Piracy: it’s not the problem, it’s the answer.

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Online communities who use peer-to-peer and Web 2.0 technologies to interact with the digital music produced by major recording labels, are often blamed for the industries’ suffering profitability. This paper will argue that at a time when the industry is struggling to evolve its business model to keep up with the trends of consumers, members of virtual communities using Web 2.0 technologies to discuss, share, and remix digital music with an aim of gaining social capital, have in fact revealed a new method to promote and distribute recorded music. This is a model that should be adopted by the greater recorded music industry for it to thrive, despite the threat to profits posed by any infringement of copyright. The following will define social capital, discuss why people share music and offer examples of artists who use community-based consumer experiences to their advantage.


The term social capital refers to the accumulative respect that an individual gains through the fostering of social interactions within a community (Kaplan 2011, 2.1.3). Through the production, aggregation and curation of content Goffman (1959, as cited in Kaplan 2011, 2.1.3), theorised that individuals naturally work to accumulate social capital in order to maintain self-presentation and assert a self-interest;

Self-presentation and self-disclosure contends that every individual continuously engages in strategic activities to convey an impression to others which is in his or her self-interest” (Goffman, as cited in Kaplan 2011, 2.1.3).
Marx theorized that “co-operation is the essence of society” (Marx as cited in Fuchs, 2010 p773) and that members of a community are instinctively bound to work together with other members to achieve common goals, with the agenda set by the most influential members (Fuchs, 2010 p773). Members of virtual communities that occupy spaces online using Web 2.0 technologies to collaborate, curate, remix and aggregate digital content to achieve the same goals, that is, to present an image of self, and therefore gain a social credibility and assert influence over the rest of the community (Wikistorm, 2010). Academic and musician Aram Sinnreic (2002), states that “active usage of online music content” by members of virtual communities is the perfect vehicle for promotion, and is a strong indicator of the profitability of a product (Sinnreic, as cited in Borland 2002). Web 2.0 technologies have provided an ever evolving interface for artists and the greater music industry to connect directly to, and better understand their consumer base. Despite this, established labels have been reluctant to make use of these technologies, and have instead been left to play catch-up with trends set by an online audience they are now disconnected from.

If the messages from the recoding music industry are to be believed, it would be easy to assume that the practices of virtual communities sharing and freely interacting with digital music is detrimental for the recording artist and the industry as a whole. Since the popularisation of Napster, a piece of peer-to-peer software based on the communal sharing of digital music free of charge (Kot, 2009 p25), the industry has protested the practices of virtual communities whose mechanics allow members to freely share and interact with the product they as an industry have produced (Moses, 2011 para.4). The industry has also, sometimes successfully, lobbied governments and industry bodies to impose heavy restrictions and sanctions on these communities and prosecute their members; the fans of recorded music (Moses, 2011 para.4). Despite the claims of the recording industry, and their prosecution of alleged pirates, in 2011 the industry as a whole still managed to sell more than 228 million compact discs, representing a mere 5 percent decline in sales of physical product compared to the the previous year (Gustin, 2012 para. 1). Recording artist Lady Ga Ga, has openly stated that the sharing of her music for free, between members of virtual communities, has had little effect on the profitability of her career (Masnick, 2010 para.2) and in 2011 Adel’s album 21 sold more than 5.8 million copies. Although there is little doubt that the big international players in the recording industry, such as Sony and Warner have experienced smaller profit margins in recent times, compared to the boom of compact discs sales in the ‘90s (Kot, 2009 p28), the ‘dooms day’ scenario often prophetised by the industry has yet to come to fruition (Moses, 2011 para.2).

The greater recorded music industry sees every illegal download, shared file or unauthorised stream of a song, to be one less unit they will sell. In doing so, they ignore the fact that profit from the sale of digital music files and the monetisation of virtual communities whose members use online music as social currency, has in fact risen every year (Moses, 2011 section 6 para.8).

The industry views most forms of copying as theft, and it sees little difference between making a mix CD for a friend and copying an entire album to sell on the street (Gallagher, 2003 para.5).
This is not only a deeply flawed interpretation of the economics of sharing (Lessig, 2004 p56), but also misses the point of why the members of virtual communities take the time to share in the first place. Sandulli and Martin-Barber’s (2007) research shows that that given the opportunity, 69 per cent of people using web software to download digital music for free, would pay for a comparable service (Sandulli and Martin-Barber, 2007 p.70). Therefore, it would seem that ‘free music’ is not the only attraction for people to take part in a virtual community who share music.

This is not the first time that music lovers have used the technology of the day to remix, curate, and share recorded music, and therefore breaching the copyright of the product. Before the invention of the mp3 file in 1994 (Knott, 2009 p27), people were using multiple mediums, including compact discs, and cassette tapes to curate, remix and share music with friends and peers, in order to gain credibility for their taste in music, and their skill in curation and remix (Bennet, 2008). Collaborative consumption has always been at the heart of music enjoyment, and the ‘mixed tape’ as it is known, has become a major part of pop music culture (Gallagher, 2003 para.4). The read/write capabilities of the World Wide Web have just been embraced by individuals and music loving communities, much the same as the blank tape was; another way to express creative, curative and collaborative skills to impress peers and gain social capital.

The difference between the audience commodity on traditional mass media and on the Internet is that in the latter the users are also content producers, there is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent creative activity, communication, community-building, and content production (Fuchs, 2010 p768).
The fact is, music is meant to be shared, and as many artists are now proving, allowing fans to freely share, redistribute and remix their music is not only a great way to gain exposure, it is also very profitable.

One artist who has profited from having their work remixed and freely redistributed within virtual communities in 2011, was Rebecca Black. The video clip for Black’s song Friday was widely shared across virtual communities and social networks. Not only was the song shared, individuals and communities generated remixes of the song and the singer’s image was quickly incorporated into existing internet memes produced by virtual communities, like 9gag and Canvas. Even though most of the sharing and remixing of the song came with a reference to it being absolutely awful, the 13-year-old reportedly made $24,900 a week from the sale of digital downloads and authorised streaming, during the height of the song’s popularity (Peoples, 2011 para.2). Whether the success of Friday was due to the emotional connection that people had with the song (Dixon, 2008), or the fact that people wanted to gain social capital by pointing out the products’ flaws, one thing is for certain; the song, video clip and artist would not have achieved viral status online without unauthorised redistribution, or as the recording industry likes to call it, piracy. Although Black’s Friday stands out as a perfect example of how an artist can gain exposure and make money from their music by allowing virtual communities to freely interact with it, the viral music video was nothing new.

A ‘home made’ video clip produced by the band OK GO for their song Here it goes again, achieved viral status in late 2005. The video clip was uploaded by the band themselves to a relatively new web site that was offering it’s users democratized distribution of online video. The site was YouTube, and through it’s web 2.0 style service the video that the band had produced themselves for next to nothing was now helping to launched a relatively unknown band to the world stage. After the video went viral, the band noted more people at live shows, a boost in sales of their CDs, and an increase of paid digital downloads of their music (Kulash, 2010 para.3). But unfortunately for the band, the video had not been authorised by their recording label EMI, and despite the success of the promotion, access to the bands film clips was limited to authorised sites only. Damian Kulash Jr, lead singer of the band, noted that views of their famous treadmill video clip dropped by 90 per cent when their label enforced the ban on allowing fans the ability to embed the material into their own blogs, or social networks. No longer could fans of OK GO share, remix, and curate the bands works for their own communities. Opposing the decision Kulash (2010) stated that;

This isn’t how the Internet works. Viral content doesn’t spread just from primary sources like YouTube or Flickr. Blogs, Web sites and video aggregators serve as cultural curators, daily collecting the items that will interest their audiences the most. By ignoring the power of these tastemakers, our record company is cutting off its nose to spite its face (Kulash,2010 para.7).
By denying fans the right to express themselves using the band’s product, in the spaces they occupy online OK GO’s record company had effectively turned their backs on the virtual communities that had been providing free marketing of the band’s product. By denying the read/write nature of the Web, EMI denied the desire of fans to be a part of their own culture.

In order to move forward and stay relevant in a digital market, the recorded music industry needs to adopt a model that supports an interaction with their product. Wikistorm (2010, p147) states that while there are some people who are just happy to listen to music, there are others who want to do more, they want to be a part of the process (Wikistorm, 2010 p147). These are the people who share, remix and aggregate content, and by doing so make it relevant for the virtual communities they belong to.

Consumers are learning how to use these different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control and to interact with other users (Jenkins, 2004 p18).
By adopting a model that supports the free circulation of copyrighted product, the industry would be actuating millions of these curators, who, unlike major cooperations, know their audience intimately. Although whilst the industry insists on persisting with a ‘top down’ model of promotion, that is, expecting one message to fit all, the industry is not only fighting a loosing battle of control it is also denying market forces; market forces that up until now, they have driven. Until now the industry has dictated what is cool, now its consumers that drive those trends. For the recorded music industry, the days of dictation are over, and they must look back to the fans of music to understand how to best more forward.

Music fans who colonise the world wide web have embraced the remixing, curative, collaborative and sharing capabilities of Web 2.0 Technologies. They are motivated to take part in the frenzies created by community influencers intent on selling their sense of cool to gain social capital and present a self interest. While this free access to online music has lead to a surge in copyright abuse by these online communities, who the recorded music industry have labelled ‘pirates’, the value generated by allowing the message to be curated specifically for each community out ways any negative effect. While these virtual communities are often blamed by the industry for the drop in profitability of recorded music, the unbounded nature of the internet has also heralded the savior of an industry whose dominance in public consciousness and of the public’s purse, is dwindling. For the music industry it seems that piracy is not the problem, its the answer.


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