Pirates move away from free downloads. They're selling your music instead
Industry annual 'State of the Industry' reports (2019 IFPI Report) do not show this; distributors are not reporting it to labels either. However, it is a fact and it is happening on an enterprise-scale - with traffic estimates exceeding that of the combined traffic of the legitimate dance music download stores (more on that shortly), however the annual revenues are expected to be significantly less than the legitimate stores achieve. This is due to the key differences between the business models and the lack of overhead costs that the pirate 'pay-for-access' stores have compared to the legitimate ones which enables the bigger profit margin they can use to be very cost-effective to a music hungry DJ each month making it attractive to consumers whilst not being too cheap which could also potentially raise for the consumer the question as to the legitimacy of the store. Many in the industry embraced the idea that streaming was the answer to piracy, even to the level that it might actually eradicate piracy which had been damaging sales for years and was hard to tackle in part due to the complexity of it at the level which you had to address if you were going to protect yourself. Piracy is a high-tech area which few understand enough to deal with, so it is easy to understand how the hope that streaming was the holy grail and was a popular belief. Piracy had been painful and damaging to business. It was difficult for many to see how it was possible to compete with 'FREE', which left them feeling helpless until streaming started to become a new option. Streaming brought many exciting possibilities about how the industry could evolve so all the worry and concern about piracy on download sales which were in decline could be forgotten.
It opened up opportunities, and this was something to get excited about which the industry did. It was also fantastic news for the pirates because they knew they had work to do, and they too had opportunities that had presented themselves. DJs want downloads. While there have been streaming developments in this area, for the majority, these developments were not yet meeting what they wanted or were still in their infancy. They were still some time away to compete with downloads from the DJs perspective. The pirates were well aware of the continued demand for dance music downloads having had a good run providing free downloads for years which generated significant revenue from the high-value advertising that was feeding through from networks at the time. For roughly ten years there has been a growing momentum to cut the advertising revenue that pirates could get from several countries who have put a lot of effort into campaigns created from that momentum.
This grew to include WIPO who made this work a priority at a global level: See the report
The effect has been felt by the free download pirate sites with the high-value adverts drying up, leaving much less valuable adverts in their place. The work on this is still not done though with some brands still leaking adverts onto these free download sites which put money into the pirate's pockets, and this is happening largely due to the active work pirates do to adapt so that they still get the premium adverts. However, there is work being done to go further and cut the money flow right down, which is a positive for the content industries as a whole. Right now, there are innovative services to help brands comply and keep adverts off these free download sites. A leading example of these, being IP monitoring tech company White Bullet.
White Bullet delivers the capabilities needed to make it much harder for the free download sites to keep doing this, which is consuming their resources, making it less and less worthwhile for them to continue. The technology allows the brands to ensure their adverts don't make their way onto these sites at a global level efficiently, which is what is required to deal with this issue.
Pressure on pirates due to dwindling revenues from advertisers has been a driving factor behind the evolution of the broader piracy landscape. In most cases, this has retained those more significant free download sites adding to what was a previously minimal number of pay-for-access type pirate sites. The new sites in this category are sophisticated not only in the high standard that the website interface, created to exhibit many features you would expect the legitimate businesses would have on the web interfaces of their stores. The polished UX is one very professional part, and another is to the music releases themselves which some sites have clearly spent time curating alongside news items or features including DJ charts.
When presenting information to industry professionals, many are shocked, especially that these sites are not free and are actually charging in comparison a substantial amount. The obvious and most asked question is 'why are these users going to these sites if they have the same content and are charging for the content?' This was not immediately apparent but research which looked at several sources of data to try to answer this, which included finding conversations about sites that made up these networks from public forums and social media. This sort of data, together with a full understanding of all the connected elements for each network and detailed research across the way each site worked, revealed that discussions involving these sites more often than not showed no indication of awareness as to the infringing nature of the sites. While this was not conclusive, the rest of the investigation showed that large numbers of industry professionals actively followed and interacted with these accounts on some posts. The language used, along with all of the information gathered, makes it clear that the majority go to great lengths to present an image which many would not question. An image which would likely only paint this picture that money is being paid to these sites. It is assumed that they are legitimately licensed platforms paying out to the right channels so that content owners are receiving what they are due.
***The chart comes from the 2019 State of the industry report by the IFPI
So in summary, what this is potentially suggesting is that in part at least due to piracy impacting sales for downloads content owners saw a decline. The industry bodies reported this as well, which based on the information at the time was correct. However, from investigations, which are not yet concluded and are still ongoing, the information gathered has been revealing these sites. So what perhaps was missing from the picture that the industry reports described, was this rapidly growing area of dance music download sales generated by the 'pay-for-access' network of pirate sites that was not shown on the chart above. With the number download sales gorwing on the pirate sites some of the decline seen would have actually been simply transfering into this missing area on the chart rather than simply being uch a steep decline which the available data shows. Now obviosuly the revenue is not going to the rights holders so would not be on this chart any way and due to the subscription nature of the business model each download is not the same as that of a download sale on a legitimate site. It is easy to see though that what was being shown by the decline was actually in part representing a growth in the revenue lost due to this type of piracy.
So how can this be? What are the chances of a whole extra area of music retail going unnoticed by so many?
The work is ongoing, but some factors are well evidenced, which all go toward making this possible.
- Dark traffic (web traffic not detected by tools such as Similarweb and Alexa. The result of the design of these networks, as well as active efforts using techniques to either avoid inclusion in these industry adopted tools or to affect the data are being deployed, other methods, are used even simple domains swapping which you can do as often as you like without raising concern by those who are subscribed because of the architecture of the overall network, but this hopping essentially scrubs any data that was being gathered together about the site). Dark traffic is potentially the most significant reason these sites have gone unnoticed. Out of 200 active domains from these sites more than half don't have a record in Similarweb and we have examples of sites exceeding 20 million visits a month and has been online, accessible publicly since Oct 2018 yet this is the response from Similarweb. Now don't get me wrong here, Simialrweb is a fantastic tool as is Alexa both providing significant data and insight. What we are finding is that these sites can avoid inclusion and thus if the data is used to understand traffic or discover sites in this category then it is not suited to this task, and a report drawn from it would be missing most of them. Since they are missing, you would be unaware of this when looking through the data and locating these sites in their entirety takes many different tools and techniques to achieve.
- Visitors to the sites are unaware they are infringing so the sites that make up each network would site alongside other smaller legitimate stores indistinguishable and no easy way for the consumer to verify that it is licensed. (See 'AFEM Approved DJ Download Sites' at the end of this article *)
- The sites make use of known industry members in messaging about some of these sites to give confidence in the sites being part of the industry so questions are not asked, and they remain to hide some parts of the networks in plain sight.
- Sales team who reach out having been looking for leads through social media and similar sites, in particular, LinkedIn. (Have you ever had a pirate site call you? These representatives, however, have been doing this.)
- The overall way the sites work gives a professional experience to the user with additional content such as news features.
- The last one for this list is the actual graphical design of the sites. They utilise features and even almost clone the big stores which if known to the user, support the image of not being pirate by being familiar.
- The networks use bridges between 'The Surface Web' and the 'Deep Web' (more on the Deep Web at the end of hte article **) so that there are multiple routes to the core of the network that takes the money and provides the content and often these are proxied enabling them to be taken down, or even the domain they used seized without ever exposing the protected core without the user being any the wiser with the only outcome from losing the domain is the user would be emailed about a technical need to use a newly provided link without any effect to the users' login details or any of the rest of what they would see of the platform.
*AFEM Approved DJ Download Sites - Approved Seal
The AFEM (Approved DJ Download Stores) have worked to try and provide a simple way to do this. I believe this action was a step in the right direction. However, it has highlighted some issues. For example, this is not adopted by all stores visibly, which it needs to be for consumers to use it and have confidence in what it stands for. Consumers need to know about it, which requires some periodic work to make consumers aware of the tick so they know it's meaning. In its current format, it is easy for pirates to copy. So the initial deployment has shown that awareness and adoption by the music platforms need to go hand in hand with a change in the way it works currently. Somehow it needs to be able to cover all the requirements making it recognisable, easily and quickly verifiable as well as being resistant to cloning by the pirate sites. It's possible with current technologies but does bring a cost to support it but does have the potential to be used in any store so could have a wider scope opening the possibility of industry backing as a whole. The easiest method could use the same tech as the globally understood 'padlock' in web browsers. It has good reach across consumers who understand it to show that the site they are on is secure and by clicking on it verifies this plus consumers are confident it does precisely that and is known by consumers to be resilient to being interfered with.)
**So what is this 'Deep Web' and 'Surface Web', it is just the internet. Isn't it?
In simple terms 'The Surface Web' is what can be accessed by search engines which can index the pages of websites. This is, for many people the entire internet which they only exceed the boundary of by login into their bank, email etc. The size of 'The Surface Web' is approximately just 10% (Wiki) of the entire internet with the vast majority being 'The Deep Web' which is where the core parts of these pay-ftp-access pirate sites reside. Often almost entirely if not completely out of 'The Surface Web'.
Anything not in search engines or behind a login, for example, is the 'Deep Web' which the exception of a tiny part is what is known as 'The Dark Web' accessible only by using special tools which can connect into this highly anonymous network.