The music scene of the sixties was defined by LSD, the 70s by cannabis, the 80s by cocaine, and the 90s by heroin. Music and drugs have been inseparable since music was invented, but the drug of choice for the new millennium isn’t a psychoactive substance, it’s technology.
On July 2, 2001 the music world was forever changed when Bram Cohen released BitTorrent, a peer to peer file sharing software. The software works by utilizing “torrents”, media files that are broken into “bits”. These easily download-able bits are shared between computers running BitTorrent and the selected torrent. While downloading, the program acts as a “leech”, primarily downloading and sharing little. Once the download is complete, the program then “seeds” the torrent bits to other lechers. Every BitTorrent user has a leech to seed ratio that tracks how much they seed and how much they leech. People who leech but never seed have low ratios, and are frequently kicked out of torrents. This encourages BitTorrent users to keep a 1:1 ratio, the ideal balance between giving and receiving.
BitTorrent is so effective that even people with dial-up Internet can download media quickly. While torrents exist for everything from movies to video games to computer software, Mp3s are by far the most commonly torrented media.
When it comes to the law, torrenting exists in a grey area. Torrent supporters claim it’s no different than sharing a CD with a friend so he can burn it to his computer. Opponents argue that torrenting is more like going into a record store and taking whatever you please without paying. While technically illegal, so many people torrent that it’s impossible for companies to sue everyone. So instead of prosecuting individual users companies go after torrent websites like The Pirate Bay and torrent software developers.
Some musicians adamantly disavow torrenting sties. Gene Simmons, bassist for the rock band Kiss, has been quoted saying “Make sure your brand is protected. Make sure there are no incursions. Be litigious. Sue everybody. Take their homes, their cars. Don’t let anybody cross that line.”
Other musicians that abhor torrenting include legendary metal band Metallica. In 2000 Metallica discovered an unreleased demo was receiving radio airplay. They tracked the leak back to the first peer to peer file sharing website, Napster. There they discovered their entire discography was available for free. Upset, the band took Napster to court. Other artists including Dr. Dre joined in on the lawsuit. The artists won, and Napster filed for bankruptcy. Napster would later reincarnate itself as a digital music store similar to iTunes.
Not all musicians are opposed to torrenting. In June 2003 English rock band Radiohead fulfilled their six album contract with EMI. Instead of renewing it, they chose to record their seventh album In Rainbows independently. On October 10, 2007 Radiohead released In Rainbows on their website, declaring that fans could play whatever they liked to download it, including nothing at all, and encouraged fans to spread the album via torrenting. In Rainbows would go on to be a huge commercial and critical success. While bands like Asthmaboy have been releasing their music for free online long before Radiohead, In Rainbows made free online music distribution mainstream, and played a huge role in advocating torrenting as a positive thing. Other major label bands including Nine Inch Nails would go on to release albums with a pay what you want system similar to In Rainbows.
Torrenting has had a huge impact on artists, and not where you might expect. Bands get very little money from record sales, the majority of which goes to record companies. Instead artists make bank from ticket and merchandise sales at live concerts. Torrenting is usually beneficial to artists, helping them gain more fans than what they might have had otherwise. On the downside, torrenting has made it much harder to become a successful, innovative artist. Why should somebody listen to you when they can listen to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Cars, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam for free? As an artist, how do you out innovate Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Rage Against The Machine, Sonic Youth, or David Bowie?
Torrenting has had a major effect on consumers too. Before the Internet music acted as a badge of cool among fans. Going to a live concert meant you experienced your favorite artists and songs differently than people who only heard them via vinyl or CD. Thanks to streaming video sites like YouTube and torrented concert DVDs, you can experience your favorite band live from the front row in high definition relaxing on your sofa without getting distracted by the noisy drunk standing next to you. Live concerts mean nothing anymore. Who cares about your shelf full of records when I can fit 3000 albums in my pocket?
The other piece of technology that revolutionized the music industry was video streaming website YouTube. With YouTube, any musician with a web cam and an Internet connection could have their voice heard. While streaming video existed before YouTube, it was awkward, clunky, and difficult to use. Artists like Bo Burnham and Tay Zonday have become famous and acquired record deals from their songs distributed on YouTube. While bands like OK Go, which write shitty music but direct amazing music videos, achieved unprecedented levels of success from YouTube distribution.
Many people complain that modern day music is inferior to music from the 60s and 70s. What these people don’t realize is there was just as much music floating around back then, but only the best musicians acquired record deals and garnered radio play. The truth is the quality of music hasn’t changed, the volume has. Forty years ago the music market was much smaller and tighter than it is today. Thanks to technology we are exposed to more music than ever before, and while our crop has gotten larger, so has our cream, and it’s just as sweet if not sweeter.
Ed. note: Thanks to Clay for this thought provoking piece! Read more from Clay Riedesel on our sister site, Radio Free Chicago.