With online shopping on the rise the music industry is being presented with an opportunity to give up its futile fight with the pirates. Instead it should be laying out a welcome mat for new shoppers. Here’s why:
Monday brought the great news that digital music sales in the UK have already passed last year’s record of 21m. With Christmas still to come there’s a good chance the record will be set significantly higher, and there’s little to suggest that next year the sales figures will take a dip.
The higher sales come from a number of combined factors, for one thing there are more digital shop fronts. iTunes may still dominate the market but other companies like Amazon and Play.com are starting to gain ground. With more shop fronts there are more opportunities to buy music leading to more overall sales.
Another factor is that with each passing year we become more accepting of digital: the old arguments of “But it doesn’t beat having something you can hold in your hand” are starting to fade away into the last decade. This isn’t because they were wrong per se, simply that with the majority of music devices now using digital storage and playback CDs seem less sensible. So each year more people think digital before physical and more people log on rather than head out to the shops. Eventually this will reach a saturation point where the first response will be to shop digitally and the physical shops are the haunt of the auteur, but that point is years off yet. Until then we should see a continued rise of digital shopping converts.
Though, whatever the reasons this is a good thing. People are buying more music which means more money in the artist’s pockets. Plus, and this is a big ‘un, it shows people are using legal means of obtaining music online. The impression I’ve been getting from the industry copyright cases of the last decade has been that internet + music = crime. These rising sales show that’s not the case.
Unfortunately it doesn’t mean there are fewer pirates. All the numbers show is that more people are buying music. Which leads me onto the other news story of the week: the music industry trade body, the BPI, has requested BT block the Pirate Bay. This is a poor move by the industry. I don’t say this because I condone piracy but because there is no long-term benefit from successfully blocking the Pirate Bay. Any short-term decrease in illegal downloads will be quickly undone when five other torrent sites spawn in its place.
The way to fight piracy is not a head on approach. Pirates are too easily representative of the little guy. When corporations take on pirates the sympathy falls to the teenager taken to court by the multi-billion mega-corporation, even when they have every legal right to do just that. This continued aggression makes underdogs of the pirates.
The other big problem with blocking traffic to popular sites is that it exposes a greater number of the tech savvy to the same blockades that prevent access to sites hosting worse material than music files. Each techie that finds a way past the blockade increases the chance of a layman’s guide to bypassing these blocks being published on the internet. Once that guide is online those barriers, the same barriers blocking child pornography sites, become useless. So the music industry asking for barricades to protect their business interests can be causing a great deal of harm in other areas.
So, what is the solution? A shift of thinking is in order, as the sales figures prove, more people are buying online than ever before, so it can’t be said that piracy is killing online sales, or that the internet is a bad music shopping medium. Instead, they should take a leaf out of their own book: we’ve written in the past how re-releases are sold by stocking them with extras (books of cover art, hardback CD cases, live tour DVDs, etc). The industry can boost online sales by targeting the fence-sitting pirate, the one who can afford to pay for music, and is willing to, but downloads it because it’s just as easy as buying it.
If offered something that can only be obtained by buying a copy then a great many would start putting money down. We see this all the time in the games industry, different retailers stock extras with a game, extras that are only available when pre-ordered from that chain of shops. It drives gamers to spend £50 on a game they have never played or read reviews of simply to get access to an exclusive hat.
So what could you stock with music? It could be something physical like a poster or set of stickers but that seems to be a step backwards technologically: you’ve already got onto the digital platform, they may as well do something that stays there.
There was something I saw recently, it was a photo for a cancer charity that was made up of individual head shots of all the people who’d donated for that particular campaign. It’s a simple mechanic but it shows those that have donated that they’re part of something much bigger. It fosters a sense a community.
If similar community elements were bundled with music it could both draw in sales and create more entrenched buyers. Purchasing music could get you access to news letters, or enter you in a prize draw where 1 in a 1000 sales comes with a free gig ticket, or even something larger like 1 in 10,000 gets you an invite to meet the band. It doesn’t take much to create a desire to buy.
The industry needs to recognise that the pirates who won’t change their ways are in the minority, the majority of teens that pirate move away from those methods when they begin earning an income. So instead of attacking this group it needs to lay out a welcoming mat for buyers, knowing that in time the majority of people stealing their music today will be buying from them in the coming years.