opinion Opinion October 8, 2019

Music piracy is thriving in the age of streaming [op-ed]

Music piracy is thriving in the age of streaming [op-ed]

Last month, a 19-year-old was arrested in Ipswich after a joint effort between the City Of London Police, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The investigation spanned two continents, many months, and involved intel provided by two international organisations. A search warrant was procured, houses in North London and Ipswich were targeted, and the arrest was made.

The crime? Music piracy.

When was the last time you heard of someone pirating music? It seems like a relic of the past, doesn’t it? A friend hands you a CD-R with the new Wilco album on it, or maybe a hard drive with the whole Wilco catalogue. Maybe Wilco’s music wasn’t even involved at all. Maybe you just taped some songs off the radio.

Music piracy in one form or another has been around for generations. In the ‘60s, publishers were worried about unauthorised reproduction of lyrics cutting into the sales of sheet music. In the ‘70s, it was concert bootleggers, such as those who trailed the Grateful Dead bus and recorded shows on gear so cumbersome you needed ancient Egyptians to haul it. 

In the ‘80s, with the proliferation of the cassette, home taping was “killing music”. In the ‘90s, it was CD burners helping burn musicians’ profits. Then in 1999, as if to sign point the way to a brave new millennium, Napster arrived and music piracy went digital, a decentralised black-market network primarily operated by millions worldwide, most of whom had no real understanding of the copyright implications of downloading that shitty-sounding Blink-182 MP3.

As I have previously written in this column, Apple’s was launched in 2001 as a way to facilitate the easy pirating of copyrighted material, with its brazen slogan ‘Rip. Mix. Burn’ being the spiritual opposition to ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’.

All of these piracy systems were just technological progressions with the same end in sight: to pirate material that was already commercially released. EMI and Sony BMG tried to fight this in 2001 with special Copy Control CDs which couldn’t be played in computers, and therefore couldn’t be burnt. Turns out they couldn’t be played in numerous car CD players either, or some disc-stackers. Some just wouldn’t play at all Technically, they weren’t even CDs, just expensive shiny frisbees that dressed like CDs but acted like petulant children. It was an expensive failure, a PR headache, and they were quickly discontinued.

Turns out the best way to stop music piracy wasn’t to fight the march of technology, nor to launch laughable scare-campaigns with FBI logos and threats of jail time. The way to stop music piracy was to complete devalue music. 

With the majority of music able to be accessed for a tenner a month through legitimate services, it seems crazy to slyly slip your friend a hard drive with a knowing grin that says, ‘Yup, ALL the Wilco albums.’

The arrest last month was a little different. The culprit was “allegedly accessing world-famous recording artists’ websites and cloud-based accounts illegally, stealing unreleased songs, and selling the stolen music in exchange for cryptocurrency”. In other words, he was trading in material that was either slated for future release, or shelved and never intended to be released at all. He wasn’t stealing already-available music, and he wasn’t freely trading it. There was a price involved. The pirate had found a way to make music valuable again.

In June, Radiohead dumped 18 hours of unreleased music onto Bandcamp, after someone hacked into Thom Yorke’s computer and stole recordings spanning three years. “We got hacked last week—someone stole Thom’s minidisk archive from around the time of OK Computer, and reportedly demanded $150,000 on threat of releasing it,” Jonny Greenwood explained.

“So instead of complaining—much—or ignoring it, we’re releasing all 18 hours on Bandcamp in aid of [charity] Extinction Rebellion. Just for the next 18 days. So for £18 you can find out if we should have paid that ransom.”

Thom Yorke was more brief, writing “it’s not v interesting, there’s a lot of it.”

This style of hacking isn’t new. Album leaks became almost de rigueur in the ‘00s, but didn’t seem to compromise sales to the extent that many feared. In many cases, such as with Radiohead’s Kid A in 2000, sections of which appeared on file-sharing services months before release, it helped whet appetites and resulted in their first U.S. #1. Like most piracy concerns throughout history, they were unfounded.

Complaining about music piracy is seen as decidedly un-rock and roll, too. Metallica were the sacrificial lambs that copped enormous backlash for suing their own fans, even if history has proven they were right to be worried about the rise of digital piracy. When The Grateful Dead realised their shows were being taped, rather than attempt to police it, they provided a special area for the tapers behind the sound desk. “We didn’t want to be cops,” drummer Mickey Hart explained. 

Sometimes it was written into the release plan. In 1991, Guns N Roses guitarist Slash explained that the idea behind the band releasing Use Your Illusion I and II on the same day as two separate albums, rather than as a double, was because the price of a double album would make it prohibitively expensive for the average teenager to buy; as separate albums, two mates could buy one each, and tape the other. I’m paraphrasing, he probably didn’t say ‘mates’.

But those were different times. The Use Your Illusion albums sold 11 million copies between them in the U.S. alone. And The Grateful Dead believe money is nothing but an illusion to be used. Music doesn’t sell anymore. But there is money to be made if the release is handled correctly. Artists have to be smart with the timing, in order to properly impact chart positions, and capitalise with touring schedules. Often lucrative deals are struck with streaming services for a window of exclusivity, deals that become negated if the music is already freely available. 

Whereas previous ‘leaks’ involved somebody in the inner circle breaching trust, or an unscrupulous or unthinking journalist passing along an advance copy, now it is anyone with an internet connection that can access an artist’s files. 

In a W magazine cover story just last week, Frank Ocean spoke of the lengths he goes to in order to keep his music protected. He is currently working with a string arranger in Rio, a process that naturally involves a lot of back and forth. “Because I don’t put things on the Internet,” he explained, “I have to send a drive with someone to Rio, or I have to go myself.”

Think of that. It seems like extreme paranoia, but it’s not really. It’s simply the only secure way to protect one of his most valuable assets – his unreleased music. 

This problem won’t go away, either. These security breaches aren’t a flaw in the internet that needs to be fixed, they are baked into its very design. The internet was created to be breakable. It’s built upon open-source code, to be modified and accessed by many different users across a vast, unseen network of computers. Anyone hoping to store sensitive material on the internet is pushing against its very design. It’s why hacking is so commonplace, it’s why we need passwords, and it’s also why those passwords aren’t sufficient and need to be changed every 15 minutes.  

But it’s too late to start again. So, as my service to the , I spoke to Detective Inspector Nick Court. He works for the City Of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit, and was the man behind the arrest of the 19-year-old pirate at the top of this story. I asked him if music piracy is a rising concern for his organisation, and what he feels artists can do to protect their work. 

“I think it is reasonable to say that the problem of piracy generally has increased in recent years,” he explains, “as computers, phones and networks become more powerful and more people globally are online and have an appetite for content.  

“In terms of protection advice, this is similar to general cyber ‘good housekeeping’ – so keep firewalls up to date and make passwords hard to guess and change them regularly. Try not to have the same password for multiple accounts because a breach of one can lead to a breach in many.”

That’s not very comforting. Basically the same rules apply to your Gmail as a vault of unreleased masters worth millions.

There is another answer, though. Don’t use computers connected to the internet to record or store music. Even this might not do it. Computers don’t even need to be connected to the internet to be hacked, they just need the ability to be connected. 

So, what now? My advice to artists is to pull out the old four-track tape machine, put egg cartons on the walls to dull the sound, and hit record. As we round the bases towards 2020, home taping might not be killing music anymore, it may just be its saviour. It’s time to rewind. 

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