In the coming months, an album is going to come out and it won’t be easy for you to stream it legally. Maybe it will be Britney Spears’s 9th solo LP Glory, which is set to stream exclusively on Apple Music starting next week. Maybe it will be one of the many Kanye West projects currently in the works, which will likely debut on Tidal. Maybe it will be Frank Ocean’s upcoming Boys Don’t — hahahaha, no it won’t.
Regardless of your musical preferences, you’ll eventually be faced with a choice: Buy the album on iTunes, sign up for yet another streaming service, or access the music via illegal means. There are a whole lot more illicit options since the days of Napster, and holding albums hostage on one streaming service or another engenders little good will from reformed pirates. When flip-flopping artist exclusivity hits a fever pitch, stealing could suddenly seem like the easiest option for many users.
After assuring Ringer staffers that I was not the feds, I conducted an informal survey to see how young music fans might, theoretically, access a new album that wasn’t available via their streaming platform of choice on release day. Options include: Ripping tracks from YouTube, scouring Reddit for a download link, searching “Boys Don’t Cry download” on Twitter (in vain), torrenting from the Pirate Bay, “a random Dropbox file passed around among my friends,” MP3 downloads from Zippyshare, emailing a friend/plug who sends you all the newest hits once a month, making up a new email address to earn another free streaming trial, and visiting a couple of URLs I can’t tell you about because I am not the feds.
While the music industry’s largely grown silent about it, piracy is still the go-to music consumption method for millions of people. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, about 20 percent of internet users accessed pirated content in 2014. That tracks with the findings of a study by the research firm MusicWatch, which found that 57 million people in the United States pirated songs last year, or about 20 percent of the country’s online users. Some of them are still pirating the old-school way, with 22 million people using peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. But millions more have found increasingly modern means that are often better suited for mobile devices. For instance, ripping songs from streams on platforms like YouTube is now nearly as popular as downloading from a peer-to-peer platform.
“The music industry has gone about as far as they can go in terms of trying to get rid of traditional music piracy,” says Koleman Strumpf, a professor of business economics at the University of Kansas. “They’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that this is going to continue, and there’s no way for them to legislate this thing away or to scare this thing away.”
And the proliferation of album exclusives, which streaming services Tidal and Apple Music are using to try to gain ground on industry leader Spotify, could be exacerbating the problem. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was famously pirated half a million times in the days after it debuted exclusively on Tidal in February. West likely incited more piracy by vowing that the album would never be available anywhere else and getting caught browsing Pirate Bay in an image he posted on Twitter. All told, the album was pirated 3 million times in three months, according to Strumpf, who tracks pirating activity on BitTorrent. He estimates that Beyoncé’s Lemonade, another high-profile Tidal exclusive, has been downloaded between 250,000 and half a million times.
“Although we don’t have any hard numbers that describe the correlation, I think, anecdotally, there’s no question that exclusive windows of release are driving piracy,” says Larry Miller, the director of the music business program at New York University. “If the service that the [fans] are paying for doesn’t have that new record by an artist that they care about, it’s just not that hard to go get it by other means.”
Admittedly, there are other factors at play. There’s a large contingent of people who will pirate no matter what legal options are available, simply because they can and that’s what they do. It’s especially true of hip-hop fans. A 2015 study by SeatSmart on activity on Kickass Torrents found that rap and R&B albums comprised more than half of all illegal downloads.
“If you wanted to listen to Drake’s album [Views] and you don’t want to pay for it, the easiest thing to do would be to have a free Spotify account,” says Strumpf. “But I just looked last night and there are still three or four really huge clouds of people still downloading that album that you can see on The Pirate Bay. I’m guessing those are people who, for whatever reason, want to stay in the pirate world and don’t want to access Spotify.”
On the whole, legal streaming has likely reduced piracy, though perhaps not as much as tech companies would like you to think. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has claimed that the industry would be billions of dollars poorer if not for his service, because those users would have stolen their music instead. A 2015 study by the European Commission found that every 47 streams equated to one less stolen song — but it also found that every 137 streams equated to one less purchased song, as streaming has helped spur a free fall in paid music downloads. So an additional Spotify user gained does not equate directly to a music pirate lost.
And the industry’s current practices, which show no signs of slowing absent an acquisition, threaten to reverse the progress that has been made. In the current landscape, streaming services offer a ton of albums, but the most robust catalog of all remains the one you can steal. “What we call the celestial jukebox — at the outset of the music-on-the-internet age that was always the dream,” says Storm Gloor, a music and entertainment industries professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “And we’re still not there yet.”