How Industry Efforts -- And Online Fan Armies -- Helped Fight Piracy of Taylor Swift's 'Reputation'
Superfans who used to go to great lengths to download albums for free are now becoming key players in the battle against digital piracy
The music industry has a new secret weapon when it comes to fighting piracy in the age of social media: fan armies.
When the track list for Taylor Swift’s Reputation was posted online days before the album was released, anyone trying to catch a glimpse had to be quick, since Swifties, as her fans call themselves, were campaigning vigorously to flag and report anyone who posted it.
"Fan armies care deeply about their favorite artists and actively monitor for instances of a song or album illegally posted," a spokesperson for the RIAA told Billboard. "Our ‘report piracy’ inboxes and Twitter feed are often flooded with emails and tips. It’s not only helpful, it’s a hopeful sign about the mind-set of modern fans and their respect for artists."
Fan accounts,Twitter users and rabid social cliques such as Beyoncé's BeyHive and Fifth Harmony’s Harmonizers are becoming increasingly effective anti-piracy tools, as anyone who has ever shared a negative opinion about Beyoncé on the internet probably knows. Thanks in part to Swifties, Reputation -- with its eye-opening 1.216 million first-week sales -- does not seem to have suffered from high levels of traditional piracy. In an email on Nov. 9, the day Reputation leaked online ahead of its official release date, TorrentFreak founder/editor-in-chief Ernesto Van der Sar told Billboard that, while he'd seen the album pop up on a few torrent sites, "the download activity isn't anything record-breaking." (The same day, Van der Sar's site reported that popular torrent service The Pirate Bay had been experiencing extended downtime, which the article noted was not uncommon in recent months, and which The Pirate Bay chalked up to a network issue.) Five days later, Digital Music News noticed that on torrent search engine Torrentz2, which pulls information from more than 60 torrent sites, multiple versions of the album could be found, with around 570 users downloading it -- hardly an earth-shattering figure.
But that doesn't mean the album didn't spread across the internet; it did, just in different ways. And with changing demographics and constantly shifting technology comes new forms of piracy -- and new ways of fighting it, some of which seem surprising from the perspective of those who have fought the digital battle since the Napster days.
"[Swift's] content was tending to show up on social media sites that will respond to notices from us very quickly," says one industry executive, who requested anonymity to protect the full extent of anti-piracy efforts from being revealed. "That's what we would see with a lot of pop music, whether it's Katy Perry or Taylor Swift or Fifth Harmony; the demographics of those fans are probably not people who are going to The Pirate Bay and torrent sites to download their music. So we saw lots of piracy; we took down thousands of URLs. [But] I think we were pretty successful in keeping it under control because of the nature of the piracy."
Modern piracy is building primarily through stream-ripping sites and distribution through social media, the same industry executive adds: "When somebody has a link to pirated content and they put it on Twitter, it can be instantaneously in the hands of tens and hundreds of thousands of people at one time. But with legitimate social media sites, they take their responsibility very seriously and will have content removed. It requires an entirely different focus of what we're doing than the old days of Bittorrent and lockers."
By the time Reputation leaked, the plan was already in place to stop it. Artists, managers, record labels and industry trade groups all over the world play a role in guarding against and battling piracy, particularly for highly anticipated releases like Swift's -- as do, increasingly, tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which are required to respond to takedown notices filed against user-uploaded copyrighted content that appears on their platforms. And as piracy evolves, the strategies and mechanisms in place to fight it have evolved too.
"On a big release like a Taylor Swift album, we're monitoring it in advance, 24/7, and when the album finally does come out, we continue intensive coverage on major releases for the first few weeks at least after that album is released, sometimes longer, depending on how it's showing up on pirate sites," says the industry executive. "With certain kinds of pirate sites, we know the sites that are out there that are popular, we know where albums would first start showing up. We use both automated crawlers looking for the content and human beings who are actually going to those sites and watching for an album to pop up. For some of them, it's a game."
Aside from the new reliance on fan armies, tactics around policing piracy involve the standard practice of issuing takedown notices, civil and occasionally criminal litigation, and working closely with advertisers and brands to increase their awareness of where, exactly, their digital ads are showing up, with the goal of undermining the revenue streams of advertising-supported pirate sites.
"We're attacking the revenue that supports piracy," the executive says. "If they can't make money, they'll go do something else."
Increasingly, trade groups and record labels are having to battle stream-ripping sites, which pull audio from YouTube videos and disseminate them online, particularly as the general model for consumer behavior continues to trend towards streaming services. In September, the IFPI reported that 35 percent of all internet users are stream-ripping -- up from 30 percent in 2016 -- a figure that grows to 53 percent among 16- to 24-year-olds.
Swift, of course, has withheld Reputation from streaming services so far, a tactic that left some disgruntled; Spotify's global head of creator services Troy Carter, speaking Nov. 13 at the Internet Association's Virtuous Circle Summit, said, "A lot of it is going to be pirated. It kind of sets the industry back a little bit."
Piracy in the form of torrent sites and file-sharing services has dwindled as streaming has grown towards ubiquity, but there are recent examples of it roaring back when access is restricted. Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, which was released as a Tidal streaming exclusive in February 2016 and initially not available for sale, was pirated more than 500,000 times in the 24 hours after its release, according to TorrentFreak; JAY-Z's latest album, 4:44, released in June on Tidal via a Sprint promotion that required unwitting fans to have signed up for the service at least four days ahead of time, was illegally downloaded 971,000 times in its first three days, according to piracy analytics company MUSO.
In 2010, Michael D. Smith, professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, co-authored a study that found that when NBC removed its content from Apple's iTunes Store in December 2007, it sparked "an 11.4 percent increase in the demand for NBC's pirated content," equating to approximately 48,000 downloads each day and twice the "total legal purchases on iTunes for the same content in the period preceding the removal."
"I think the main theme is that in an age of piracy, artists have far less control over their music than they might think," Smith told Billboard in an email, noting that in Swift's case it was unclear how much her decision impacted piracy. "So what seems like a perfectly reasonable approach of, 'I’m going to withhold my content in this channel to increase sales in another more profitable channel,' could easily backfire by turning customers into pirates." Smith also said that, while much of his research has focused on other industries, such as motion pictures or book publishing and not the music industry, "The research we've done in other areas suggests that's something that they should be very worried about."
The music industry executive summed it up like this: "The more you limit the legal access, the more people are going to tend to want to go to other places to find content. But other than that really broad statement I really couldn't say specifically what having it on Spotify or not having it on Spotify does to piracy."