26/11/2012 16:00 | By Tom Townshend, contributor, MSN Music

Is illegal downloading dead?

Tom Townshend wonders whether the problem of musical piracy has been exaggerated...


Angus Young (© Rex)

Angus Young of AC/DC


Do you remember how we were told that illegal downloading was killing the music industry? Do you remember how record labels blamed the decline in UK music sales on you lot stealing songs from the internet?

But as we reach the end of 2012, single sales are at a record high. So what happened? Did the country renounce piracy? Or was file sharing not to blame for the downturn after all?

Now we’re not suggesting for one second that illegal file-sharing isn’t a big problem, and hasn’t damaged the industry. It clearly has. But the arrival in the UK singles chart of two songs by AC/DC, originally released in the 1970s, made us look at the issue in a different light.

Last week AC/DC finally allowed their music to be available to buy digitally. Prior to the 19th of November, the only way to own the veteran Aussie rock giant's songs was to buy them on CD, vinyl or cassette. Or to illegally download them.

But no sooner had the group agreed to sell their back catalogue in downloadable form, two of their classic hits entered the Top 40 singles charts (with several more popping up in the Top 75.)

Now, given AC/DC's status as the biggest rock band in the world, it would’ve been easy to download those songs for free online.

Without going into details, it wouldn't even require you to visit a dedicated dodgy file-sharing site to bag yourself Highway To Hell and Back In Black for nowt.

And yet, the good people of Britain chose not to do that. They chose to buy the songs they wanted to listen to on their phones, iPods and tiny magical music boxes (that’s the technical term, right?)

Even though it would've taken mere seconds to obtain those tracks illegally, thousands of people chose the legal route. But isn’t the country riddled with tune thieves? That's what we've been told for the last 10 years.

Rihanna (© Rex)

Rihanna

This week's top 40 also features a new track from Rihanna’s latest album, Unapologetic. And yet the song, Right Now, isn’t a record company promoted single. And neither is another of her tracks, Nobody’s Business, which went in at number 63. The public have chosen to cherry pick songs from her new album rather than be dictated to by RiRi's promotional team. People power!

And the fact that this is happening to music by Rihanna, the biggest pop star in the world right now, is even more significant when you take into account that her last album, 2011’s Talk That Talk, managed to return to the number one spot this year with just 9,578 sales – the lowest sales ever recorded for a number one album.

Album sales are at an all-time low, and yet the revived fortunes of the single suggest that the sales slump in LPs isn’t entirely down to illegal downloading. Could it not be that the reason so few people are buying albums is because albums no longer make sense in a limitless digital world?

The structure of an album is a throwback to an analogue age. The number of songs on an album was dictated by the constraints of the physical format they were stored on. But what sense does buying 12 tracks in one go make, when you have memory space for thousands? And why buy that many songs if you only know you like one? You can always buy another later. And another.

The people who bought AC/DC’s Back In Black didn’t want a whole album of AC/DC songs. They just wanted that one. And the same goes for Rihanna.

And yet, had people wanted to illegally obtain every song on Rihanna’s new album Unapologetic they could’ve done. Unapologetic leaked online prior to its release, despite security measures insisting that reviewers were made to listen to it at specially arranged playbacks at the record company HQ, so as not to risk any of them illegally uploading it (note to record labels: doesn't this prove that music critics aren’t the ones pirating music and the problem might be closer to home?) Despite the free availability of that album, people chose to pay for the Rihanna songs they wanted.

And in case you think it only takes a few hundred downloads to get a song in the charts these days, Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s We Found Love has sold 6.9 million copies worldwide, so far. And it was only released in September of last year. In fact, a quick look down the list of multi-million sellers shows that singles from 2010 and 2011 shifted units not seen since the 1970s and 80s – the so-called golden age of the pop charts.

Illegal downloading (© Getty)

Digital sales for recent singles by the likes of Adele, Bruno Mars, Gotye and Lady Gaga are all matching those of immortal pop classics like ABBA’s Fernando, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and Village People’s YMCA. Even Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? is only a million and a half ahead of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep, released just two years ago.

While album sales are plummeting, single sales are going through the roof.

So what gives? Are we all just doing the decent thing or has the music industry’s war on piracy worked? While it’s true that several of the most high-profile music pirate sites have been shut down, mirror sites have sprung up in their place. If you didn’t want to pay for music, that option is still readily available.

And while the criminality of file-sharing has been effectively promoted to the public, the low conviction rate for illegal downloaders would suggest there’s no real deterrent. Who do you know who’s ever been caught and prosecuted for song-stealing?

To continue to be told how damaged the music industry is by illegal downloading, while single sales soar, is somewhat galling. It’s like when you sit down to watch a DVD and are confronted with doom-laden orders not to buy pirate movies, even thought the only time you ever see such warnings is when you’re watching something you’ve legally purchased. It's like being told off for a crime you've not committed.

Thanks for the trust and gratitude, guys!

We may be going out on a limb here, but perhaps the reason people are choosing to pay for songs in such high numbers is that people are, on the whole, honest. And they are more than happy to pay for the music they like. The British public are not the unscrupulous free(down)loaders the recording industry has made them out to be.

Maybe we should demand an apology.

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