Intelligent Machines

Pirate Favorite BitTorrent Offers a New Way to Pay for Music

A new “bundle” format turns the file-sharing network BitTorrent into a way to pay for music and other content.

New technologies for sharing and selling music have previously changed how people create and enjoy music.

Every month around 170 million people use the file sharing program BitTorrent to download music, movies, and software, much of it shared illicitly. Today the company behind the program, also called BitTorrent, starts an effort to turn many members of that large, media-loving audience into paying customers.

As part of the push, the artist Thom Yorke is distributing his new album via BitTorrent in a new format developed by the company. Although you can download it like any other file shared on the network, you must pay $6 with a credit card or PayPal to unlock the music and movie files inside.

The album, called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, is being published in a new format called a “bundle” that BitTorrent has been testing since May of last year. This format provides a way to roll together many different files so they can be shared via the BitTorrent as a single lump. Artists including De La Soul, Madonna, and Moby have already distributed music and video using the format, and bundles have been downloaded more than 100 million times.

Some artists have experimented with requiring people to provide an e-mail address to unlock a bundle. Today is the first time a bundle has featured a “pay gate.”

“It’s the first media format designed with the fact in mind that people share stuff on the Internet,” says Matt Mason, chief content officer at BitTorrent. “Bundles let artists make a better connection with fans by selling to them directly.”

Like other files downloaded using the BitTorrent network, bundles are received in chunks from the computers of other people that have already downloaded, or started downloading, the file. BitTorrent promotes bundles through its file-sharing client, but other files, including bundles, can be downloaded using third-party programs that connect to the BitTorrent network.

Today most digital media is sold through online stores run by Apple, Amazon, Google, and other companies that take as much as 40 percent of what a consumer pays and also retain any data on who’s buying what, according to Mason. BitTorrent will take only 10 percent of the price paid for a bundle, after any payment transaction fees have been subtracted, he says.

Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor at Rutgers who has studied the evolution of file sharing and the music industry’s response, says BitTorrent’s new approach could prove effective. “Here’s a channel that’s been developed entirely organically by consumers themselves [with] hundreds of millions of users around the globe,” he says. “There’s no question that it’s a viable channel for commercial artists to distribute their work, and generate revenues and attention.”

However, Sinnreich says, most record companies will reflexively balk at the idea of embracing file-sharing technology. “They are still wed to this notion that file sharing is the devil’s spawn and that it’s destroyed the industry,” he says.

But since spending on music is in decline, Sinnreich says, record labels may be forced to leave their comfort zone and try BitTorrent’s new format, or work with companies such as Google and Facebook, which are both trying to use their video platforms to generate revenue from music and other content.

“Consumers are sharing media with each other at unprecedented rates, via social platforms and everything else,” he says. “The question is to what degree the media industries are equipped to take advantage of that.”

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