The world is split into differing camps when it comes to music piracy. Those that are against it, those that are apathetic to it, those that see it as a promotional benefit or their right in today’s digiital free world and those benefiting financially from it. As anyone that knows me or follows me will know, I am very against it, and not just because I own a label and spend my money bringing tracks to market. In my full time job I’m a designer, I create things, and if they were stolen and resold for free I’d be mighty upset. As a creative person I understand the value in a creative product, the time and passion needed to bring it to life and that ultimately if creativity has no financial benefit the numbers of people doing it drop and investment in new artists stops.*
Many people see music piracy as a victimless crime and a free for all. Forget the digital freedom rose tinted world, the big players in piracy are making way more money than the people creating the content and way more than most labels (even the big boys). A report by the Digital Citizens Alliance released earlier this year found that pirate sites took in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in revenues in 2013, with the largest 30 sites averaging $4.4 million in ad revenues and even the smallest sites pulling in $100,000 annually. And that means nothing going in the pocket of the artists or the labels.
Being active against piracy is a huge task even for a small label – issuing DMCA’s, using Google Webmaster tools to remove links etc takes hours and hours - time most of us just don’t have amongst our day jobs. Seeing the Google Alerts mount up in your inbox can be, at times, a soul destroying reality of modern digital society and it can quickly seems futile. In late in July I began trialling two pieces of anti-piracy software (Muso and Audiolock) in an effort to see what they could do for me.
Try before you buy
The trial was short and sweet by the very nature of the trial offers. Muso offered a two tracks trial, anything beyond the initial 450 removals would be sold in blocks of take downs. Audiolock offered a 2 weeks trial of two tracks, unlimited takedowns. Muso was quicker to get up and running and was showing action a day ahead of Audiolock, which had me very excited and feeling proactive. My first reaction was that Muso was ‘cool’ and quick to find things always a good thing. But once you’ve clocked up the 450 removals, search results or DMCA’s, you rapidly get to the point you need to start paying for more. At $12 per 50 take downs I burnt through them in a flash and it soon became obvious this would be like in-app-purchases - it’d ramp up the more I tried to do, each time stretching my available funds further and further until is just wasn’t sustainable for a label making the money UM makes. Meanwhile over on Audiolock the pricing structure is different and interestingly they offered two levels of activity.
Active tracks - 24/7 scanning and automatic takedowns, and, Back Catalogue tracks - scanning once a fortnight. This seemed a bit too little action to me I’ll admit, but once I realised I could enter links manually I was able to put to use all those Google Alerts that were still flooding in to quickly gather momentum on wiping illegal links from the world of casual downloaders. My initial testing focused on a couple of strong selling artists from the label. These are the more profitable after all!
Following the two weeks I made the choice to go with Audiolock. One, because of it offering better cost efficiencies and secondly the ability to utilise the Google Alerts I already had set up. I occasionally posted the screen grabs of the stats in the early weeks and it’s sparked a fair bit of interest along with comments that it was too expensive, futile, fake numbers and more. Thus the idea to write about my experiences.
From the outset I did what all self respecting nerds do and got myself a spread sheet. Cataloging every track on the label and sales figures. To measure the success of Audiolock I’m using Beatport sales figures only (as I have daily access to these figures), and began by recording unit sales against each and every track in the catalogue in the year to date to effectively monitor which tracks are selling month on month and which haven’t sold in months and adjust my level of protection accordingly over the coming months.
One of the most frequent comments has been that the service is expensive - and yes, if you’ve been doing DMCA’s yourself at night in front of the TV then any cost is more expensive, but the sheer volume of illegal links for UM Records (a very small indie) shows it would be humanly impossible to keep up with Audiolocks output. 4 pounds per active track per month and 1 pound per back catalogue track will of course soon mount up if you try and cover every track in the catalogue at once (192 at the outset for UM Records), but it seems to me the beauty of this service is that you can drop tracks out or in, as you require. I made the decision to protect all tracks on the catalogue to clean up everything from the start and see how that effected sales. Tracks that saw no sales in the following month/s would be removed until such time as new Google Alerts suggested it was time to re-protect.
With a new release a week away it was also a perfect time to add those tracks in and counter illegal links from the off in that all important first few weeks of sales. I’m delighted to say that pre-release we saw no illegal links - so the promo list is secure. By the end of day 4 of release 31 links had been removed and by the end of 4 weeks 122 illegal links. In all honesty sales on that EP were poor so I can’t say if protection benefitted that EP or not.
In the first month of use (July 2014), the label saw sales of 41 different tracks spread right across the back catalogue, accounting for 81 back catalogue sales. That is an improvement by over 25% on previous months. Admittedly that’s not ‘show-stopping-amazing’ returns above and beyond what I was experiencing previously, but there were interesting clusters around EPs that had flopped earlier in the year and now seemed to be seeing stronger sales than in release week (Goga and Minago to name just two). It’s surely no coincidence that were seeing high volumes of removed links on Audiolock.
By the end of August sales across back catalogue tracks had increased a further 16% on July, although I did take the opportunity to pull back on coverage of tracks that hadn’t seen sales in the previous 3 months. Reducing back catalogue protection by 60 tracks. That has been reduced by a further 21 at the end of Septembers sales. Back catalogue sales in September remained at a near identical level on Beatport, with Traxsource (for the first time ever!) showing double figure back catalogue sales - despite new releases not even featuring on their page - and let me be honest here, Traxsource accounts for less than 10% of the labels sales and has recorded zero sales in a month more than once this year.
So, is piracy protection paying for itself?
In a pure maths sense it’s at break even I’d say at the current levels but with the benefit of my spreadsheet I can identify 35 tracks out of 110 that have not sold in the past 2 months, and therefore are on notice. Lets assume 30 of these fail to sell in October, that would reduce protected tracks to around 80 (out of 200), bringing the outgoing cost under profit made across the entire catalogue. Now, from an accounting perspective that’s not how it works at a record label because each release is a sales package. Meaning the data needs to be seen as packages, ie. a four track EP needs to sell 8 units per month to pay for the protection (roughly). If I filter the data like that then the actual level of protection needed spans 6-10 back catalogue EP’s and the last 3-4 releases over the last 4 months, which means protecting 60 tracks is probably the more fiscally correct thing to do.
That’s all well and good, and very ‘business-like’, but let’s get back to my earlier point on the value of creativity. As a label I’ve always wanted to be know as being professional, a label that sells and pays out, a label that is focused on the artists, helping promote them. I believe in promoting them I can help build their profiles, which in turn drives sales and means I can pay royalties more often and there’s nothing as satisfying as paying out. By protecting key artists creative works, regardless of how the financials stack up I’m making a statement about UM Records as much as I am about piracy and hopefully showing them that that next demo really should come to UM first.
Since the start of this, Audiolock has removed 12,348 Search Engine listings, Issued 2,538 DMCA’s, removed 742 Links from illegal download servers. Could I have done that alone? No way! With sophisticated piracy sites like Soundeo being able to block IP addresses to make it look like links have been removed, and the ever shifting landscape of private FTP sites I’d be screwed. I’ve been pleased to hear a few other smaller labels taking up the fight too. Ultimately, if we had more people doing more we might one day tip the balance.
With Google’s Transparency report there is effective data for the authorities to identify and build a case against ISP’s support and profiting from piracy and build cases against the pirates themselves. But they can’t do that without us caring about it enough, making a stand, protecting our creative products and wanting to make music a career not just a passion because when you’re career is your passion then that’s not work!
* There are lots of people out there that will tell you they produce music for the love of it. Why then do they want to sign their creations to a label and sell them? It’s bullshit - if you’re only doing it for the ‘love’ start your own label and give the music away for free. That does mean you won’t need the evil empire of Beatport, Soundcloud, Facebook et al because I usually find these same people think good music will find people without any of that dirty promotional stuff.