Study: Pre-release torrent leaks actually benefit album sales


A research paper from North Carolina State University has found that pre-release album leaks on BitTorrent can actually lead to a boost in sales. If an album leaks a month in advance of its release date, it can sell 60 additional units.

Economist Robert Hammond compared data from a private BitTorrent tracker to official album sales numbers, to “isolate the causal effect of file sharing of an album on its sales,” in a paper titled Profit Leak? Pre-Release File Sharing and the Music Industry.

Over a nine-month period, Hammond searched for newly-released albums on a private BitTorrent tracker to find out if they had been leaked; the minute they had propagated onto the web; and the number of downloaders, leechers and seeders.

Of the 1,095 albums he checked, 991 were on the torrent site and 655 leaked before their release date. He followed the albums for five weeks. He then purchased sales data from Nielsen SoundScan for each album.

This data allowed Hammond to construct a model that predicts what the causal effect of piracy on music sales is. He found that each download on a private tracker is associated with 0.26 additional sales in the real world.

If an album that leaked one month earlier, it will receive 59.6 additional sales. 60 extra sales is not a big deal, but it does go against the conventional wisdom that piracy hurts sales, and suggests that pre-release leaks act as a form of advertising, to create a bigger buzz.

There are some caveats. Established artists benefit from file sharing more than new and small artists. The beneficial effects of a leak are twice as large for artists who have had an album sell at least 100,000 units than for artists who have not, and twice as large for bands with more than three albums under their belt.

Having albums leak before their scheduled debut has been a source of much contention in the recording industry. The IFPI — which represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide — wrote, in its 2011 Digital Music report, “curbing pre-release piracy is a particular priority for the recording industry, as it hits albums at the most vulnerable point in their sales cycle.”

Back in 2006, four American file-sharers were specifically targeted by anti-piracy group Operation Fastlink for sharing music before it was released for sale. “The illegal pre-release distribution of albums or individual tracks takes an especially heavy toll on the music community,” RIAA executive VP of anti-piracy Brad Buckles said, at the time.

Hammond’s research was a response to these claims. In conclusion, his findings “suggest that file sharing of an album benefits its sales. I do not find any evidence of a negative effect in anyspecification, using any instrument,” he says.


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