What Happened to the RIAA’s Missing 3.5 Million?

The RIAA has highlighted research which indicates that its closure of P2P site Limewire has significantly reduced P2P levels in the US.  Unfortunately the evidence is not as clear cut as it may first appear.

According to the various sources the RIAA cites (mainly a combination of Nielsen and NPD data) the effects between September 2010 and September 2011 in the US of Limewire’s closure were:

  • 95% reduction in usage of Limewire by its users
  • Total P2P users declined by 9 million
  • Total legal downloaders grew by 5.5 million

An immediately apparent trend is that 3.5 million P2P users appear to have disappeared entirely from the digital music consumption landscape (i.e. 9 million ‘lost’ P2P users minus the 5.5 million new paid downloaders).  For argument’s sake let’s assume that 100% of those consumers that abandoned P2P switched straight to paid downloads. That would mean that 39% just dropped out of digital music.  But of course a 100% transition is improbable.  Also many (the majority?) of the new downloaders will not have previously been P2P users.  So what happened to the missing 3.5 million?  The answer is found in a combination of three factors:

  • P2P is a technology in decline for music piracy.  Consumers are going elsewhere, to what I term Non-Network piracy.  That is, activities such as Bluetoothing, harddrive swapping, phone ripping, darknets, binary groups, lockers etc.  Individually each activity is small but collectively this is where music piracy is heading.  I remember in my days as a JupiterResearch analyst that as we watched German P2P penetration decline steadily year-on-year in apparent response to music industry anti-piracy measures, we also saw Germany become Europe’s largest Non-Network Piracy market, actually exceeding P2P penetration.  And that is going back a lot of years now.  Today much more still needs to be done to better understand Non-Network Piracy, particularly so in the age of cloud-based music experiences.  Because the same arguments about ownership mattering less for legitimate services apply to piracy.  Downloading an MP3 file from BitTorrent may seem as incongruous to a Digital Native as buying a CD.  Measuring piracy effectively in the age of cloud means viewing illegal streaming services and even music blog streams in the same way as illegal downloads.
    Bottom Line: many of those missing 3.5 million will actually be happily sating their appetite for free unlicensed music via Non-Network Piracy.
  • People lie.  I’ve been tracking music piracy for long enough to know that it is unwise to draw definitive conclusions about year-on-year trends.  In Sweden for example, in the early and mid-noughties P2P penetration dropped from 28% to 18% following the closure of a legal loophole and then again to 12% following government enforcement.  Within a couple of years penetration was back up in the mid 20’s%.  Furthermore the main ISP Telia reported that it had seen no noticeable decline in P2P traffic levels.  As Dr. House’s mantra goes ‘People Lie’.  On the one hand this proves that enforcement is effective in that it makes people conscious they are doing something wrong and don’t want to admit to it, until the heat dies off. But on the other it suggests that the impact can be superficial for many file sharers.  Though untruthful respondents should be less important for Nielsen’s panel methodology than NPD’s survey methodology, bear in mind that file sharers are often pretty savvy consumers who use dedicated computers for download.  So it is not unreasonable to expect many to switch their P2P activity from their metered PC for the same reason they wouldn’t admit to file sharing to a survey vendor.
    Bottom Line: surveys are better at measuring consumer attitudes to piracy than they are actual behaviour. 
  • Limewire is closed! A 95% reduction in usage of Limewire by Limewire users sounds pretty impressive until you consider that the site was actually been closed down by the RIAA in October 2010.  Limewire agreed to ‘stop supporting and distributing’ its P2P client.  A number of unauthorized spin-off clients (such as LimeWire Pirate Edition) were created but a visit to Limewire’s site reveals a message urging users to refrain from using these apps and to remove them from their computers).
    Bottom Line:the majority of Limewire users unsurprisingly stopped using the defunct client. 
  • P2P users are holding their breath. A significant share of the missing 3.5 million may well have stopped downloading illegally for now.  But if they are not buying downloads nor using Non-Network Piracy then they have markedly changed their music consumption behaviour,  perhaps increasing their use of YouTube, listening to more radio, watching more music TV.  For active music downloaders this means an effective dis-engagement from music, falling on the ‘supporting’ channels as their main behaviour.  This will have 1 of 3 long term outcomes: 1) they remain disengaged, casual music fans 2) they finally opt for legal services 3) they eventually go back to piracy.  Of the three, the third is the most likely outcome.
    Bottom Line: nature abhors a vacuum.

Whack-a-Mole Remains Firmly Game-On

The last factor is arguably the most important, particularly in the context of locker services running scared in the wake of the Megaupload arrests.  The demand for free music remains whatever happens to supply.  Closing most of the current illegal channels creates a demand vacuum that will unfortunately be filled, and the history of music piracy to date teaches us that what comes next will be even more difficult to enforce than its predecessor. However there is a fortuitously timed wildcard factor which may help aid the digital transition.  Since July 2011 Spotify has been available in the US, so many of those lost Limewire users may quench some or all of their free music thirst there.  But because we still don’t have any definitive data to suggest that Spotify is reducing piracy so we must keep Spotify as a wildcard for now.

The slightly depressing conclusion in all of this is that the Whack-a-Mole game is not over. But encouragingly the RIAA’s Joshua Friedlander states:

The single most important anti-piracy strategy remains innovation, experimentation and working with our technology partners to offer fans an array of legal music experiences.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Of course enforcement remains an important part of the mix, but there is an increasing risk of negative ROI (both in financial and publicity terms) that the music industry can ill afford at the moment. Closing down sites hits supply not demand. The solution to piracy lies first and foremost in innovating to meet those clearly demonstrated consumer needs.