Record company executives say there are three kinds of music fans. There are those who buy music, and those who get a kick out of never paying for it. And then there are those whom Rob Wells at Universal Music Group calls “dinner party pirates”: the vast majority of listeners, those who copy music illegally because it is more convenient than buying it.
If those low-level copyright cheats could be converted to using legal music services, the digital music business would get much-needed help. Yet even industry executives acknowledge that until recently, they were not giving those listeners many ways to do what they wanted: to sample new music and to play it back anytime, at little or no cost.
Over the past year, however, as sales of CDs have continued to fall and paid-for downloads from services such as Apple Inc.’s iTunes have fallen short of hopes, record companies have moved to embrace casual file-sharers. Legal services offering free, unlimited streaming of music, rather than downloads, are proliferating. According to a survey published last week, they are taking some of the wind out of the pirates’ sails.
“Consumers are doing exactly what we said they would do,” said Steve Purdham, chief executive of We7, a service that says it has attracted two million users in Britain in a little more than half a year by offering unlimited access to millions of songs. “They weren’t saying, ‘Give me pirated music’; they were saying, ‘Give me the music I want.’”
The music industry has high hopes that the growth of sites such as We7, whose investors include the former Genesis musician Peter Gabriel, can change the reputation of Europe as a hive of digital piracy. Similar businesses include Deezer, in France, and Spotify, which was started by two Swedish entrepreneurs and has grown rapidly in Britain and elsewhere. All of them are licensed by the music industry and hope to make money from advertising.
Last week, Microsoft Corp. said it, too, planned to offer a music streaming service in Britain, via its MSN Web business, though it provided few details.
Meanwhile, the survey by two research firms, Music Ally and Leading Question, showed that Britons were adopting such services in large numbers. Among British teenage music fans, 65% said they listened to streamed music at least once a month, with 31% saying they did so every day.
The survey showed a striking decline in the number of British teenagers who said they had regularly engaged in unauthorized file-sharing; only 26% said they had done so as of January, when the survey was taken, compared with 42% in December 2007.
Music industry executives say that does not mean the piracy problem has been solved. The survey results did not distinguish between licensed and unlicensed streaming services or others, such as YouTube, where both kinds of music can be found. Illegally copied music still accounts for the vast majority of digital listening, they add.
Still, executives say there are some promising signs. Rather than cannibalizing existing digital businesses, they say, the new services are often attracting people who previously shared files illegally. According to research by one of the major record companies, nearly two-thirds of Spotify users say they now engage in less piracy.
Spotify says it has two million registered users in Britain and another two million in Sweden, Spain and France.
Paul Brown, managing director of its British arm, said it wants to expand to the US by the end of the year.
There, it would go up against a number of digital businesses that also offer free music in various ways, including MySpace Music, Imeem, Last.FM, Pandora and others.
While Pandora has said it expects to be profitable by the end of the year, analysts say most other free streaming services are still losing money. Some advertising-supported free music sites, such as SpiralFrog, have already gone out of business.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES