Whilst providing the opportunity to discover, promote and transmit music in a way that was previously impossible, digital music distribution has also opened the doors for a new generation of cyber piracy. In an ailing music climate, Nieve O’Donnell examines the devastating consequences of stream-ripping for musicians and venues alike, and the vital ways in which fans can help.
The ruinous rise of illegal stream-ripping in recent years has left the music industry grappling with a new-found ability for fans to access and download music for free, and has transformed the once-revolutionary forms of CD and vinyl into ancient anachronisms. NME and The Guardian first addressed the subject of ‘stream-ripping’ in 2013 after the government regulator Ofcom reported that the amount of users engaging in digital piracy had risen by eighteen-percent – up two-percent from the previous three month period. Today, accusations of ‘not being a real music fan’ are still thrown around, largely at those who use only streaming platforms such as Spotify for free, instead of opting to buy merchandise and music directly from artists.
Stream-ripping is the act of illegally downloading music from licensed streaming platforms such as Spotify and Youtube, through various apps and websites. Recent statistics have shown that the practice has increased by 1,390% in the past three years, and now accounts for 80% of copyright infringement among the biggest piracy sites. In 2017, major labels were successful in shutting down the formidable stream-ripping website Youtube-MP3.org but the effort hasn’t forged a resolution just yet. Although some argue that illegally stream-ripping music using such sites causes little monetary damage to artists, this claim accounts for larger musicians who are likely to have enough money to lose. The purchase of one single can mean a payment for a producer, musician and even digital artists: all of which may only receive a percentage of the payment but whose overall incomes are boosted as a result.
‘Swift’s protest highlighted the importance of creative licensing and the right for an artist to have full authority over their work.’
Spotify and Youtube are licensed streaming platforms but this doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the problem. In fact, both licensed platforms have received substantial criticism. Backlash against Spotify in particular made the news when Taylor Swift announced that she was removing her discography from the platform, accompanied by a statement that she “will not dedicate her life’s work to an experiment that [she] doesn’t feel fairly compensates writers, producers, artists and creators.” Swift exemplified the lack of fairness in the industry and dispelled the idea that large artists have enough money to afford to lose out because of stream-ripping. In fact, Swift’s protests served to highlight the importance of creative licensing and the right for an artist to have full authority over their work.
The supposed motivation behind streaming services and illegal downloads is, as stated by Spotify in a blog post, that fans “should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want,” but this is not possible without money being distributed fairly. Spotify also wrote that they provide fair revenue to ‘the music community’ but what constitutes as this is discouragingly vague. Music is a highly profitable commodity which has made it susceptible to such practices as stream-ripping, especially when it is so readily available online. In recent years however, the industry has struggled not only with the emergence of online piracy issues, but the concurrent rise of high street chains such as HMV who have profited from the arts community whilst crippling local record stores.
Big record labels have – since the age of their existence – exploited musicians for profit. Most recently, it was revealed that Sony Music had finally agreed to pay $12.7 million to artists after pop icon Rick Nelson argued that the “inter-company charge” on international streaming revenue being paid before artist royalties was practically illegal. Sony still denied all allegations of “wrongdoing, fault, or liability, or that it has acted improperly in any way” (Sony and Nelson Estate Settlement Agreement). Re-legitimising music isn’t wholly up to fans and artists though, and whether they claim them to be real or not, are at the whim of the industry. One prospect in re-legitimising music-listening practices and maintaining the ethos of ‘real’ fans is the emergence of record companies committed to the ethos of independence. Typically founded by musicians who believe that current industry practice is unfair, these act as the antithesis of largely profit-driven conglomerates like Sony and Universal.
Clearly, stream-ripping isn’t the only illegal or unfair monetary practice in the music industry and it has a long way to go before becoming re-legitimised and fair. However, instilling small habits into your music consumption is a really good place to start. This way, profits are more likely to be fairly distributed, and artists compensated fairly for their work. As far as you can, buying physical copies of an artist’s work, tickets to a live event (when they are, of course, allowed to take place again), a Spotify subscription, and even utilising streaming services to help smaller artists gain some traction, is a vital place to start. The future of your favourite artists and labels might just depend on it.
Written by: Nieve O’Donnell
Edited by: Olivia Stock