‘Online piracy killed music and has hurt musicians’ is one of the biggest misnomers the world has been harbouring. If at all it has had an impact, it is positive overall. Here are reasons why
1) Like in every other field internet has broken down market barriers in terms of geography. You can create a fan following(your own tribe) everywhere in the world thanks to free downloads. No music label will give you that kind of presence. I might have never ever heard of Sigur Ros or explosions in the sky if I couldnt download them. Now I am willing to spend tens of thousands bucks to attend their concert at some point in my life.
2) Music albums are prohibitively expensive in whatever physical form they are offered. Even digital downloads can be cheaper. When something is abundantly available it wont be paid for. It wont be even sampled if paying is the only way to do it. So all downloads are not necessarily lost sales especially when the said album would have never made it to a certain market (like most post rock music in India)
I would have never fallen in love with music if all I had access to was film music and indipop at best. Maybe some alt rock , hip hop and classic rock albums in the music world. But why would you pay rs 500 for a band you never heard of , an album you never listened to , even if your friends says it was brilliant?
3) What is the % of musicians who actually get a record deal? What is the percentage of musicians with a record deal whose album gets huge marketing push from the label? and again what is the percentage of success in terms of sales among these? My rough estimate is 5%, 2 % and 1% of all musicians.
Most of successful musicians (say 5-10% of all) actually earn through concert bookings and ticket sales to their own events. Labels dont pass on earnings until they recover costs and even after that only royalty is what musicians get. Do you actually own your music or does your label?
4) How many musicians from our parents’ generation who made a living? Not more than those now. Probably much less. There are millions of musicians worldwide? Probably. Is there a market for all of them? Not until now. Even now it is there because they can promote their music by giving it away freely. Just like how an upcoming band plays for free at gigs to gain some recognition. For the consumer Youtube and Bit torrents are the digital age underground music scene for discovering new music. For the creators they are way to reach new audiences. The challenge is to find fans not selling albums.
That brings us to the next question, the biggest of the digital age.
5) Computers and affordable equipment has made it very easy for anyone to create content. Be it film or music, the entry barrier has gone down wildly. And with available tools, it is easier to create good music compared to good film. So in effect there is much much more competition and with this kind of abundance why would anyone want to pay for just another musician? And what is the cost of reaching out to a new listener through the internet? Almost nothing as opposed to hundreds and thousands of dollars spent in advertising for your cd by you or your label.
We unfortunately live in an illusion that outliers, the less than 1% of musicians who are famous and make a living through music sales are the successful ones. They are the very successful ones. Mainstream success is hard to come by. It needs huge investments in marketing, partnerships with other media entities and ofcourse luck besides making generic music with a mass appeal. Not great music most often.
And a few months ago Neil Young himself said, “Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around” Half the vilification of downloads is due to use of a strong word like piracy. The other half is because it has disrupted the existing market for music (which, mind you, is less than a hundred years old)
What Online piracy has actually done is killed the existing music business and actually paved way for a more sustainable one.
Just check out what Seth Godin has to say about the music business (as it falls apart)