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 of all outlets... 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. And Thom wanted to be the first.”
Mason says that he can’t think of a better musician to work with, given Yorke’s history with In Rainbows – a giveaway he says artists have struggled to repeat at a similar scale, at least until U2’s recent iTunes giveway (more on that later).
“This is now what we hope is the world’s first direct-to-fan publishing system that truly has a global audience,” he said, referring to the 170m active users of BitTorrent’s file-sharing software. “It’s the size of Spotify, Hulu and Netflix combined and doubled.”
Initially, Yorke and Godrich thought they had enough new material for a new EP, but when Mason met their managers Brian Message and Chris Hufford at the SXSW conference in March, they sprang a surprise: there’d be a full album
“This album was born out of these conversations we had on how the internet should work for artists: the vision we both share, which is that at present we don’t have a sustainable business model for artists on the internet,” said Mason.
“Major labels have really given up on selling music, it seems. Pushing Spotify to an IPO is what most of the senior executives at the major labels are concerned with, which might be something to do with the fact that they own a piece of Spotify, and will participate in that IPO. But it doesn’t bear any relation to an artist trying to make a living from their work on the internet.”
BitTorrent may be associated – especially by many people in the music industry – with online piracy, through the numerous filesharing services that use the company’s technology. But right now, the company is defining itself in opposition to Spotify and other streaming music services. An intriguing development.
“We’re not interested in streaming for the sake of lining the pockets of a few people at major labels. We’re interested in helping artists make money from their work in the long term. We’re designed to be used by artists without a label, or for labels to use with their entire catalogues,” said Mason.
“We’re a technology company, we’re really good at moving files. We’re not so great at being a label, a film studio or a book publisher. So we’re trying to make something that works for individuals, labels and aggregate publishers. I’m not trying to bash the people at the labels, but it does seem like the senior executives at the majors have said ‘we give up, let’s just make some money on the Spotify IPO, then go home and let the next generation sort it out.”
Since Yorke’s album was unleashed earlier today, I’ve seen two key criticisms voiced in my Twitter feed from people within the music industry. The first is why didn’t Yorke and Godrich work with another service – Bandcamp is the one mentioned most often – which can help them in their aim of “bypassing the self elected gate-keepers”?
“We love Bandcamp. If you want the main difference between us, it’s that we have over 170m users we can put bundles in front of. Over 40m people who use BitTorrent every day will see this. It’s a massive, massive user base,” said Mason.
The second criticism, which has been voiced regularly ever since BitTorrent started work on its bundles initiative, is that when a famous artist releases one, they’re teaching their fans to pirate music, because getting a bundle involves downloading BitTorrent’s software client.
Mason gives the question short shrift. “Should we blame Apple for selling you a laptop? Why not attack the guy who invented streaming or HTTP? People misunderstand BitTorrent and think it’s something just for piracy,” he said.
“If you look at BitTorrent, the stuff you’ll be offered in BitTorrent and uTorrent, our clients... If you’re just using our websites and products, there’s literally no way to get any illegal material. That’s not what they’re designed for.
“They point you to – aggressively I might add – licensed, legal pieces of content. We’ve got over 2m licensed pieces of legal content – music, films, photography, books – in the BitTorrent system. And pay-gates is about helping publishers put more stuff on BitTorrent legally.”
Inevitably, Yorke’s new album is already available on other torrent services as regular MP3 files, without a pay-gate in sight. Mason brought this up before I could, pointing out that the legitimate bundle “has a much larger swarm than any of the illegal versions – that’s huge for the industry”.
But about U2. The band opted to strike a deal with Apple to distribute their new album to every iTunes user, including – via the automatic downloads feature that a number of iOS users have turned on – pushing it to their iPhones and iPads.
Could or should they have talked to BitTorrent? By this point in the interview, Mason is on something of a roll.
“It’s interesting, the whole U2 thing. I’m an iPhone user, and I’m so pissed off that thing’s on my phone. I haven’t had time to delete it yet, but Apple’s removal website is probably the best thing that a technology company released in terms of a music product this year,” he said. “It’s been a pretty miserable time for innovation.”
He continued: “If that’s our best thinking – get the biggest band in the world to push something onto phones that everyone hates... The U2 thing is a way to encourage piracy more than anything we’re doing. Pissing off half a billion people is a really bad idea,” he continued.
“I don’t understand why you’d do that, if you don’t care about the result and the effect it has on other bands and musicians. With Thom and Nigel, every step of the way they kept asking ‘is this feature you’re putting up for us something everybody can use?’ They held our feet to the flames in building a better product for everyone.”
At the time of writing, Yorke’s BitTorrent bundle has been downloaded just over 54,000 times, according to the figure shown on its widget that can be embedded on websites. Over the coming days and weeks, as it’s downloaded and shared on, that will likely climb – Moby’s BitTorrent bundle was downloaded 8.9m times in 2013, as a comparison.
Mason said BitTorrent is already planning its next partnerships with artists. “There’s a group of people in the music industry really thinking about the collective future of the business, and how we can all work together,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be about ‘how can I make the most money right now?’ and screw the fans. That’s what I didn’t like about the U2 thing: it felt like that, which isn’t productive. Thom and Nigel took the time to understand who we were, and once they did, they made sure we worked our arses off to build a brilliant product.”