For well over a decade, music piracy felt like an unstoppable force online. For every single service defeated by time and law, others popped up almost instantaneously. The first wave of peer-to-peer file networks containing Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire and others bowed out over time, but in their wake came something that seemed unstoppable. The rising success of BitTorrent, a faster, more resilient sharing protocol came next, delivering what seemed like final strikes on piracy.
Torrents were reliant on two pieces of infrastructure. Indexes like The Pirate Bay listed torrent files, and trackers connected users based on the data they wanted or shared. However, every single strike against these sites were easily mitigated by the vast, well-prepared online communities that supported them. If you hit an address The Pirate Bay owned, Twitter would be awash with links to their new home minutes later.
The future of piracy and file sharing was hinted at by a number of initiatives by ThePirateBay’s founders. Embracing technologies that allowed them shut down their trackers altogether came first, publicising frequent backups of their index came next. The idea was that TPB could become “hydra”; the community would rally around these backups and set up many new homes within minutes.
This resilience of the torrent sites kept it alive even as copyright lobbies made vast successes otherwise. “File lockers” like RapidShare, MediaFire or MegaUpload became useless; either shut down entirely or aggressively policed.
At home, the IMRA had great success in the courts, and gained the ability to order ISPs to block access to major torrent indexes. However, the sheer number of copies of indexes and proxies to access them stifled progress in the war on piracy.
Yet in 2017, ThePirateBay is a shell of its former self and struggling to stay afloat. The well-known second-in-command KickAssTorrents is also dead in the water. Smaller ships have sank too; legendary private music trackers What.CD and Waffles have disappeared with no hope of return.
What.CD and Waffles both sprung up immediately to fill a void in the online music community after the death of Oink.CD in 2007; a decade later there’s no goldrush for something new.
Rates of piracy have stagnated or began to fall. The biggest source of information comes from Norway, which shows dramatic rates of decline in music piracy over a short few years, according to a survey by IPFI in Norway.
What is the catalyst for this overwhelming rate of change?
The answer seems to cross over industries. Gabe Newell, CEO of video game developer and distributor Valve told the media in 2011: “Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24/7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.”
Newell’s video game platform, Steam, has had major successes in countries where piracy dominated the video gaming industry. Though music has bloomed in the online era through sales services like iTunes, the vast availability of torrent sites and ease of use of torrents was something that resisted competition. The frequency of album leaks and the promise of simply working everywhere helped too, while iTunes suffered DRM issues — some tracks not being guaranteed to work across different MP3 players.
BitTorrent’s relative ease of use and strong value proposition — almost all the music in the world, in reasonably high quality, for free — meant that in order to be properly defeated, a better official service must be created. Spotify did just that when it launched in Scandinavia in 2008, organising almost all of the world’s music into a powerful interface with high-quality streaming off the bat. And in the case of Norway, it came with healthy competition; the streaming network we now know as Tidal has been active there for seven years, and rose to prominence through phone network deals.
The two pronged attack of reinventing services and aggressive legal action has had an awful lot of success; a similar story is being told right now with Netflix. That said, the music industry has a long way to go to recoup its lost glories. Adjusting for inflation, the industry as a whole has been in decline since 1998. Analysis by Credit Suisse in April of last year paints an optimistic outlook for the industry’s future, declaring expected global music revenue to be due a steady increase starting again in 2016.
The Credit Suisse outlook predicts that traditional digital download sales will never recover to their highest levels, and the future of all digital music will be by subscription services. MP3 downloads are for the most part useless in the age of Spotify, leading to the unprecedented outcome that vinyl outsold music downloads in the UK last year.
What ships are still sailing? The Pirate Bay’s mirrors seem to be surviving for now, but trackers specialising in rare or high-quality music downloads have faded away. Music piracy guides recommend non-English-language torrent sites like ruTracker for the most part, but a lack of strong communities means that the glory days of these indexes are over.
In many ways, the future looks an awful like the past. Soulseek, a direct peer to peer network of the style of LimeWire and Napster, originally released in 1999, is still hailed as one of the few places remaining to find rare music and album leaks – in early February it became the first landing point of the new Father John Misty album, almost two months before scheduled release.
Usenet, a bulletin board system that predates the modern world-wide-web, is still a first port of call for some even if getting access to indexes and servers involves paying monthly membership fees.
While it’s unlikely we’ll see the day the last MP3 is stolen, it seems the war on the large-scale piracy that plagued the industry once is close to being won — it has simply become too inconvenient and time-consuming to get music for free. With the numbers minimised, it’s fair to make an argument could be made that the piracy that’s left is even going to do some good — helping young people across the world build their taste before they get jobs to buy Spotify subscriptions, vinyl records and gig tickets.
Questions will remain as to how independent artists and labels will adapt to these changing landscapes — crowdfunding, physical media and changing licensing deals with streaming services may provide some answers.