It all started with file sharing.
Napster and its successors were an atomic bomb dropped on the music industry. All future advances in distribution stem from this moment, when mp3 compression, fast internet and faster processors combined to make file sharing a practical pastime for music obsessives. Every “revolution” in the industry, every “disruption” since has been a reaction against this original sin. All technology, all new platforms, everything new in the last 20 years has been a reaction against piracy escaping from Pandora’s Box.
Every major label handed over their catalog to Apple and begged Steve Jobs to save them from piracy. All DRM was imposed to prevent users that paid for music from sharing with their friends who didn’t. Even today Spotify executives are still explaining that they can’t raise more money from subscribers to increase artist payouts because the shadow of piracy is still looming on the outskirts of the gigantic streaming platforms. The major labels are still so traumatized by what happened 20 years ago, they’ll probably go along with this dubious claim too.
And that’s really incredible because something extraordinary has been happening. Across the internet, one by one, digital pirate havens are voluntarily shutting down.
It’s not because of prosecutions, though governments around the world have spent millions playing whack-a-mole with pirate sites since Napster was forced into bankruptcy 21 years ago. And it’s not because of industry pressure, though they’ve spent millions more in an equally fruitless game of lawfare.
Pirate sites are throwing in the towel because, they say, users just don’t care enough about illicit file sharing anymore.
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Zippyshare was never the largest nor most popular file sharing website. It was definitely the most annoying though, both for users irritated by its malware-laden ads and for the industry figures whose stolen music was being monetized by them. Unlike some of their more secretive competitors which offered up more albums and tracks, Zippyshare was brazenly antagonistic to the people whose work they appropriated. Users quickly learned that many tracks you searched for on the internet could be obtained for free by popping the track title into Google and appending the word “zippyshare” to the search terms. You didn’t need special knowledge to discover this hack. Google’s auto-complete feature actually suggested it for you, directing anyone searching for a legit version of music to free downloads of it on Zippyshare instead.
After seventeen years of rubbing artists’ noses in it, Zippyshare abruptly ceased file hosting in March. A note appeared on the site’s seldom-updated blog which struck a curiously emotional, almost traumatized note which ascribed their failure to abuse and alienation by its own users:Since 2006 we have been on the market in an unchanged form, that is, as ad financed/free file hosting. However, you have been visiting in less and less over the years, as the arguably very simple formula of the services we offer is slowly running out of steam. I guess all the competing file storage service companies on the market look better, offer better performance and more features. No one needs a dinosaur like us anymore.
Zippyshare’s unnamed owners likewise blamed users deploying adblockers for cutting into their revenue, which forced them to place more ads (and more destructive ones like the malware they frequently served). Marked against rising prices (“electricity prices have gone up 2.5 times” in the previous year, they complained), Zippyshare could no longer profit off stolen music and software.
“There are still a bunch of smaller reasons,” they concluded, but “we could write a book on this, and probably no one would want to read it. To sum it up, we can no longer afford to maintain the site.”
Over the last twenty years, many pirate sites have shut down due to lawfare. But nobody can remember sites shutting down because it was no longer profitable to steal.
If Zippyshare wasn’t a “dinosaur,” it sort of looked like one, with a design and user interface that hadn’t been updated in more than a decade.
RARBG was a little more slick. One of the most popular torrenting sites, RARBG offered visitors highlights of their hottest downloads and something akin to Billboard or Variety with news on new productions and even box office numbers for current films — charts which measured how many suckers were paying to watch movies RARBG pointed users to for free.
In announcing their own shutdown in May, RARBG also mentioned the rising cost of electricity prices in Europe. (Who would have guessed that Russia would be responsible for decreasing piracy online?)
But their memo was a far more nuanced message than Zippyshare’s agony column recounting their users’ neglect. Some of RARBG’s “team” died of COVID complications, they wrote in their own farewell message, with some suffering what appears to be long COVID. “Some are also fighting the war in Europe,” they wrote, and clarified that they were fighting “ON BOTH SIDES.” Massive expenses including electricity “in data centers in Europe hit us pretty hard,” the added, and “inflation makes our daily expenses impossible to bare.” [sic]
“To sum it up, we can no longer afford to maintain the site.”
Over the last twenty years, many pirate sites have shut down due to court actions, government seizure, ISP blocking and even takeovers by hostile rivals. But nobody can remember sites shutting down because it was no longer profitable to steal.
It’s a new development, and it’s worth asking: why is this happening and why now?
People profiting from theft are likely unreliable narrators but there’s no reason to doubt their own claims about rising costs and falling revenue. The ad market has been in freefall for a decade now, leading pirate sites to knowingly fuck up their users by selling unsold ad inventory to malware distributors. The collapse of the cryptocurrency industry in 2022 likely had something to do with this too — many sites responded to ad revenue decline by installing cryptocurrency miners via scripts that snuck into users’ computers and abused their CPUs to mine Monero (a reputedly untraceable cryptocurrency favored by criminals) while they downloaded Guardians of the Galaxy.
Some commentators have also noted that Gen Z users — teens and young adults — have grown up in the age of platforms and smartphones. Many younger users have never torrented a file or had much need to do so — “owning” music is a quaint notion to a generation that’s been making playlists from Spotify’s infinite jukebox since junior high.
That’s possibly the biggest reason why pirates complain that demand is evaporating: almost nobody cares about owning digital files anymore, and they’re running out of clicks. This would be some evidence that the platforms that promised to “save” labels and studios from piracy actually worked — that streaming really did kill piracy. Spotify’s free tier bars no one from listening to whatever they want; YouTube doesn’t even require an account. The most common form of piracy — wanting to listen to one song or album right now and getting it the only way you can — appears to have no use case anymore. Unless you have a professional need to own a copy, streaming it is easy and free. For 99% of people on Earth, it seems streaming is probably enough.
Artists are still getting shafted, of course. It’s labels and platforms are the ones that are monetizing exploitation now rather than a dodgy site in Eastern Europe. The music, to the listener, is still free. In effect, the industry formed their own piracy network, a legit one funded by ads for products rather than malware. Pirates, like the artists they stole from, can also no longer compete with free. Though nobody is calling it, this looks like the end of an era, though for artists it doesn’t look much different.
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