Kanye West’s latest music creation, The Life of Pablo, is a success. The album has earned approving nods from loyal Yeezus fans and is dubbed “a spectacular mess” that perfects the “art of aesthetic and intellectual bricolage” by critics. But regardless of the album’s creative merits, TLOP has become a shining example of why piracy persists even when things are given away for free.
The album was exclusively released on Tidal February 14 and has pushed the music streaming service to the top of Apple’s most downloaded apps. But that temporary moratorium also led to more than 500,000 pirated downloads of the album in a matter of days.
Tidal has been hailed as the musician’s streaming service because it promises artists better pay and control over what music is available to non-subscribers compared to competitors such as Spotify and Pandora. The platform’s economics convinced Prince to pull his catalog from all other streaming services last year.
Tidal’s longevity has been repeatedly questioned despite having exclusive streaming rights to new music from platinum-selling artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé. That’s largely because Tidal’s numbers drop significantly — and almost immediately — after new music is released. But while Tidal is looking to subvert traditional pay models, the platform’s exclusiveness could be working against it. Add in Kanye’s vow to keep the album off Apple Music, and you have prime conditions for piracy.
As with films, one of the biggest motivators behind pirating music is that it’s convenient. No sign-up forms, no monthly fees, no endless searching for which platform has your favorite song. Just BitTorrent and go.
The digitizing of music has also played a part. The Recording Industry Association (RIAA) has fought against online file-sharing for decades following the steady decline in record sales since Napster appeared in the late 1990’s. According to an RIAA research paper aggregating piracy’s effect on sales, piracy mainly affects CD sales but boosts less popular artists concert sales. But enforcing anti-piracy laws can potentially boost digital sales by 48 percent.
Additionally, enforcing copyright laws in the U.S. has gotten more difficult, resulting in fewer lawsuits. RIAA’s CEO Cary Sherman previously said Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notices, which allow copyright owners to go after infringement, were “largely useless” and legal streaming services open up the industry to more illegal downloads:
“Unfortunately, while the system worked when isolated incidents of infringement occurred on largely static web pages — as was the case when the law was passed in 1998 — it is largely useless in the current world where illegal links that are taken down reappear instantaneously. The result is a never-ending game that is both costly and increasingly pointless,” Sherman wrote in a Forbes column.
The “harm” is amplified, according to Sherman, by online streaming services that force record companies and musicians to take much smaller cuts or “play whack-a-mole” with copyright take-down notices: “The notice and takedown system—intended as a reasonable enforcement mechanism—has instead been subverted into a discount licensing system where copyright owners and artists are paid far less than their creativity is worth.”
The industry is pushing Congress for change. But until there’s a legal solution that satisfies consumers’ need for instant gratification, the music industry is stuck between making music available on relatively open platforms or chasing YouTube links and torrent sites.