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Music Piracy Is Going Old School in the Age of COVID-19

Illegal streaming activity fell in March — but people are flocking back to torrent sites, new data suggests

Portrait of Michael Jackson, composed of the artist's CDs.

Mirco Pagano Moreno De Turco/Shutterstock

When the global COVID-19 quarantine is over — cautiously, carefully, over — the dust will begin to settle on some dramatic changes in the music business, with some big questions about the future left to answer.

Obviously, the importance of live-streaming, previously treated like a nostalgic side-show by the industry, has ballooned in the past month. Will consumers’ comfortableness with watching online performances become a longer-term opportunity for artists?

Another question is what happens following the industry’s current live music moratorium. Studies suggest as many as 40% of consumers won’t go back to concerts until a COVID vaccine is available. Will antibacterial treatments become part and parcel of the live experience? Will ticket prices fall to accommodate softer demand and higher concern?

Then there’s the future of physical product: With revenues from CDs already tumbling in recent years, could the devastating blow to bricks and mortar retail due to coronavirus finally spell the end for the compact disc? And will consumers who might have previously been most comfortable buying CDs now migrate to digital services like Spotify?

One aspect of the modern music business, however, isn’t hurtling towards a transformed future due to COVID — but actually appears to be regressing. Last week, global media piracy analytics company Muso released data which showed that movie piracy during COVID lockdown has surged to “unprecedented” levels, up by 41% in the US in the final week of March 2020 versus the same period of the prior month. Muso has now provided Rolling Stone with equivalent data specifically for music piracy, and while the numbers don’t inspire the same alarmist headlines, there’s definitely some interesting trends going on.

Muso’s data covers most of the world, broken down into markets including the US, UK, India, Japan and the EU (ex-UK). Before we get into the numbers, it’s worth noting that streaming piracy, i.e. people playing cloud-based tracks on unlicensed websites, has been one of the fastest-growing forms of entertainment piracy in the past few years. Just as in the “legitimate” music industry, as streaming has soared in popularity, so the frequency of piracy downloads — via torrenting sites like The Pirate Bay — has tumbled. (Data from as far back as 2015 shows illegal streaming sites overtaking torrenting in terms of music piracy popularity worldwide. While Muso estimated that, in 2017, illegal streaming sites accounted for over 41% of all music piracy visits.)

The first notable thing about music piracy behavior during COVID-19 lockdown is that illegal streaming activity fell considerably, globally speaking, in the final week of March versus the same period of February. It was down 11.84% in Europe, down 19.72% in Japan, and down 5.84% in the UK. The US saw a slighter fall, but a fall nonetheless, of 1.01%.

This isn’t actually a huge surprise: Legitimate streaming volumes also wavered during this time, as stay-in-place protocols altered the habits of those who would usually fire up Spotify, Apple Music et al in the car, or on the commute to work, or in the office, or in the gym. Spotify noted to investors last week that, since late February, “in hard-hit markets like Italy and Spain, we saw a notable decline in Daily Active Users and consumption,” but added that “over the last few weeks, we’ve seen listening start to rebound, and in many markets, consumption has meaningfully recovered.” According to Muso’s data, visits to illegal piracy streaming platforms in Spain, specifically, followed this pattern, falling 4.89% month-on-month in the last week of March (when 1.156 million Spaniards visited illegal streaming sites).

Something else remarkable has been happening in the piracy world during lockdown, though.  According to Muso’s data, music-related visits to torrenting platforms — home of potentially malware-addled P2P downloads — have seen a boon in frequency during COVID quarantine. In the US alone, music-related visits to torrent sites grew by 15.62% in the period between the last week of February (week ending February 29th) and the last week of March (week ending March 31st): In the February week, there were 1.308 million visits, says Muso; in the March week, there were over 200,000 more, at 1.513 million.

This trend applied globally. In India, music-related visits to public torrent sites grew 23.43%; in the UK, they were up 18.53%; in Canada, 17.54%; across the EU, 7.61%; in Spain — the biggest percentage leap of all — they were up 26.40%.

What’s driving this rejuvenation of “old school” piracy? Andy Chatterley, CEO of Muso, has a couple of theories. “There are many possible insights to glean here,” he says. “One stat that anecdotally jumps out is that Germany bucks the global trend, with visits to torrenting sites for music down 6.09% in the last week of March.” Germany’s streaming visits, says Muso, were also down, by 11.94%.

“It’s interesting for context to think that Germany was quite late to switch away from physical music and to embrace streaming,” adds Chatterley. “It also makes you wonder if people are craving ownership more than usual right now, and whether that’s been caused or amplified by COVID-19, which may be having an effect on people’s financial status. The lockdown could also potentially be affecting subscription fatigue.”

Speaking of “subscription fatigue” Chatterley also wonders if people “have finally gotten around to downloading their favorite artists’ back catalog on torrent sites — especially if, say, they usually spend 80% of their time listening to The Grateful Dead on a streaming service and now have a moment to question the economics of their monthly streaming subscription.”

Chatterley is clear that all of this is simple guesswork — another theory might be, for example, that having returned to the privacy of their homes, people are firing up The Pirate Bay or Kick Ass Torrents because the last time they had time to be a “pirate,” they were using yesteryear’s technology.

Adding to the intrigue, Spotify just informed investors that COVID-19 did have a “minor impact” on its rate of churn — people cancelling subscriptions — at the “very end” of Q1 (i.e. late March). Spotify ran an exit survey of those scrapping their Premium accounts in the Q1 period, with one in six respondents in the US citing COVID-19-related reasons for cancelling their subs. Of course, the streaming service did not ask where people might be getting their music instead.

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.