InsightaaS: The Guardian is one of the world’s most respected news sources. Founded in 1821, it has stayed relevant by providing in-depth analysis of both local (UK) and global issues. This post looks at an issue with potentially-vast implications: BitTorrent's decision to launch a paid music service.
Since Napster, music labels have been decrying lost sales, while proponents of online file sharing services (a group that would prominently include BitTorrent) have been claiming that online music benefits musicians, even if it does not help labels. Neither side has been entirely persuasive. It is an open secret that the labels are not supportive of 'the talent' - a famous Salon piece by Courtney Love laid that bare, and highlighted why artists themselves consider the labels and not the file sharing services to be the real 'pirates'. On the other hand, the links between online sharing services and artist income are tenuous at best; for the most part, while the systems have changed, there's little real opportunity for artists to monetize their work.
BitTorrent, which is the conduit for a great deal of non-authorized content, is now taking steps to connect the dots between musicians, fans and money. Working with Thom Yorke (ex of Radiohead), BitTorrent set up a pay-gate for a new album's worth of material. This won't stop the music for being shared without payment, but it does provide fans with the option of contributing directly to Yorke.
Needless to say, the labels - which back online streaming service Spotify, whose revenue model is more label-centric - are likely to be unhappy with this development. That's not likely to be the real issue in the long run, though. Labels once had three points of control: production (which required expensive studio time), distribution (music stores) and promotion (mainly, radio). Recording technology has changed, making it possible for literally any band to create high-quality recordings affordably. Distribution has changed - and with BitTorrent, it is changing more. Will promotion change as well? The internet has transformed the media industry as surely as it has transformed the music industry, so it's certainly possible. And while other kinds of businesses might say, "well, that applies to music, but not in our sector," this type of denial may not be helpful in the longer term. The internet is changing business models across the economy. BitTorrent's actions are important to music today...but they may apply to other forms of IP-based products in the future; and with 3D printing, it's likely that a wider swath of the economy will become IP-based, rather than physical goods based, in that future!
Thom Yorke is no stranger to making waves in the digital music world, from the pay-what-you-like release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows in 2007, to his fierce criticism of Spotify in 2013, and now the release of his new solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes through a partnership with BitTorrent.
Matt Mason is the chief content officer at BitTorrent, and the driving force behind the company’s "Bundles" initiative, which gets musicians, filmmakers, authors and other creators to release their work packaged up as torrent files, with fans unlocking the full contents usually by entering their email address.
Kaskade, DJ Shadow, Moby, De La Soul, Pixies and Public Enemy are among the artists who have tried it, but Yorke is the first to use a new "pay-gate" feature. Instead of exchanging an email address for his album, fans pay $6 (£3.68). Mason talked to The Guardian about how the partnership came about.
"We started talking to Thom and Nigel [Godrich - Yorke’s collaborator and producer] about a year ago. I met Nigel on Christmas Eve just gone in London. We didn’t think they were doing anything: they’d just had a year off," said Mason.
"We met up and talked about BitTorrent: where the internet should be going for artists, where they saw the opportunities and problems today, and one of those conversations got onto the idea of pay-gates in BitTorrent bundles...