Broadway’s “Piracy Problem”

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Over the last few weeks, there has been a bit of a discussion brewing about “piracy” within the musical theatre/Broadway community. It’s primarily centred around sheet music and cast album sales, two of the most tangible products for composers, actors, and musicians.

EDIT: Hey, you! Reader! After you get through reading this post, make sure you read my follow-up comment. I think there’s a lot of value there, and it clarifies the fact that this post is (a little bit) flamebait, in an effort to shift the conversation a bit. Considering the heat I’m getting on Twitter, I guess mission accomplished?

I could go on a long tangent about how the approach is—at best—misguided, because it demonises and guilt-trips huge swaths of would-be Broadway fans. I could write a long rebuttal of the idea that fans who pirate are somehow worse than paying fans, even though the fans who pirate are often putting in more work to get your stuff.

Instead, I’ve decided to offer ideas for Broadway artists who want to combat the “piracy” of their stuff. These are ideas that I came up with a few minutes on a train ride into NYC, so I make no guarantees that they’re fully thought through, feasible, etc. This isn’t to illustrate the path that Broadway artists need to take; it’s just about showing that there are possibilities out there that don’t involve silly “anti-piracy pledges” and demonising fans.

1) Make music more easily accessible for free. Why not offer a two-week “Spotify exclusive” in the time before a cast album is released? I’ve seen a lot of cast albums “leaked” and pirated before their official drop date; this approach preëmpts those leaks.

2) Offer exclusive irreplaceable free content with sheet music sales. The cult of musical theatre composers is going strong, so why not capitalise on that? For instance: why not offer a free 10 minute Skype chat to someone who purchases two or more pieces of sheet music? Good luck replicating that, would-be pirates!

3) Lower prices. This one will probably rile people up just as much as the pirates, but it should be said. If people are stealing your stuff, you may need to accept that your product is just out of reach for the average customer. Either provide more value or decrease the cost.

4) Everyone loves contests! Why not come up with a prize of real value every month (an hour-long Skype call with the composer; a free ticket to a show or concert) and randomly pick a winner from your list of purchasers over the previous month? Much like #2, it’s creating experiences that can’t be replicated, and it’d only be available to someone making a purchase.

5) Make the distribution mechanisms suck less! Maybe a Broadway cast album record label could offer a “virtual jukebox” online (with a companion smartphone app) that lets you listen to the music you’ve just purchased—yes, even if you purchased a physical copy—and adds additional material along the way? Perhaps follow-along lyrics, or select photos from the production that sync up with the music. Or perhaps a “composer’s commentary” that can be activated or deactivated at the listener’s discretion.

6) The same with sheet music. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sites that only let you download your PDF copy of a song a certain number of times. Seriously–why the hell is that?! Yeah, I’m probably going to download an illegal (and DRM-free) copy of your song, if you (or your sheet music sales service) add all kinds of arbitrary restrictions to the file. Once I purchase something, make it easy for me to download any time, anywhere.

7) I love music by several new musical theatre composers (and several not-so-new musical theatre composers too). Why can’t I give them money every month for access to an “insider’s area,” where I get a weekly email from the composer, along with raw/unedited demos, news about upcoming shows, signed postcards, etc.? Maybe once a month, you’d receive a free piece of sheet music of your choice, and an invite to a mixer with other fans every 3–6 months. It’s a 21st-century take on the official fan club. Again, it’s about creating value for your fans, so they want to pay you money.

These are just a few ideas that will get you on the way to hooking potential customers and making your stuff worth their investment, which is your number one job as a content provider. If you can’t deliver unique value, of course people will steal your stuff.

Make it worth their money. The guilt trip alone is lazy, and doesn’t cut it in 2014.

Now that you’ve made it this far, you should read my follow-up comment, for the full story.

  • Katie Riegel

    Very interesting, Chris. I won’t speak to the sheet music / composer question (although your suggestions on that front seem extremely labor intensive for a very small amount of revenue), but as someone who works in the cast recording business I can tell you that the feasibility is questionable–at best–on all of these.

    Spotify Exclusives – I think this would be great, but it eliminates the opportunity for press from other outlets like EW and makes the iTunes gods angry, meaning they will take away the chance of getting extra promotion on their platform because Spotify has an advantage. Beyond that, Spotify would have to care enough to dedicate resources to it. Cast albums are a tiny niche in the music industry (made even tinier by our pirating problem) and it is very hard to get attention from outlets to do something special like that.

    Lower Prices – It’s not a question of this riling us up — this simply comes down to costs. Equity requires that every cast member on an album be paid a week’s salary for a day in the studio. Add to that recording studio costs, recording personnel, musicians, copyists, maybe a tiny bit for marketing…well, you see how this adds up. Those costs rise every year and album prices have basically stayed the same. I have to imagine that you’re talking about a drastic cut in prices to something like $6 rather than $12. You see the issue here… and beyond that, I have a hard time believing that a cut in price would actually convince someone to stop illegally downloading.

    Distribution Mechanisms – Well, that would be lovely! Seriously, great idea. Would you like to donate some coding time to the cause to make that a reality on our shoestring budgets? :)

    I believe a major issue here is just a lack of knowledge about what happens (or doesn’t happen) when you pirate. I think, like many things in life, people just don’t think about what they’re doing and how it affects other people. I appreciate that you think that calling out the offenders here isn’t proactive, and I do tend to agree that educating and bringing people into the fold as to why they need to be responsible members of this community is better than scolding. They are not worse fans, but they are less-educated and less-responsible fans. But to suggest that just because pirating has become commonplace it’s somehow not damaging or that the onus should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the artists, composers, labels and other associated businesses to make it ‘worth their money’ is not only lazy, but a dangerous precedent to set in terms of people being paid for their art.

    I would be curious about what you think about people poaching code and design concepts. Is that also ok because it’s easy to do on the web?

    • Zeke Patterson

      A possibility for the distribution mechanism is to take the idea to a college. Many of the senior projects for engineering students at my college came from local businesses. It wouldn’t be out of realm of possibility to have a handful of software engineering students work on a distribution program for a senior project.

      As I recall, my college required a donation from the organization sponsoring the project. This donation went directly to funding the school’s program. Beyond that, there was almost no financial commitment for the organization and they had their project realized by students being overseen and reviewed by several professors.

      I would think the project expenses could carry some tax incentive since the money was going into education.

      This isn’t a plug for any university, but it seems that this project would be easy enough that a team of bachelor’s degree seeking students could handle creating the software and a user friendly interface.

    • http://www.chrisvanpatten.com/ Chris Van Patten

      I was thinking a bit about this last night, how I would feel if someone stole my work. On one hand, it happens more frequently than you might expect, which inspired us to release huge swaths of our proprietary codebase for free, over on Github and other channels. Among other things, it gives people who think they can do a better/cheaper job than us an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is by using our code directly. Further, there are many cases where people simply don’t think we’re worth their money: why pay thousands of dollars for a custom website when you can get something for free on Weebly, Wix, or with a $50 WordPress template? Slightly closer, but even then it’s a bad analogy; cast album and sheet music are niche consumer products, not services.

      It’s true that I’m characterising the issue from a perspective that takes the onus off the customers, which is not entirely realistic. I do agree with that. As I said in my post, this is not meant to prescribe a “definitive” path forward, but instead shift the discussion toward ways to improve from the composer and label’s respective perspectives. As a reaction to the rhetoric I’ve seen thus far—which is solely putting the blame on fans—I swung the pendulum to the far extreme for this post. I’m still glad I did that, but I want to make it clear that it was primarily a rhetorical technique, designed to stir people up. I want to get people talking about the whole scenario instead of just playing the blame game.

      As to the issues of time and money, I think it’s an unfortunate necessity that someone will have to spend a lot of time and a lot of money putting this kind of infrastructure in place. And of course, arts budgets continue to be small, and of course I get that (having dealt with arts clients almost 100% until this year). That said, I think it’s less of an investment than you might realise. Any person (or company) who can install WordPress can also easily install Easy Digital Downloads, a free plugin that makes the process of selling PDFs, MP3s, and other downloadable content incredibly simple (no code required). Similarly, there are scads of “membership” plugins that let you easily create a private paid community on top of a WordPress site, perfect for an exclusive fan club. My favourite is Paid Memberships Pro, but there are others. And if you’d rather avoid WordPress, or want to dream bigger, there are dozens of opportunities out there. Where’s the Ryan Scott Oliver Quarterly subscription? Or the Zack Zadek Patreon campaign?

      Yes, it means more work than you might put in otherwise, and yes, this means that you (the rhetorical you, not you personally Katie!) have to be entrepreneurial, independent, and much more focused on your audience than perhaps ever before. But I think that’s inevitable for all creative industries.

      I stand by my original statement, and revise it slightly here: resorting to the guilt trip is the easy way out. Blaming and shaming pirates might feel good, but I doubt you’ll see a see-saw effect. Decreasing theft alone (effectively stopping huge portions of your audience from hearing your music at all) won’t also mean increasing sales… or at least, not by enough to matter. I’d argue that solely focusing on stopping piracy, without offering an alternative, is ultimately destructive and regressive.

  • Adam Gwon

    Hey Chris, you raise some valid points about what the industry can
    and should be doing to make work legally accessible to folks, and I
    don’t think your ideas and the awareness-building philosophy behind
    last night’s Anti-Piracy event are mutually exclusive. Here’s why I
    think last night’s event — where the Dramatists Guild had writers
    reach out directly to sheet music pirates who illegally share their
    work — was important: so many people who engage in piracy have
    absolutely no concept that it’s detrimental or illegal in any way.
    I speak from experience on this: I’ve had kids get up in front of me
    in a master class and sing from blatantly pirated sheet music, with
    no sense that that’s bad or, frankly, awkward. I’ve had directors
    who are directing a production of my show email me to ask questions
    about why their pirated score is different from the cast album.
    People discuss their pirated copies of sheet music in comments on my
    YouTube channel. This happens on a regular basis — folks who’ve
    gotten sheet music illegally are so OK with it that they literally
    show me, the guy they’re stealing from, the stuff they stole. I
    know people are going to find ways to pirate if they want to, no
    matter how many Skype chats or bonus tracks or free llamas I include
    with a purchase. And I’ve seen Les Mis, I know that not everyone
    who steals is a bad person with bad intentions. (Young MT students
    are starving for new sheet music just like Valjean was for a loaf of
    bread, I get it.) But people should be aware that piracy hurts the
    artists and the industry they love, and whether they care about that
    or not is on them. That’s the toughest thing about intellectual
    property issues — the onus really is on those engaging in piracy.
    We can certainly, as you suggest, continue to improve the mechanisms
    through which our work is made available, and we are. But it feels
    important to make folks aware of piracy’s consequences, because it’s
    going to continue to exist, and the decision to do it or not is
    theirs. This probably sounds cheesy, but I don’t think I’m
    alienating fans when I give them that information, I’m empowering
    them to be more responsible in their fan-dom, and to think about all
    the various ways to value the work they want and like. Some people
    won’t care, and that’s for them to reconcile. But if last night’s
    event gave a few people who do care more insight with which to make
    a decision about piracy, I think it was worth it.

    • http://www.chrisvanpatten.com/ Chris Van Patten

      I agree completely that building awareness is important, and indeed essential. That said, certain actions I’ve seen, as well as several conversations I’ve seen on Twitter (through my admittedly narrow lens; I don’t follow every musical theatre composer) have been predicated on the shaming tactics I referenced in the post and my lengthy follow-up comment. I’m not going to shine the spotlight on anyone specific, lest I be guilty of the shaming techniques I am frustrated by, but that’s really the kind of thing I’m responding to.

      Ultimately, I have no issue with a long-term education strategy for would-be customers, as long as it’s done in a positive way that invites those folks into the conversation without accusing. (And as long as it’s not the only step involved.)