Numbers of Mass Distraction

2009 Is Record Year For UK Singles Sales
Innovation boosts record label income as licensing and rights deals generate £195m in 2008
New business models boost income for British record labels: licensing and multiple rights deals net £122m in 2007
New BPI Stats show strength of digital music

Just some of the headlines from a group of people not known for their progressive thinking when it comes to music and downloads and filesharing.

But let’s not look at the headlines. Let’s look at the facts:

2009 has already become the biggest ever year for UK singles with more than 117m sold to date, recorded music body the BPI today announced.

“Sales of single tracks in 2009 have now surpassed the previous all-time record of 115.1m, set in 2008. The total of 117m has been reached with 10 weeks of trading, including the vital Christmas period, still to run in 2009.

“That singles have hit these heights while there are still more than a billion illegal downloads every year in the UK is testimony to the quality of releases this year and the vibrancy of the UK download market.  Consumers are responding to the value and innovation offered by the legal services and these new figures show how the market could explode if Government acts to tackle illegal peer-to-peer filesharing.”

“The UK Top 40 is now almost entirely comprised of digital singles. During this year, 98.6% of all singles have been retailed in digital formats.   More than 389.2m single track downloads have now been sold in the UK since the launch of the first mainstream online stores in 2004.

All from that well-known friend of illegal downloaders and filesharers, BPI. I have to consider the statements to be largely factual since they have no incentive to report these particular numbers falsely.

It’s not just about digital sales either. The Beatles are reported to have sold 2.25 million albums in two weeks recently. Again, data with some backing.

I like numbers. But not when they’re Numbers of Mass Distraction (NMD). Not when 136 people can become 7 million people.

Why should I care what numbers are bandied about in the press? Why should I care when someone says “Only 1 in 20 downloads in the UK is legal” or words to that effect?

Well, maybe the excerpt from Wikipedia on WMD will give you some idea why:


When “tentative” numbers get repeated often enough, even if they get corrected later, people tend to remember the original “tentatives”. That’s what the research shows. And by the way, when I refer to numbers or research, I try and refer to the source openly and transparently.

The ITU projects the total number of broadband connections in the UK to be 18.4m by the end of this year. Let’s take that number for a start.

BPI then says that there are already a minimum of 117m legal downloads this year, with 20% of the year to go. Without even going for seasonal adjustment to allow for Christmas, let’s take a worst-case legal download total for 2009 to be 150m or thereabouts.

If we then take the Mandelson pronouncement that only one in 20 downloads is legal, that would assume that 2009 will see 3 billion downloads in the UK. There’s been a similar pronouncement that we have 7 million illegal downloaders in the UK, which was the previous NMD or Number of Mass Distraction.

So let’s try and see whether these numbers look sane, smell right. 3 billion downloads represents 163 downloads per broadband connection per year, or one illegal download every two and a quarter days. Do you know anyone who buys a single every other day? Would you believe it if you were told there were people who did that?

Hang on a second. Why should I use the 18.4 million ITU overall broadband lines in the UK number? What happens if I use the 7 million NMD number? Now I have to believe that there are seven million people in the UK who download 429 singles each illegally every year, or 1.17 every day.

The 117m figure is solid. There is money to show for it. Till receipts.

The 18.4 million is solid. There is money to show for it. Telco billing records.

The 3 billion figure is an estimate based on digits (of the finger kind) whirling through the atmosphere.

The 7 million figure is an estimate based on conversations with 136 people.

If the 7 million figure is correct, then it means that nearly two in five people with broadband in the UK are illegal downloaders. People in the UK reading this post will know other people in the UK with broadband connections. Does this seem reasonable?

If the 7 million figure is wrong, do you think it is wrong on the low side or the high side? Imagine what that does to the daily illegal downloads that 40% of your friends now have to achieve as a NMD target.

I tend to think that maybe, just maybe, the 7 million number is a tad on the high side.

So now let’s move to the other number, 3 billion. If we assume 61.4m people in the UK (Source: National Statistics Online) then we’re talking about one illegal download every week or so for every single person in this country. Does that feel reasonable to you?

Let’s say the number of illegal downloads is not 20 times the number of legal downloads. Would you think the right number is higher or lower?

I tend to think that maybe, just maybe, the 20 times number is a tad on the high side.

Numbers can be so distracting. But let me not paint a gloomy picture. Taking the statements of the BPI alone and the events of the past year or so:

  • There is evidence that the number of legal downloads sold is sharply on the increase.
  • There is evidence that new business models are emerging, from iTunes through to OneBox, from through to spotify and we7.
  • There is evidence that people in the UK care about their digital futures.


My thanks to Robert Crumb for not copyrighting this image in 1968.

Swiftly going West: Digital parody comes of age


I know my readership is “old” but most of you are not as old as I am. So that means you’re more than likely to have heard about the Kanye West/Taylor Swift incident a few days ago. I heard about it, found it at least mildly distasteful, despite Kanye’s apology; I was therefore glad to hear about Beyonce’s touch of class later.

But that’s not the point of this post. Why would I write about two people I don’t listen to, on a programme I don’t watch, and whose lives I have no interest in? Simple. I write because of this video:


Chris Messina tweeted and alerted me to this, a mash-up between Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

Stop there, just for a second. Shut your eyes and imagine. Imagine what will happen if the video goes viral. So-called rights holders crawling out of their shells and demanding recompense, when none is called for in a sensible copyright regime. Am I being sensationalist? I don’t think so. Just take a look at this article, brought to my attention by friend and colleague Kevin Marks.

Experiencing things by watching and hearing and reading. Learning from those experiences. Borrowing from the experiences you have. Letting your imagination run rampant and riotous. Using that imagination to praise, to teach, to lampoon, to savour alone, to share with all.

We have to allow the Matt Kammerers of this world to do their thing. Sampling from here and there in order to make a new thing. A new thing. Copyright law used to be reasonable for centuries, despite attempts to mutate it at critical stages: the inventions of the press, the radio, the copier, the tape, even the CD. Since the dawn of the digital age, attempts to enshrine stupidity in law have increased. Much of what passed for creativity and comment and parody and satire may not be possible in the future if the law is allowed to become more of an ass.

The current battles are really not about downloading or filesharing or mashing up. There is far too much evidence that the downloaders, filesharers and mashup makers are themselves the ones behind the massive growth in digital sales.

The battles have been about control. Control that allows owners of obsolete marketing and distribution systems to exert power on a new generation, because they can. Because we let them exert that power throughly poorly thought out law.

The battles are about control. Control that is alien to the very basis of the internet. Centralised and monolithic, able to criminalise a cohort in the twinkling of a cataracted eye.

The battles will be about control. Control of an entire generation and their right to their culture.

Guess what? Not much stands in the way. Except you and me.

I’ve got your number

First you call 1176 households. You find that 136 people actually admit to using file sharing software. Not necessarily illegal, but who cares when you have a good story?

Then you take the percentage that those numbers represent, 11.6, and bump it up to 16.3; why? because people lie, of course. Not you.

Then you take the 33.9m people published as online by ONS and bump that up as well, to make it 40m. Because statistics also lie.

Mash the percentage with the target population. Et voilà, you get to 7m.

The 7m illegal downloaders referred to in the onslaught on “illegal file sharing”.

Sounds better than 3.9m, doesn’t it? Has a nice whole ring to it.

Sounds so much better than 136.

Full story at