On the heels of U2 and Apple’s promise to reveal a new digital format that will change the music downloading paradigm, some players with a bit more clout these days when it comes to digital music innovation, Thom Yorke and BitTorrent, may have already done it. The two announced last Friday that Yorke’s new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has been released solely behind BitTorrent’s new paywall system for the reasonable price of $6, in an attempt to help bring value back to music for the artists. And so far it seems to be working. After skyrocketing past 400,000 downloads over the weekend, BitTorrent today revealed the project has reached more than 1,000,000 downloads in just its first week.
The one million mark is slightly skewed, as BitTorrent does not break down how many of the downloads were paid and how many were from the debut single, which is offered for free in the hopes of enticing listeners to throw down the six bones for the whole enchilada. Still, this week’s numbers seem to show that BitTorrent’s new payment system is something torrentors — notorious for mining scores of free digital files — are willing to entertain. Rather than simply scanning for a free copy, it appears that at least some savvy downloaders are still willing to part with their money for music if its a reasonable deal. And perhaps just as important, Yorke’s international fame and prestige have helped to create some serious buzz, which BitTorrent hopes will be a catalyst for a revolution of sorts in the way people get their music.
The new paygate system (as BitTorrent is calling it) is centered around BitTorrent’s Bundles, which are a new type of torrent that allow content creators to guard their wares behind a “gate” that opens to potential downloaders only after filling out a form. Bundles originated in 2013 as a means to get email information for advertising purposes, but the company hopes its latest experiment will help it move beyond email, and into a fair payment system for artists and creators. It’s hard to imagine BitTorrent’s new paygate system having a better start.
If you’re surprised that BitTorrent is actively working on creating a system that requires its users to lay down cash, as opposed to the traditional free-for-all associated with torrent sites, you’re not alone. However, while Pirate Bay may grab headlines for its near-anarchist philosophy when it comes to content, BitTorrent claims it has always desired to create a torrent system that gives content creators of all kinds their fair shake.
The paygate Bundles initially work much like regular torrents, only users have to pay to get beyond the “gate,” at which point they will have a determined number of downloads before the door essentially shuts again. The system is artist-centric and, according to the report, only allots 10 percent of the purchase price for BitTorrent, with the rest going to the creator. That’s a vast difference from sites like Spotify and Pandora, which make it notoriously hard for artists to make more than a pittance from their material, spawning some creative solutions.
According to BitTorrent, its original Bundles format has already gained popularity from a diverse crowd of artists, including everyone from bestselling novelists and filmmakers to a swath of musicians across the spectrum, from Madonna to the Pixies. According to the report, 450 Bundles have garnered over 100 million downloads since 2013. But the company is hoping to take things to the next level with the new payment system, with a little help from some friends.
As the initial figures appear to reinforce, Yorke is the perfect artist to help bring some buzz to BitTorrent’s new paygate format. For years, Yorke and Radiohead have been pushing innovation and standing up to the status quo of big label oppression, which helped create the industry’s current state of decay. Most notable was the famed release of Radiohead’s 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows, in which fans were encouraged to pay whatever they wanted (or nothing) for a digital download, with a vinyl/download combo available at a fair price.
While the In Rainbows experiment had mixed results, it helped stir up some much needed conversation about an issue that has seen many musicians lose faith in the value of their recordings entirely. The ever-decreasing value of digital content has lowered value across the entire industry, from the artists and distributors, to studio musicians and audio engineers, and beyond. You know, the people that make the music you love.
Yorke’s name and international appeal seems to have done more than just put BitTorrent’s new system in the headlines, and on the tongues of torrentors everywhere. It has proven to be a viable format for artists to turn to, in one instance, at least. The big start for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes should help other artists to, as Yorke put it, “(enable) those people who make either music, video, or any other kind of digital entertainment to sell it themselves.”
BitTorrent will reportedly refine the format as it grows, including the idea of putting in thresholds, which will open up more content to those who have paid their share once the artist or content creator has reached a determined sales goal.
Whether or not BitTorrent’s new payment system will have continued success in the modern age of streaming services and free … well, everything, remains to be seen. But the philosophy follows a timeless notion that companies like Netflix have proven well: If something of value is offered at a fair price, most people are willing to pay for it. Whether that mantra will continue to gain traction with the torrent crowd is another question altogether.
You can find Yorke’s first song and video for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, “A Brain in the Bottle” on this side of the paygate for free right now. The rest of the album will cost you less than you probably paid for lunch. Is it worth it? Let the debate begin.