This coverage of most-downloaded artists is far too focussed on hard numbers

Its been interesting (though perhaps “depressing” might be a better term) reading the various articles springing from the BBC’s collaboration with MusicMetric to show the most illegally downloaded artists around the world.

The Guardian’s comment piece was plain outdated, making all manner of claims that generally made the article read like something from 2002, not 2012. “iTunes has been successful but it depends on a user having an Apple product to put the music on after they’ve paid for it, and an average kid doesn’t have money lying about for an iPhone”, it stated. No, but they do have money for an iPod Touch. Let’s not paint these devices as being insanely expensive; pound for pound I suspect they’re no different to the decent Walkmans of the 1980s. “Streaming sites like Spotify for music and Netflix, which offers a similar service for film and TV, are an interesting idea and growing rapidly, but at present they are still nowhere near popular enough to challenge torrents, filesharing and the attraction of free music”, it continued… Again: wrong. With Spotify I would think the case study of their growth and impact in Sweden could pretty much shut that argument down in one.

What’s really bothered me though is the focus on hard numbers, isolating them from a raft of other factors around any artist’s success. Most of the sites covering the story referred to the fact that Billy Van managed to achieve over 1m downloads of his album by distributing it solely via BitTorrent. Similarly, the 8m illegal downloads of Ed Sheeran’s album (the most-downloaded release in the UK) were also referenced.

What nobody has sought to do though, is go beyond the hard numbers and consider the myriad of other factors around an artist, all of which total up to form something far greater: cultural impact. Billy Van may have managed 1m downloads, but in what context? How many of those people who downloaded (and let’s be clear, this release was being heavily promoted on BitTorrent) did so only to play it once or twice before deleting it? Additionally, outside of press coverage around the fact that this album was released solely via the BitTorrent platform, how much have you seen Billy Van mentioned, or heard one of his songs on the radio? In my, the answer across the board is “never”. Never heard a song, seen a video, seen anyone write about him, seen mention of him on any of my social networks. Nothing, nada, not a bean.

I did a presentation for AIM a few months ago about the Alt-J campaign I work on. In that presentation I was keen to stress that presenting digital marketing in isolation from all the other things going on in the campaign is misrepresentative. The online is but one piece of a huge puzzle comprising great music, a great label, great pluggers, press, TV, film directors etc.

So the same applies here. Cultural impact carries across all platforms; it doesn’t just come like a badge after you pass X million downloads. They’re one factor, but stripped of all others, they mean relatively little.

To be clear, my issue here isn’t with artists like Billy Van; its more with the myopic way in which the subject has been covered by sites that should know better. There has been far too much “If Sheeran had sold all 8m of those downloads he’d have made…” silliness that means precisely nothing. Ed Sheeran would never have sold all those copies. For all we know, half of those downloads could have been people downloading his album to see if they like it – and having concluded they don’t, deleting the album from their hard drives.

Piracy has been a reality for over a decade now. Writing articles to the tune of “OMG lots of people pirate music!” is not news. The exact scale of it may be to some extent, but it is, as it has been for some time now, totally endemic. As Craig Hamilton put it on Twitter: you can either work with it or work around it. But please, don’t just look at numbers and quote them as if they mean something in isolation. They don’t.

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