Stefan Schumacher medium.com 9/30/14
Last Friday Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s iconic frontman, released a new album. As a surprise, on BitTorrent. While you may know BitTorrent as a vehicle for illegally downloading music, movies and TV shows — and you’d be correct — Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes costs $6. It’s the first effort to sell music through BitTorrent’s technology.
For those not familiar, BitTorrent Inc. shares its namesake with the software process which allows users to share files peer-to-peer. Unlike Napster of times past, a torrent will download the file from multiple users at the same time, resulting in a much faster transmission. While BitTorrent has already used this process to officially distribute music from artists such as Kaskade and De La Soul, the difference here is that Yorke is the first artist on the platform to offer a “pay-to-press-play” model, requiring consumers to cough up that $6 fee.
The strategy seems to have worked — as of noon ET on Sept 29, just four days into the release, the metrics report over 430,000 downloads. While many of these can be credited to the free single and video (the number of paid downloads is being kept under wraps), profits from the deal will find Yorke retaining a stellar 90%, with 10% going to BitTorrent.
Yorke’s disruptive surprise album comes on the heels of U2 air-dropping their new album Songs of Innocence into our iTunes. You might say they “gave it away” or you could say it was forced upon us, creepily implanted in our digital apparatus without our consent. Both cases add momentum to a growing trend—major artists rewriting the rules, re-imagining the delivery system for their newest albums, bypassing traditional channels of distribution.
Music’s most powerful couple, Jay Z and Beyoncé, each released surprise albums in 2013, strolling into new directions.
Jay Z and Beyoncé each dropped surprise albums last year. Notably, Jay’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was offered free to the first one million Samsung customers who downloaded an exclusive app. Samsung footed the bill at a rate of $5 per album, depositing a cool $5 million in Jay’s pocket.
Beyoncé set the internet on fire by releasing her self-titled album exclusively to iTunes in the middle of the night in late December, 2013. Without any promotion or lead-up, she allowed bewildered and grateful Twitter users to spread the word via trending topics. At that moment she effectively turned her name into a verb — Beyoncé had Beyoncéd the internet. The album was certified platinum by the RIAA within one week, and it was the fastest selling album on iTunes in history, much to the dismay of Target.
Also in 2013, Kanye West’s Yeezus came out with no artwork or fanfare. Instead ‘Ye simply tweeted out the release date, while the video for the track “New Slaves” was projected onto buildings at locations throughout the country. In the absence of a traditional, months-long marketing campaign, fans were compelled to go for the impulse buy, pouncing while the hype was at its peak.
As we all know, physical album sales have been plummeting for years. When was the last time you went to a store to buy a CD? The thought isn’t just foreign at this point, it’s almost grotesque. It seems hardly worth the trouble for the record companies or the artists to package albums and try to sell them physically.
What U2 and Yorke have done makes an even more dramatic statement—that selling music through “traditional” digital storefronts like iTunes and Amazon is too cumbersome. In the new outlook, music needs to just arrive. Yes U2 arrived thru iTunes, in a move engineered by Apple, but that delivery was free and automatic, mandatory even.
“The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or ‘cloud’ malarkey,” Yorke said in a statement about his album. So that’s where we’re at now. Cloud malarkey? Just last Thursday the cloud seemed like the future.
What does all this mean for music fans? And more importantly, what does it say about music itself?
The Good News
By and large, the digital delivery of music is a fine thing. The user experience is exponentially better than it was 10 years ago. CDs were awful.
No one misses having to pay $17.99 for an album they hadn’t sampled, much less heard in its entirety. No tears shed over the jewel cases that would always break before you opened the package. And remember those long, wasteful cardboard boxes that clogged landfills when the compact disc was first introduced?
For the poor souls among us that still have to occasionally use CDs (I have a six-disc changer in my car with no ability to stream music or plug in an iPhone), it feels like having to heat your home with a wood-burning stove or hunt for food every day, as compared to the seamlessness of using Spotify or Amazon.
I have giant cases filled with thousands of CDs I’ve collected over the years, taking up huge amounts of space. They’re ugly and hard to organize. Having essentially the entire world of music on my phone or computer, accessible for free, feels almost too good to be true. And now it’s not even illegal thanks to the streaming platforms.
They’ve made it so easy to get music for free, it’s no longer worth your time to try steal it.
As the newest incarnation of digital music delivery, the Yorke model appears to be a great deal for all involved. New music is offered to fans instantly, with no hoops to jump thru, at a lower price, and artists keeps the lion’s share of the revenues.
These “make the album, drop the album” moments—and the buzz they create—are brilliant promotion in their own right. Fans get excited and want to join in the moment. With social media’s ability to spread the information to millions in lightspeed, perhaps we’re inching closer to that ideal business model for digital music distribution.
Yes, for the Beyoncés, Bonos and Thom Yorkes of the world, and their fans, this evolution is ideal.
U2 air-dropped their new album into users’ iTunes in September, 2014
But Here’s the Problem
Very few artists have the ability to create a media event by simply unveiling an album. Most are tirelessly perfecting their craft in bedrooms, garages and basements, largely unheralded. New artists are thrilled to play in dive bars and small venues, giving their blood, sweat and tears for every fan gained, for every album sold.
I saw one such group last weekend in the Chicago area, an indie rock band called Absolutely Not. They’ve got an infectious sound and give an exhilarating stage performance. I asked lead singer Donnie Moore how the digital revolution impacts them.
“It’s great to be on Spotify, Pandora, all that shit. People listen to our songs, they like us on Facebook,” he said. “But nobody buys anything!”
This is the story for vast majority of artists who aren’t quite yet cultural icons selling out arenas. Spotify has paid Absolutely Not… absolutely nothing. The band also doesn’t bother selling CDs, as no one wants them. And why would they in today’s environment? Artists sell vinyl and cassette because they’re a kitschy novelty; if the design is good, it’s something someone might want to make space for in their homes. So how does anyone in the music game, outside the mainstream, make any money?
Thankfully for those us who love music as listeners, creating music is such an all-consuming passion for these artists—from both the biggest stars and virtual unknowns alike — that they’ll continue to produce content, while we will continue to consume it in the most convenient way possible.
It’s gotten to the point where if I can’t get any song in the world, delivered to my phone, instantaneously, no matter where I am, for free, I’m furious! But pay $5 to download an album? Mmm, I’ll think about it.
In the words of Louis C.K., “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
Just Throw All Your Music Away
The continued streamlining of digital delivery is dangerous in that it sends a message to the masses: music is disposable.
Those of us who curate and obsess over music will always value holding it in our hands, but the easy access of streaming makes storing music feel more and more useless. Not long ago it seemed so advanced to digitize all your music and have it on an iPod or a hard drive. Now keeping all your music on a computer seems wasteful.
Can you imagine bringing a piece of music to someone’s house to listen to? The downfall of the album—a collection of songs built around a unifying concept—has been apparent for many years. Music is becoming a user-defined experience. We combine any set of songs, from any era or artist, and transfer them seamlessly from device to device.
Thom Yorke’s new album (right) is the first to be sold exclusively through BitTorrent’s technology.
Great new albums are coming out all the time. You have to seek them out or read up on them, rather than just plucking songs you like from whatever streaming service you’re listening to. Consider Radiohead. They’ve been at the forefront of technology since they released their 2007 album In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download.
Nowadays, because of Spotify, I hear so much more music and such a wider variety. Since I don’t have to pay to hear something new, I’ll take a risk and listen to lots of stuff outside my preferred genres. I can make these decisions based on criteria as trivial as the name of the group or the cover of the album. I can very quickly and easily categorize these songs so they don’t mix in with the stuff I know I like. And I can share my discoveries on Twitter or Facebook with a click of a button. Unfortunately for the artists, we’re not required to make the additional commitment of $5 to $10 to try out new music.
Here’s What’s Might Happen
A possible scenario: Spotify will go public and will be under pressure from shareholders to make money — lots of it. Like most online media, it will make money by selling advertising. If people don’t want to listen to those ads, they’ll have to pay a premium to avoid them. And if Spotify wants advertisers to spend money with them, it will have to draw more users with great content.
Perhaps as Spotify and services like it grow, they can truly supplant the record companies. These digital media distributors would incentivise artists—newcomers and established acts—to produce great stuff so they can draw more traffic onto their platforms, and thus more subscription and advertising dollars. We already see this happening with video streaming services Netflix and Hulu.
The old model is beyond broken, it’s shattered to pieces. But it wasn’t a very good model to begin with. I’m not one of these people who thinks good music ended in some past decade—there’s a lot of high quality stuff coming out today. There may even be more of it, because music is so much easier to produce and distribute.
New artists no longer need a record label to be seen and heard. And as we’ve seen recently, artists that already have an audience can reach us anytime they choose, in rapidly evolving ways.