Over the past few years, more and more people have begun to use VPNs for some or all of their internet activity. VPN service providers have become mainstream, with subscriptions coming down in cost significantly from where they used to be, even just a few short years ago. They also have made using a VPN easy enough that non-techie folks can set them up and use them routinely with just one or two clicks.
There are many good reasons why people use VPN services, and while music streaming services aren’t usually the main reason, they certainly may be one of the destinations or uses that consumers put their internet connection towards when connected through a VPN. What impact does this have on artists? And what is a VPN, anyway? We’ll answer these questions in detail below.
What are VPNs?
VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. These services are set up with a subscription model (most are paid, though a few are ad-supported free services), and provide users with login information and access to clients and apps for most major operating systems and smartphones. With the client or app running, the user can select a server in the VPN network, often in another country than their true location. Their internet traffic is encrypted, and goes through a secure tunnel from their device to the VPN server. Here, it is decrypted, and assigned an IP address from the VPN’s shared pool. This protects the user’s true IP address, which is the internet equivalent of a street address, tied to your account with your ISP.
Now outbound from the VPN server, the user’s traffic is routed to the intended destination server, e.g., www.google.com. When the destination server sends a response, it goes to the VPN server (owner of the IP address that was assigned). The VPN server knows who the traffic is intended for, and encrypts it, routing it to your actual IP and device, where it is decrypted. In practice, this happens many, many times a second.
Why Do People Use VPNs?
The nature of VPNs is such that they provide a tremendous amount of benefits to consumers, in the form of security, anonymity, and privacy. First, the encrypted tunnel between user and VPN server means that governments, ISPs, and bad actors cannot monitor the connection – all they see is traffic going from the user to the VPN server, with no visibility to where it goes beyond that. At the same time, because it is encrypted (usually with AES-256 bit encryption, effectively impossible to crack by brute force), it just looks like a stream of gibberish to them. In addition to the security aspects of this function, many people like to use VPNs because they can help bypass ISP throttling, where ISPs intentionally lower overall speeds for customers using music or video streaming, or P2P file sharing through torrent protocols, for example.
At the same time, the anonymity and security afforded users by obscuring their true IP address cannot be understated. This means it’s much harder for bad actors to connect to your actual system remotely. It also means any traces you leave on websites or destination servers online point to the shared IP address from the VPN pool, and not your true address. It can help bypass bans or blacklists against your true IP, and means that every time you access a site or service, you’ll likely have a different IP address.
Further, VPNs help users to bypass geo-restrictions on content. Because most VPN services have servers in a number of countries, users can effectively spoof their location depending on what server they connect to. Since the ultimate destination servers only see the IP address from the VPN’s pool, and that’s based on and geographically linked to the country the server is in, a user in the US could easily present as a user in Japan, for example, to a given website or other internet endpoint service, and vice versa. This is a popular tool for bypassing government censorship and banned website regulations, as well as bypassing regional licensing restrictions on content, especially with video streaming platforms like Netflix.
There are many VPN providers out there – at last count, something on the order of nearly 400 service providers exist worldwide, with a large enough service to be recognized and added to lists of such things. One popular provider is PureVPN, whose service offers all of these common features and more. But there any many other providers as well, all of which generally offer these core features, and additional perks, bonuses, and other useful aspects of their software and service for consumers.
What are the Considerations around Using VPNs with Music Streaming Services?
There are a couple of different considerations with regard to VPN use for music streaming services. On one level, they enable consumers to get around geo-restrictions on content. While more of an issue for video streaming than music streaming, this may ultimately have some impact on licensing and territorial provisions, which, admittedly, are more often a concern for a label, studio, distributor, or publisher than the artist themselves. But, like in any industry, if it results in a decline in licensing or other fees for the label, it will surely translate into weaker earnings for artists.
Another consideration has to do with targeting of advertisements – some services sell advertising space based on their ability to geolocate the IP address of the user, and play appropriate local or regional ads – much like YouTube, and other sites do with video ads. Because VPN services allow users to connect from any server in the VPNs network, they are most often NOT accessing content through an IP address that is reflective of their actual location – different cities, states, and/or countries are quite common. Again, this may have an impact on distributor revenue that ultimately translates into less revenue for artists, though exactly how much impact this may have is unclear.
Perhaps the most important consideration with regards to VPN use and music streaming services is a bit of a throwback to the earlier years of the internet – piracy. Because VPN use makes peer-to-peer filesharing through torrent protocol-based programs (commonly called “torrenting”) more secure and anonymous, it decreases the risk for users. With most better VPN providers maintaining a “no logging” policy, it means that, even if caught sharing significant pirated music content, there’s no way for the RIAA, a label/studio, or anyone else to accurately connect an IP address to a real-world user, and serve them with a cease and desist or a fine. The VPN provider can claim ignorance because they don’t keep the records, and the real user remains hidden. Much like Napster and similar services, the rise of VPNs has been noted by some as a potential setback for online music streaming platforms. Effectively, this technology makes it less risky and more secure to share illegally pirated music content. Whether or not this has an impact in music streaming service subscriptions, up, down, or neutral, remains to be seen, and there are many differing views on the potential and likely impacts, if any.