mysterious numerical concoction called "Album Sales Per Capita
If the industry is going to continue to use the album as the yardstick, then yes, sales will never
return to the level they once were. When music fans are picking up 3 or 4 tracks for $4-6, then it will never keep pace with the $14-18 they were spending for "bundled" tracks that lumped songs they liked in with songs they could live without. People are buying music in record numbers, but the industry still complains that things ain't the way they used to be. They aren't, but not because of piracy. At least not solely, and certainly not to the extent they claim.
If a band can break a self-imposed, decade-long internet holdout and return to the Top 40 charts three decades
after the songs were originally published, then it stands to reason that every person
that wanted a free copy of these tracks should already have those safely stowed on their hard drives. But they don't. Or if they do, they wanted to get the "real thing." Either way, people are paying for a lot more music than the industry is willing to give them credit.
Here's how Townshend puts it:
To continue to be told how damaged the music industry is by illegal downloading, while single sales soar, is somewhat galling. It’s like when you sit down to watch a DVD and are confronted with doom-laden orders not to buy pirate movies, even thought the only time you ever see such warnings is when you're watching something you've legally purchased. It's like being told off for a crime you've not committed.
Thanks for the trust and gratitude, guys!
Hey, if the industry wants to paint a dismal picture using lousy metrics and an outsized sense of entitlement, it's welcome to go right ahead. But don't expect outpourings of sympathy from the public generously putting money in its pockets, despite the easy availability of free options.