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.


When the Media Industries Really Need to Start Worrying About Piracy (and it’s not yet)

I’ve been a digital media analyst pretty much as long as mainstream music piracy has been around.  I’ve tracked the rise and fall of many sites, services, networks, applications and protocols, including MP3.com, Napster, Music City Morpheus, iMesh, Audio Galaxy, Bear Share, eMule, Gnu Network, Kazaa, Limewire, Pirate Bay, Rapidshare, Megaupload etc etc.  The point I’m trying to make – other than my career’s slightly concerning alignment with the rise of music’s grey market – is that the sector is built upon reinvention.  And that power of reinvention is the key reason why the music industry has a bigger piracy now than it has ever had before.

Of course there are statistics that suggest the file sharing is on the wane in a few markets – notably Germany – but overall the problem is getting bigger because:

  • Non-network piracy is in the ascendency. P2P is declining in importance as a medium for piracy.  Non-network sharing (hard drive swapping, darknets, Bluetoothing, mini-nets, digital lockers, forums, binary groups, Instant Messaging, music blogs) are collectively more widely adopted than P2P in many major markets and are growing fast.  All tactics of course which are much more difficult to track and police than P2P
  • P2P is getting smarter.  And for those who still do use P2P there is an ever growing array of tools at their disposal that make it harder for their activity to be tracked, ranging from encrypted versions of mainstream P2P apps through to the Pirate Bay’s current shift from Torrents to Magnets

Of course media industries are upping their game too, with major legislative efforts in the US, UK and France, though all with mixed levels of success.   The lesson of the last decade plus though, is of course that whatever actions the media companies take, the piracy problem will be more than a step ahead.  Legislation, judiciary process and enforcement are all slow moving beasts.  Typically by the time media industries catch up technology and consumer needs have moved on.  For example the Pirate Bay looks like it could be blocked from consumers in the UK but a quick search on Google for the name of your content of choice followed by the word ‘torrent’ will serve you up an exhaustive list of alternatives.  Pirate Bay simply isn’t needed anymore.

Do we have the right services?

All of these dynamics are probably familiar to most, but I think we may be on the verge of something very different and of far greater concern for rights holders.  One of the key reasons – some would argue *the*key* reason – piracy is still growing is because the $0.99 cent download and the heavily delayed movie release  simply don’t appeal to most digital consumers.  US VC Fred Wilson recently stated in a Paley Centre debate that ‘we are all pirates’ and that if ‘99% of people are breaking the law then it is the wrong law’.  My twist on that statement would be that if ‘99% of people aren’t using the services that they are the wrong services’. (Of course more than 1% use legitimate services but we are still talking about a nice minority).

Don’t get me wrong, we have some absolutely fantastic services out there for the current installed base of digital music customers, but they are patently not the right services for majority of consumers who account for the 95% of total downloads which are illegal (according to the IFPI).  Regular readers will know that I have been building a case for a music format revolution (you can download my Music Format Bill of Rights report here for free).   There are some really promising first steps happening from some promising start ups but rights complexities are acting as a major decelerator on innovation in this space.

What happens if digital piracy starts to learn from the mobile App revolution?

Of course the grey market has no such problem.  They only ever concern themselves with rights issues if they get taken to court or decide to try to go legit (Napster, Limewire, iMesh, Kazaa etc).  To date the focus of piracy technology has been evading the music industry.  But now, with the revolution in high quality user experiences that the App market has created, there is a very real risk that much of this ethos will bleed through to the grey market.  Indeed there is undoubtedly some direct overlap between the App developer community and the piracy developer community.

The nightmare scenario for media companies is that the pirates turn their attentions to developing great user experiences rather than just secure means of acquiring content.  What if, for example, a series of open source APIs were built on top of some of the more popular file sharing protocols so that developers can create highly interactive, massively social, rich media apps which transform the purely utilitarian practice of file sharing into something fun and engaging?  If you though the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.

In the longer term one could hope that such a scenario would act as an accelerator for liberalization and innovation of rights owner practices, but in the nearer term it would be a death knell for many of the current services that have worked so hard to get achieve what they have within often suffocating confines.

Content monetization strategies need reworking too

I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again now, and many times again: fighting piracy requires a big fat carrot to go along with the stick.  More than 300 $0.99 download stores in Europe and North America alone is not a carrot.  Now is the time to give the legitimate sector the tools, licenses and support to innovate like never before.  It is also time to recognize that just because piracy users don’t always spend money does not mean that they are not spending.  In the digital age consumers transact in three equally valuable currencies:  Money, Data and Time. Those currencies however are not equally valuable to all industries (e.g. TV broadcasters value time more than record labels, online newspapers value data more than book publishers etc) But it is time for those three currencies to be equally tapped by digital content strategies across all industries (regardless of whether that currency is valuable to them), with supporting ‘virtual commodities’ trading marketplaces in the backend to ensure that all stakeholder ultimately end up getting paid in the currencies they value most.

Unless user experiences and monetization strategies are innovated beyond recognition then the grey market will do it instead, creating a wave of digital piracy that will do for media revenues what the iPhone did for Nokia’s smartphone business.