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Matter Writing

Paying Attention to Filesharing

Filesharers are all too often characterized as lawless neanderthals who “just want things for free.” Of course, the evidence shows that in fact, digital sales are increasing and many studies have suggested that sharers actually buy more. Unfortunately, two of the most popular conclusions from this completely overlook the nature (and power) of global information exchange.

If they just stopped sharing…

The first common reaction finds an excellent example in the words of Geoff Taylor from BPI (Britain’s RIAA), where he says,

…these new figures show how the market could explode if the government acts to tackle illegal peer-to-peer filesharing.

Geoff Taylor, BPI.

In other words, “if only these people would stop sharing music for free, our physical/digital sales would go through the roof.” Or even better, “if we could just go back to the time when we were making tons of money from recorded music, we’d be making tons of money from recorded music.”

The other option is taken by many who feel they are being progressive. They focus on the sharers who “try before they buy” and the people just looking for the right convenient digital store to make their music purchases, completely ignoring free sharers. In their mind, unauthorized sharing is good only when it converts to sales, and would ideally be replaced with a nice store or streaming service where people could hear songs and then buy.

Misunderstanding the mindset

Both of these attitudes misunderstand the mindset of many, if not most filesharers. Rather than trying to get something for free instead of buying it, they are sharing an infinite resource with interested peers that has marginal replication cost. Regardless of how one may feel about the cost of making the recording or supporting the artist, it is a fact that digital files are a freely replicable infinite resource. It’s also fact that many sharers will indeed buy the same material as physical discs, or even as digital files. But what about the people who will never buy another CD or fork over cash for an mp3 file?

Instead of ignoring these people, it is critical to understand that they are just as willing to part with their money as anybody else, provided you are selling them something they want. They love music, and while they do not place monetary value on recordings, their position is just as valid as those who still do. Selling recording music still works so long as somebody still values physical media, like LPs or CDs, or enjoys the convenience of a digital store like Amazon or iTunes, but it’s a shrinking market. While promoting these avenues, however “progressively,” may work in the short-term, it’s a stopgap measure at best.

Moving forward

The true way to build a successful business model in a sharing-centric culture is to market unique, non-replicable things to fans.  To move forward in the long-term is to stop marginalizing sharers based on what they won’t buy and start thinking about what they will buy. In this scenario, it becomes irrelevant how much recorded music sharers go on to buy—or anybody else, for that matter. While only a subset of sharers have the potential to be converted into “record sales,” selling the unique can reach sharers and nonsharers alike. Developing this as a model for the 21st century isn’t radical—it’s simply good business.