The prospect of smartphone-fuelled music piracy hasn’t been a huge public concern for the music industry in recent years, give or take the odd jab at Google for allowing MP3-downloading apps onto its Android app store.
For the most part, rightsholders have been more excited about the potential of smartphones to boost uptake of legal streaming services and spark innovative apps around artists and discovery, than worried about apps being used for infringing purposes.
New research from NPD Group suggests the issue should be taken more seriously though. The company claims that 27m people in the US have used mobile apps to get at least one song in the last year – more than the 21m people that NPD claims used traditional P2P filesharing services to download music.
“In the beginning, we had feature phones with ringtones and very slow networks. As the technology improves, it becomes a free-for-all for someone who wants free music files,” analyst Russ Crupnick tells Recode.
The study identifies more than 250 MP3-download apps on the Google Play store, with the most popular – Music Maniac – having been installed more than 10m times by users. Google is once again in the spotlight: the piece claims that RIAA requests for the company to remove the app from its store have been met with refusal.
An unnamed label executive also suggests that his company has filed 3,000-odd takedown requests for piracy apps, with most of them on Android. Google’s past opposition to YouTube-ripping services may leave it on thin ice when pressed for explanations about why it’s not as pro-active for MP3-downloaders.
It’s true that many music rightsholders had their heads in the sands about the potential for mobile piracy in the past: Live Nation’s Eric Garland tweeted an entertaining anecdote this morning about a 2004 conversation with a label president claiming that phones would end piracy because “we and carriers have total control over what you do with this… When I suggested to label prez that soon phones would be small computers, just like his laptop, he threw me out of the building.”
More research is needed before the industry panics about mobile piracy: how are people really using these apps, and are they new pirates or old ones shifting their habits from desktop to mobile?
As ever, it’s a mug’s game trying to quantify resulting “losses” to the industry from any specific form of piracy, given the impossibility of knowing how many of the pirates would have bought music (or paid for a streaming service) instead. We suspect some people will still try, of course.
But the real challenge remains improving legal music apps to take advantage of the benefits of rocketing smartphone (and tablet) usage: more features, improved design, and better marketing to attract the people who won’t be searching Google Play for free MP3 download apps.