57 Million Americans Are Actively Stealing Music, Study Finds…

57 Million Americans Are Actively Stealing Music
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Streaming music killed piracy, right? Wrong, according to MusicWatch, the latest research group to point to increasing music piracy levels.

Last year, Digital Music News pointed to data showing massive increases in BitTorrent piracy between 2010 and 2014, despite heavy rhetoric to the contrary.  Now, another research group is daring to challenge the status quo, specifically with a report showing a massive 57 million Americans accessing illegal music in 2015.

The data, published this week by MusicWatch, tracks a widening range of illegal access channels, including BitTorrent, storage lockers, illegal streaming apps, ‘streamripping,’ P2P, and even hard drive swaps.  That broad-based methodology was critical for understanding the level of illegal acquisition, and unearthed a surprisingly stubborn group of music fans.  “Acquisition of unlicensed music from unsanctioned sources has not gone away,” MusicWatch chief researcher Russ Crupnick affirmed to Digital Music News.  “[‘Piracy is dying’] is an entirely incorrect proclamation.”

Crupnick commissioned a study specifically on illegal acquisition, with participants self-identified as stealing music across seven different platforms.  In total, the MusicWatch estimated that 57 million Americans are routinely accessing at least one of these sources for music, oftentimes without realizing the platform is illegal.

That’s about 20 percent, or 1 in 5, of the roughly 280 million Americans currently online.

But Crupnick stumbled upon another interesting statistic.  The survey results also revealed that 35 percent of Americans who buy music legitimately have also acquired music illegally at some point.  “Another startling statistic: 35% of music buyers (CD or download) also reported getting at least one song from an unsanctioned source,” Crupnick shared.  “This is not exclusively a problem among people unwilling to pay for music.”

Stunning stuff, though it gets exponentially more horrifying deeper down the rabbit hole.  That includes the confusing reality that those stealing music are also better music consumers overall.  And, die-hard music fans are oftentimes on both sides of the fence.  Supporting that discovery was another strange stat: Americans that regularly steal music spend an average of $33 annually on either CDs or paid downloads.  That is substantially higher than the average per-capita music spend of $19 in the US, though substantially below the $43 per capita figure for average music buyers.

Even more hair-brained was the discovery that music pirates are oftentimes on streaming services as well, often with paid services like Spotify Premium.


Crupnick also tracked emerging forms of piracy, particularly ‘streamripping,’ or the simple conversion of streams (typically from YouTube) into downloads.  That basic activity has ballooned in recent years, perhaps driven by the explosion of YouTube itself.  “Speaking of streamripping, we estimated a 50% increase in the number of streamrippers in the US between the end of 2013 and early 2015,” Crupnick continued.

“There are nearly as many streamrippers in the US as folks who illegally download music files from P2P networks.”

‘The Kanye Effect’

The study closely follows a piracy surge around Kanye West’s latest album, ‘The Life of Pablo’.  That album was deliberately restricted to the smaller streaming service Tidal, and excluded from leading platforms Spotify and Apple Music.  The result was an explosion in BitTorrent file-trading on Pablo, with downloads quickly passing the half-million mark while topping Pirate Bay’s charts.

‘Ownership Still Matters’

Crupnick attributed that to a simple availability problem, but only once piece of the bigger piracy puzzle.  Indeed, the study findings pointed to continued interest in music ownership, especially among music fans that wanted offline access on their smartphones.  That, of course, is readily available from services like Spotify, but users still remain unwilling to pay.

Perhaps there’s a deeper attachment to ownership here.  “The migration to access was supposed to eliminate the need (and desire) for owning music,” Crupnick relayed.  “But consumers disagree… some expressed concerns about data usage but ownership is a higher priority.  This is not surprising as our other studies point to continued perceived value in possessing a song or album.”

19 Responses

    • Anonymous

      Windowing works if you do it right. If Kanye had released the album as a physical CD and a permanent download through iTunes and Amazon, and just limited interactive streaming to Tidal (if at all) for a few months, he would’ve been fine. Sure, it would’ve still been pirated, but not nearly as much as it had been. He screwed himself by requiring a Tidal subscription to listen to his album. It’s a tough sell to convince people who don’t have a subscription to a streaming service to get one because of just one album, and a tougher sell to convince people who already have a subscription service to sign up for a second one.

  1. Versus

    Bring back DRM.

    And enforce real penalties against the infringers. Reasonable fines, cutting off internet access and online accounts, seizing equipment.

  2. djozone


    let the internet be the musical free for all it wants to be…allow p2p, unlimited download, upload, torrentz whatever…

    have ISPs collect a $10 a month media fee from every consumer and business internet account…

    meanwhile media companies divide the collected media fees between themselves and their content creators based on internet usage…

      • old indie guy

        Yeah, but c’mon, a dollar a month? In hind sight it would be better than what we get now…..but, it’s still way below a sustainable model.

        Why does cable TV cost 89/month, but music is only worth $1?

        AOL screwed us all with unlimited access for $4.95/month, thus changing the paradigm forever. If we all still paid for the actual amount of data we consume, there would be plenty of revenue to share with copyright owners.

        • Paul Resnikoff

          OK, let’s do that math. $1/mo x 280 million people on the internet in 2015 in the US = $280 mm x $1 x 12 mos = $3.36 bln for online recording sales ONLY.

          Now, add on Vinyl, CD sales (still a few billion), plus the billions from other channels (merch, touring, etc.) Then, SUBTRACT all the enforcement millions spent by the RIAA smashing sites like mp3skull, Aurous, not to mention multi-million dollar salaries for top RIAA executives.

          And remmeber, this initiative would not be more than 10 years old. Instead of the labels spending every day freaking out, they could have developed more meaningful, progressive business models.

          I’m thinking they passed up a pretty good deal, and a big win for everyone.

  3. Gerald Brennan

    Artists get essentially no money on “legal” sales. They are getting screwed by the industry. So it’s hard for me to get too upset when stealers rip off the ones who are actually pocketing the dough.

    • Anonymous

      Total Bullshit. Self-distributed and indie artists are pirated just as well as major label artists. No pirate makes the distinction ( most people don’t even know the distinction )

      • Troglite

        I think the truth is that without adequate awareness resulting from an effective marketing strategy, indie and amateur artists are unlikely to successfully monetize their work on ANY platform.. whether its paid/legal or free/pirated. Simply posting your songs accomplishes nothing in financial terms.

  4. Anonymous

    Product placement.

    Songwriters will have to start name dropping products/services throughout the music.

    Rap led the way, now it’s time for whitey to catch up.

    • Anonymous

      Not all kinds of music lend themselves to namedropping Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil and McDonald’s within a track.
      Or perhaps you were sarcastic ?

  5. Anonymous

    As long as Google continues to pay off the politicians, nothing will change.

  6. Frank

    Stealing? What is this, the 90’s?
    To copy music is not theft. It may be illegal but it ain’t stealing.

  7. Alex stutman

    This blog was awesome! It taught me so much really good things that I should know. It was very helpful, I liked it alot. It was very well written. I enjoyed reading it.

  8. Anonymous

    And thanks to the EFF threatening them, Paypal just reinstated SoulSeek, which primarily traffics infringing files.

    SIlicon Valley are the new robber barons, supported by dorks bribed with free content.

    • Saint Sunshine

      @old indie guy

      I Agree Whole Heartedly ….

      AOL screwed us all with unlimited access for $4.95/month, thus changing the paradigm forever. If we all still paid for the actual amount of data we consume, there would be plenty of revenue to share with copyright owners.

      If we paid based on the data we consume, maybe more of us would shut off the computer and get outside : )

  9. Joe Nicholson

    As the owner of a small independent record label I am, of course, deeply interested in this topic. While I care not to get into the topic of piracy now, I will concur with the data that shows ownership is still very important to music fans. My artist’s music can be found on 20+ digital download and streaming sites, and yet the number of digital download purchases far exceed any and all streaming! But even more revealing is that, concerning my label anyway, sales of actual physical CD’s far exceed that of both downloads and streaming! For the label and the artists this has been a very good thing as there is more revenue generated for CD sales and it proves people are still willing to own their own copies of a CD sold for $14.95 each!