The lifespan of software is a curious thing. Unless a program is deemed irreplaceable by an industry (like Photoshop), most die out or are succeeded by a better—or cheaper—option a few years later. Even games, outside of retro collectors’ items or unicorn hits (Diablo II), lose steam. After the downfall of Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and the rest of the early file-sharing clients, most people assumed that single source peer-to-peer (P2P) piracy programs—the kind where you download music or other files from exactly one user—died out. But one of them, Soulseek, weathered three of file-sharing’s mass extinctions, and has quietly remained one of the best sources of obscure music.
Soulseek is the creation of Nir Arbel, a programmer who worked on the development team behind the original release of Napster, and it functions in similar ways. What started in 1999 as a means of trading techno and dance tracks grew to encompass rare and obscure music of all genres, slowly becoming an audiophile’s paradise. Vinyl rips of unknown soul groups? Cassette-only harsh noise? Rare compilations from a long-dead black metal label? It’s all there. You can also download the new Justin Bieber album, but with a glut of legal ways to listen to Purpose, it’s certainly not where Soulseek shines.
“A lot of the music I am into is old, pre-war blues and old folk music,” Soulseek user Raul the Goat, a 28-year-old Detroit resident, told Gizmodo through the software’s chat client*. “A lot of it is out of print or extremely expensive. Music is one of the ways that culture can transmit itself, which is why I think that it should be free.” Raul has been using Soulseek for over 10 years, and is sharing over 32,000 files, including a copy of my former band’s self-released first album (An impressive feat: in two years, we never played to more than 50 people). Other users are known to share several hundred thousand files. User [InFineO[IoN], who identified himself as Matt, had over 600 gigabytes available for download, almost all of which was music.
Preservation is one of the more common goals cited by Soulseekers. A 34-year-old Floridian machinist who uses the handle Icepick Method explained: “Once I discovered music zines in the mid-90's it opened up an entire world to me that I didn’t know existed, beyond MTV and radio music—like an audio archaeologist.”
But the depth and breadth of Soulseek’s catalogue isn’t the only reason it’s hung on so long. One of its core features is its community, powered by maddeningly simple IRC-like chat windows that lack any of the modern conveniences like read receipts or embeds.
That has allowed the emergence of a tight-knit community that shares recommendations and in-jokes, or rants about a new band’s terrible sophomore release, without intervention from any chatroom overlord. The absence of moderation is an increasingly rare phenomenon online, and Soulseek’s public chats—like the infamous +Blackmetal+ room—are a cacophonous mix of spam links, shit-talking, harassment, and, occasionally, genuine music discussion.
Private rooms are invite-only, and are where many of the truly dedicated users spend time, cloistered away from the noise and visual deluge in the few public rooms that remain active. “I’ve met a few life long friends on Soulseek, people who traveled from all over the country to come hang out for a couple days a year,” Icepick Method wrote. “I know people who have gotten married because they met on Soulseek.”
As Tomcat Ha, a 27-year-old from the Netherlands, put it, “Soulseek in many ways is a throwback to old internet culture: more interesting, more anarchistic times when being involved with something online was still something novel and interesting things still happened regularly.”
Soulseek’s relatively small size has also allowed it to fly under the radar while its larger brethren fell one by one. Near the height of its popularity in a 2003 interview, Mr. Arbel estimated that 100,000 users were logging in to his “largely overlooked” service at peak hours. Compare that to Kazaa’s 60 million estimated users from the same year—a number which undoubtedly grew before its well-publicised demise at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). “Seeing as the system is pretty small to begin with,” Nir said in the same interview, “it’s likely we’re not even on the RIAA’s radar.” (Nir did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
The mid 2000s also saw second generation P2Ps and early Bittorrent indexes land in the crosshairs of trade organisations like the RIAA —and the majority went belly-up. Their replacements were blogs that used file storage services like Megaupload and Rapidshare to disseminate obscure music, and Grooveshark-style unsanctioned streaming sites for more populist tastes. By 2012, Megaupload had been taken to court, Rapidshare was neutered, and niche blogs had no reliable way to share their prized collections. Between 2014 and 2015 just about every streaming service that wasn’t legally buttoned up either shut down or was acquired and revived under corporate auspices. Sexier options and a split in the core client meant Soulseek’s user base declined significantly during this time, but it wasn’t enough to fell it completely.
Soulseek isn’t the only P2P to survive these major crackdowns, but where single source P2Ps are concerned, it essentially stands alone—a living fossil. Former competitors that still receive software updates are prohibitively difficult for many users to configure, have transitioned away from their old protocols to become Bittorrent-only, or are virtual ghost towns. The closest extant audiophile community to Soulseek is What.cd, an obsessively curated invite-only torrent sharing community. The site’s usage rules—when pasted into a Google doc—span 77 pages and users are commonly banned for relatively minor infractions. For many, What.cd is the oppressive late-stage capitalism to the anarchy of Soulseek.
Whether as a rebellion against data-hungry services like Spotify, the desire to discover truly weird music, or a thirst for the bad old days of the wild west internet, several Soulseek users I spoke to feel that there’s a renewed interest in the service. There is a small Soulseek subreddit which averages around one post a week, and a cursory search through Tumblr’s tags will reveal a trickle of both new Soulseek recruits and established users reaching out for a larger and more diverse community. A handful of users also sing the service’s praises on 4Chan’s /mu/ board. But the fact is that it doesn’t matter if there’s a revival happening: Soulseek was never destined or intended for the level of popularity that sank similar services. It’s a niche community, made further niche because it’s one of the few pieces of software that still looks like crap but functions on a modern OS.
As long as just enough new users (who donate money to maintain the server) replace those abandoning it, and as long as Nir continues to update the software, Soulseek will neither thrive nor die. Even if record stores have largely shuttered and Blogspot’s heyday is behind us, music obsessives will always find somewhere to call home. “That’s why SoulSeek is so precious,”[InFineO[IoN] said. “You can hear all kinds of rare and awesome music that you wouldn’t even know existed.”
*All chat quotes heavily corrected for readability