Q&A: BitTorrent Exec Reflects on Thom Yorke Album’s “Success”

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 09.29.14 in News

On Friday, with no formal warning, Thom Yorke released a new album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, via the file-transfer technology BitTorrent. In an announcement, the Radiohead frontman and producer Nigel Godrich said, “It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around.” It was another attempt at a new distribution model from the frontman whose band had, in 2007, popularized the “pay what you like” model with the album In Rainbows.

Since Friday, BitTorrent counts more than 400,000 downloads of either the full album or its free component, which consists of the song “A Brain in a Bottle” and the accompany video. BitTorrent’s chief content officer, Matt Mason, told Wondering Sound that although Yorke’s team has asked the company not to disclose how many people actually bought the album, the number was substantial. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes also marks the debut of BitTorrent’s “paygates,” where creators can charge for certain content. BitTorrent takes 10 percent of the sales, after transaction fees, and its technology is designed for books and movies as well as music.

“There’s so much to do now this first experiment’s been a big success,” Mason says.

Mason talked to Wondering Sound’s Marc Hogan about what BitTorrent has learned from the past few days and what’s still to come for its Bundles download packages.

Thom Yorke called this an experiment. How has it gone?

It’s going really, really well. We were all treating this as an experiment. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We all wanted great things to happen, and great things have happened. The thing we all worried about first and foremost was: Will all the technology actually work?  Can we support a launch of this size, of this sort of global scale? Can we handle the rabid fan base of Radiohead? And the answer was definitely yes.

The second thing was just the velocity of sales that we saw. We’re not able to actually release numbers at this point, at Thom’s team’s request, but what we can say is that of the 400,000 people who downloaded either the paid-for or free version, we’re really, really happy with the number of people who actually paid for the album. It was a significant amount. It just couldn’t have gone any better.

Are you releasing numbers to Nielsen SoundScan?

No, because this was such an early experiment. There are so many back-end things we need to do.

Have you heard any response from Thom yet?

We’ve heard from their entire team, and everybody’s just really, really happy so far.

What do you say to criticism that BitTorrent has its large user base due to piracy?

BitTorrent has a big user base because people use BitTorrent for all kinds of things. People will point to studies that say all of the traffic is piracy. But if you actually look at those studies, all of them are about traffic on the Pirate Bay. BitTorrent is a back-end protocol that the Pirate Bay happens to use. They also happen to use http.

BitTorrent is used by so many people, for so many different applications. Every time Facebook updates Facebook, they use BitTorrent to push those updates to their servers. The same thing with Twitter, Wikipedia, Etsy, gaming companies like Blizzard. Academic institutions all over the world use BitTorrent for processing, crunching and sharing data. It’s used by traders on Wall Street to distribute high-frequency trading algorithms.

BitTorrent is a backbone of the Internet. It’s the fastest way to push a large file to somebody. It’s open source, so of course there are people using it for piracy. It’s not what we designed it for. It’s not exclusively why people use BitTorrent. I think what we’ve seen over the weekend, in some ways this has been a watershed moment for a lot of people: “Oh, now I get what you guys are about.”

We’ll be pushing aggressively in this direction, because it worked really well for Thom, it’s working for us, and we think it can work for all content creators going forward.

Thom Yorke and Radiohead already have, as you said, a “rabid” fan base. How does BitTorrent help lesser-known artists?

We’ve been working with artists of all shapes and sizes for the last year. We launched Bundles as an alpha product a year ago, with just email gates at first. And since then you’ve had some of the biggest artists in the world — Madonna, Linkin Park, Public Enemy, Moby, Michel Gondry — using BitTorrent. But there’s been over 11,000 publishers that have used BitTorrent, and most of them are not giant, famous artists. Most of them are small artists. They’ve been using BitTorrent to get their work in front of more people, collect email addresses and make direct connections with fans.

The reason we wanted to work with Thom and his team on the first pay-gated Bundle wasn’t necessarily because they were the biggest artist we could work with. We chose to work with them specifically because they understood and believed in what we were trying to do. And that was really democratize what they did with In Rainbows. Of course not every publisher’s got the fan base that Radiohead has. But the idea of democratizing the direct fan experience, so that anybody can publish something and reach 170-plus million people like you can through the BitTorrent Bundle ecosystem, that was the dream that we really believed in.

When we started talking to Thom and Nigel about BitTorrent, at the first the conversations I was having with them were not, about “Let’s do a Bundle together.” It was just, “Let’s talk about the state of the internet.” We thought we were kindred spirits on a lot of stuff. When we first started talking, this album didn’t exist. There was no plan to release a Thom Yorke album this year. Radiohead had just had a year off. But the more we talked to them, the more we both realized that they had to be first. They wanted to be first, because they believed in what we were doing. And we wanted them to be first, because we knew they would hold us accountable. They are the gold standard in terms of doing the global direct-to-fan launch.

What’s next?

We want to open paygate to all publishers as soon as possible. We’ll certainly be doing a few more high-profile experiments of this nature, testing out different ways to use the paygate over the coming months. The hope is by the end of the year to open this up to the world, so that all publishers can start selling stuff directly through BitTorrent. From there, it’s really just deepening the sophistication of the direct-to-fan experience.

The thing we’ve realized in this last year working with Bundles and working with all these different artists is there’s no one business model for the business of digital content. There’s a different business model for each piece of digital content. And it should be up to the publisher to define that business model. We’re trying to build a bazaar rather than a cathedral.