A few years ago, I watched a keynote from writer and broadcaster Mark Pesce who rightly noted “the net regards censorship as a failure, and routes around it”. Although he was referencing censorship, his ‘Mob Rules’ speech essentially said that the same truth applies to so many aspects of online activity where a hierarchy ostensibly prevents fair and equitable access. Whenever walls are erected, no matter how seemingly well protected they may be, someone somewhere will find their way around them.
Cut to last week, and we find Thom Yorke once again in the news for routing around the music distribution paradigm. His latest album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, was released as a BitTorrent Bundle – a paywall twist on the torrent model (largely used for distributing illegal copies of movies, TV shows and games). The distribution method is the same one that fuelled sites such as The Pirate Bay – the difference here being that BitTorrent have introduced an option for artists to sell torrents to their fans, with added DRM protection. In Yorke’s case, this means the user pays a reasonable $6 for his new album, allowing them to download a protected torrent file that can only be shared with people who have also paid for the file.
Yorke is a vociferous critic of streaming models, particularly Spotify, that bring little return to the artists, and major returns to the streaming networks owners (in Spotify’s case, the labels). He said: “We don’t need [Spotify] to do it. No artists needs you to do it. We can build the shit ourselves, so fuck off. But because they’re using old music, because they’re using the majors… the majors are all over it because they see a way of re-selling all their old stuff for free, make a fortune, and not die.”
My reading of this is that the model itself is not the problem, it’s the way in which the revenues are shared. Spotify and its owners reap the vast percentage of the revenue, and pass relatively small shares onto the artists. Traditionally, when an album was sold over the counter, an artist would be lucky to see around 10-15% of the retail price (e.g. $3 for an album that would sell for $25), labels 30%, stores 20%, with manufacturers, distributors & copyright admin and Government taxes shoring up the rest.
When iTunes came along, they replaced the store and all the smaller players, and took 30% off the top. However, most iTunes deal were still brokered by labels who maintained something akin to the old store model, meaning artists were generally no better off. Services, such as Bandcamp, offered a reduced store fee (15% in their case), based on a similar centralised model, but they were more attractive than iTunes as the artists generally sidestepped the label and sold direct to fans. Vitally, the artists also gained access to all email addresses of anyone who purchased the record.
It’s not surprising that Yorke and Radiohead flipped to a ‘direct to fan’ model for their In Rainbows release. Although they ostensibly kept 100% of the revenue in that example, the cost of distributing the record was bourne by them alone – the server costs to distribute millions of digital copies of the album would have been significant, along with the responsibility for ensuring that the server remained at peak output for the duration of the project.
The BitTorrent bundle operates differently – the network bears the load. However, the unique aspect of torrenting is that the files are not located on a single server – it is a peer to peer network, which – in simple terms – means that everyone who has a copy of the file on the network acts as a distribution point. The more people that have the file, the faster the file downloads. With no central server, it is nigh-on impossible to shut down a torrent network – which is why the music, film, TV and games industries despise them so much. Once a copy of Game Of Thrones is introduced into the network, it can’t be squeezed back into the bottle.
To be fair to the ‘creators’ of the Bundle concept, they are not a bunch of pirates suddenly deciding to ‘go legit’. As BitTorrent Inc, they are an entity who have no legal connection to the file transfer protocol of the same name. They have, to date, operated only to distribute legal files supplied by artists. They would appear to also have noble aims at heart – they claim “we’re trying to build an independent record store — a place where you can go and get lost in a piece of content. iTunes was built by Apple for the major labels and it’s focused on selling singles. If you look at the artists using Bundles, yes they want to sell singles, but they’re more interested in building a direct connection with the fan that they can continue to monetize in a sustainable way.”
Yorke is by no means the first artist to embrace torrents. The Bundle store has legitimate files available for free from Madonna, Mad Decent, Public Enemy, Eddie Izzard, Cut Copy, Moby, Amanda Palmer and many more. However, this is the first time that BitTorrent have implemented a paid torrent service (administering the paywall tech in return for a 10% share), and is thus a major departure from the norm – arguably a step towards legitimising the model. Yorke might be the first, but it seems that the Bundles option will soon be available to all.
Through this, his anti-Spotify campaign and the In Rainbows project, Yorke has become the defacto champion for musicians and fans alike who see traditional distribution models as ‘blockages’, and respect others who consistently find ways to route around them. In a press release accompanying the record, Yorke says “It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around … If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers. If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done.”
Early indications suggest that is has worked. While there are illegal copies circulating (as you would expect of any new album from any artist), at the time of writing, over 300,000 people have paid $6 to download the album bundle legitimately. The maths are not difficult to interpret – after less than a week, and after giving BitTorrent their 10%, Yorke has netted over $1.6 million. It’s fair to say, with numbers like that, the flood gates have now officially opened.
Image: Cover art for Thom Yorke ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’
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