Last week, the technology blog CiteWorld reported that 80s metal band Iron Maiden, in an impressive show of tech savvy, was tracking BitTorrent metrics to pinpoint where their fans were illegally downloading music and then booking tour dates accordingly. The idea of a metal group hunting down its biggest pirates and booking shows for them made for a great story, and so it was reblogged and circulated through the online hype machine.
Eventually, TechCrunch pointed out that the claim that Iron Maiden was gaming the file-sharing system was bunk. But the more salient point remains: the band could leverage illegal downloading data to boost tour profits. That kind of creative approach to embracing the digital music ecosystem is possible, and the Iron Maiden story fell right in line with the increasingly popular idea that online piracy can be actually be good for musicians.
Now, new research out of Tulane University is the latest to debunk the long-touted claim that illegal downloading is destroying the music business, and takes it a step further. A study conducted by law professor Glynn Lunney and unearthed by TorrentFreak today found that contrary to popular (read: record industry) belief, file-sharing may help promote the creation of new music, not hamper it.
By analyzing the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1985 through 2013, Lunney found that since the rise of music piracy, there was, unfortunately, less material from new artists. But existing artists produced more hit songs than in the pre-Napster days—enough to outweigh the loss of new names topping the charts. From that, the study concludes that the net result was an overall increase of music creation.
“Because the second marginal effect outweighed the first, file sharing, even assuming that it caused the decline in record sales, led to the creation, on balance, of more new hit songs," the study states. It goes on to suggest that, ironically, so-called piracy is thus promoting exactly what copyright is meant to protect: the creation and dissemination of new artistic works.
Average number of hits from 1985-2013, via Tulane University
I'm the first to argue that the new paradigm of music consumption isn't going anywhere and it's high time both labels and the law embraced it. But the suggestion that illegal downloads directly contribute to the production of new music should be taken with a grain of salt—especially since, according to the study, the main reason existing artists are increasingly prolific is because they’re making less money off each hit. Not to mention it’s a disconcerting trend if emerging, independent artists are dissuaded from getting in the business for that same reason.
Still, the claim that the music industry has gotten stronger since the onset of online piracy is gaining ground. That coutnerintuitve idea was recently supported by a London School of Economics study that found that even though record sales have plummeted since 1998 when Napster came along, the total revenue of the music industry has been on the rise. Musicians are making more money from tours and digital music revenue is ramping up.
For its part, the Tulane study may be good news for the recording industry more than anyone else, since most of the names that score Billboard hits are represented by major labels. And while Lunney's connection between file-sharing and Billboard hits isn't quite an earth-shattering finding, we can add it to the pile of research flaming the hope that in the future music biz, "piracy" and profits can play nice.