BitTorrent: It's how you get movies and music for free. That's what most people think. But if the musicians and filmmakers who are losing to pirates want to survive, they're going to have to give BitTorrent a big hug.
Torrent this album
Today, Thom Yorke became the first artist to start selling his music using BitTorrent by offering his new album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes for download as a £4 BitTorrent bundle. Launched last year as an experimental project, BitTorrent Bundles are basically artist-sanctioned packages of multimedia files you download over the BitTorrent protocol exactly as you do anything else.
Some huge names like Moby and De La Soul have already used the service to distribute exclusive content in support of paid releases available elsewhere. Generally, this content was hidden behind a "gate," which you could only get past by giving up your email address. Yorke's record is the first to make use of a "paygate," which actually charges money. And he's putting his whole album behind it.
This isn't the first time Yorke has gone for novel distribution. Eight years ago, Yorke's band Radiohead launched its record In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download to astonishing success. Before its physical release, In Rainbows generated more money than the entirety of the band's Hail to the Thief. Some paid for the download and others bought a deluxe box set that was available. But plenty of people downloaded it without paying a cent.
Today's Yorke release is something of an evolution of that first experiment, one that takes years of digital sea-changes into account. In a message posted today, Yorke wonders if people will actually use the platform, and perhaps more importantly, if it can't be a legitimate source of income for artists. This isn't a sure thing, but it's an important test.
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.
Indeed, the pricing model makes a lot more sense for creators. BitTorrent takes a 10 per cent cut whereas iTunes and others take more like 40 per cent. That's a huge difference.
We don't have any hard numbers on how well Thom Yorke's record is doing. Presumably, it will move units, because, you know, he's Thom Yorke. A smaller or unknown artist might not fare so well actually selling units, but that doesn't mean that Bundles, and more broadly, BitTorrent can't be of use to them.
It's only the beginning
Earlier this year BitTorrent announced that the free bundle promoting Moby's latest album Innocents, had been downloaded some nine million times. From there, 150,000 people clicked through to the album on iTunes. Though unfortunately BitTorrent told me they don't know how many of those clickthroughs bought anything.
Without that last number, it's hard to say if BitTorrent is actually generating money, but it's safe to assume it's driving some sales, which is pretty remarkable given that these people all use BitTorrent. They all have it set up. To just pirate instead would be a trivial decision.
And in that way, today's Yorke bundle is something of an immediate contradiction. Right now, just hours after the announcement, you can get the Tomorrow's Modern Boxes on BitTorrent for free in the form of a pirated torrent. Because while some people will chose paying over piracy, others will always turn and re-upload that music right off the bat.
But BitTorrent Bundles are not about stopping piracy. They're about bring the sale of music closer to the source, and maybe helping them make some money. BitTorrent has 40 million users a day, and that's a tremendous opportunity, even if BitTorrent (the company) is still figuring out the mechanics of how it came become a platform for legitimate distribution.
And not everyone needs to come right out and sell like Yorke, there can be stages to the delivery. Maybe you give away some exclusive content, and later offer a sale, or maybe the exclusive content is just a portal to other experiences. A few months ago, company VP Matt Mason insisted to me that BitTorrent bundles are adaptable to whatever monetisation platform content creators ultimately land on—be it iTunes, Spotify, or something else like selling concert tickets.
BitTorrent costs artists less and gives them more options than other options like iTunes, in part because it is so cheap to operate. Downloaders—pirates and legitimate users alike—for the backbone of BitTorrent's network. That's what makes BitTorrent so nimble, and flexible in the ways it can try to attract paying customers, or even convert pirates into them. There's room to experiment and if the early success of bundles is any indication, there's a lot of opportunity in those 40 million users, even if millions of them only showed up for free music in the first place.
This doesn't mean iTunes and the middlemen will cease to exist. But as we keep rolling into a digital world where paying customers are harder to find, what we all need are more options to let them pay. And BitTorrent is just that.