BitTorrent Sites: How the Internet Makes Us All DJs

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In the age of the iPod, it's harder and harder to get exposed to new, interesting music. In this three-part series, we'll look at websites that showcase artists and songs you don't already know by heart—but you'd probably like. Today, Sam Machkovech on BitTorrent sites.

Anybody with common sense knows better than to flip on the radio and expect a DJ to assert an opinion.

It's an issue of economies of scale: nationalized media sells ads to national clients. Those clients want assurance that they're tapping the same demographic in every city when they plunk down for an expensive, 40+ city ad buy. This is why every major market seems to have a "Movin'"-themed radio station, along with hip-hop and "alternative" outlets that share a national playlist.

Even factoring in college radio and other small-wattage towers, American cities no longer have a majority of stations in which a DJ will take your call, mark your song request, and play according to consumer demand. Nor do most American DJs have the privilege of picking a new, personal favorite song and peppering a full day of airtime with it.

If I want to find a song that will delight and surprise me, it has become easier to do it myself. That's where BitTorrent sites—which allow users to access a breathtakingly wide range of music—come in.

When we talk about the changing world of music, a lot of people buy into the illusion that the Internet drove the change. Napster racked up millions of users, in spite of Metallica's lamentations. Steve Jobs orchestrated an iRevolution. Radiohead gave an album away as digital files. The rest is history, and we became a bunch of downloading fools—in some cases, pirates—overnight. Right?

Not exactly. The modern music story really begins a few years before Napster, when lumpy ol' 56k modems were cutting-edge and the FCC, under corporate pressure, loosened media ownership rules. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed, among other things, the rise of radio-dominant corporations like Clear Channel and CBS, who saturated airwaves with focus-tested, mainstream-friendly moose drool on a wider scope than ever before. TV and print media, also victims of corporate consolidation, followed suit.

It's not a perfect corollary on paper: that the rise of corporate media in the '90s birthed the MP3 culture of today. But it's a story worth telling if we're to understand what it means to be a "pirate" today. When radio stopped delivering a legitimate "try-before-you-buy" exchange of music, and when our over-the-air DJs were stripped of the ability to surprise and delight us on an hourly basis, we did not respond by becoming thieves.

We responded by becoming DJs.

Perhaps more people would see the connection, if only music critics ever owned up to the fact that we're the biggest music pirates out there. I suppose I'll start first. Get this meeting moving.

Hi. My name is Sam, and I have been a music pirate for 12 years.

It all started in college, when I got hooked up with a job at a used CD store. The shop always had new albums in stock, thanks to radio reps who sold dozens of new discs a week; many weren't even in stores yet. They were stickered with "for promotional purposes only," always in the same golden, all-caps font with a warning about the record label demanding the disc's return at a moment's notice. We laughed the warnings off, listening to the albums in the store and sometimes enjoying our employee perk of borrowing used CDs five at a time.

Years later, I upgraded to a weekly newspaper. My boss, the paper's music editor, hated dealing with the massive crates of promotional CDs that arrived every few days, so she routinely asked me to sort them on her behalf. I didn't tell her about my addiction. I kept my cool and helped the best I could, alerting her to high-profile albums and local highlights. She gave me first dibs on a few album reviews for the section and let me keep anything she disliked (typically, anything loud or electronic).

Within a year, I took over the editorship, and I secured the promotional music drip. Every day, at least a dozen new albums found their way to my desk. I'd deal with the CD overload with a few parsing methods: ask coworkers to help me sort and listen, or reach out to our syndicate's music editors via e-mail for their opinions, or merely glance at the artist name and album cover for a gut reaction.

In all, I spent over six years getting records via such means before I began downloading in earnest.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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