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.
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Alex Eichler: The Joy of the Hype Machine: Music Ex Machina
Joe Fassler: Daytrotter: Where Good Music Gets Saved
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.
That's what a modern MP3 depository feels like: the desk of a newspaper's music section, or even the counter at a busy record store. You're buried in every new CD imaginable and connected to a network of friendly music geeks. The heft of such access intoxicates.
Other outlets have written about the world's biggest BitTorrent music sites, and Gizmodo's piece from February is spot-on. In short, such sites connect thousands of users to each other's files in a very simplified way. If you want to download, say, Bob Dylan's early home demos, type his name into a given site's search bar, and you'll connect to every other person with the same files. When the next person searches for those demos, your computer joins the fray, helping them download in a continual sharing loop.
Users are encouraged not to publicize the site names, and even if you tried Googling them, you'd pull up impenetrable log-in pages. yet these hidden music sites are not ugly, virus-ridden bastions of piracy. They're beautiful, efficient, and full of every album imaginable, particularly bootleg recordings, out-of-print releases, and copyright-free material (often recorded by the sites' members). One such site, indietorrents.net, has particularly stark rules disallowing any music from RIAA-affiliated record labels.
The quality control, the built-from-scratch framework, and slick recommendation systems are all hallmarks of portals that rival even iTunes, and that they were designed by fans who accept no money for their labors of love makes such depositories all the more impressive. All the same, these sites do not aspire to serve as iTunes, Pandora, or even Pitchfork. They do not distill the music-gathering process. You do not type in a frequency and expect a tailored genre or mood.
That fact is refreshing. It does not speak to the simplicity of BitTorrent outlets - even with their recommendation tools and top-ten lists, their loads of content require a learning curve - but to the terrible state of the American music establishment as we know it. If we want to try great music for free, with the scale and convenience that radio once allowed, it's our only option.
We have become the DJs, and our musical-recommendation ecosystem, as a result, has become the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle. Who do we trust for music picks lately, anyway? A phony DJ trapped in a national playlist? Some dork down the block with a blog? The 40 minutes a day that MTV plays music? The counter at Starbucks? None of those work on a large scale, as far as presenting a consistent musical point of view with the right number of surprises; that's what we used to enjoy with any given format's best station in a big city.
Armed as DJs, we really only lack one thing to take our wide-open musical access and turn it into something revolutionary: cell phone radio. Not just Pandora's "if you like this, you'll love this" database, but a legitimate, open network of radio that Internet-enabled phones can tap into at any time. It'd be powered by GPS data to pick out local voices in any city. Makeshift DJs, sorted by genre, could serve a mix of expected joys and surprise wonders to all fans (not just college-radio's narrow, blog-friendly archetype).
It'd even pay for itself. Small banner ads on a cell phone screen would replace traditional "interrupt-the-song" breaks to pay for costs and licensing fees, and if users are willing to build complex torrent sites for free, surely they'd upgrade to a paid pittance for curating daily radio shows. Best of all, more access to random music for the average user means more money spent on music, period.
Internet radio was a precious idea, but cell phone radio would spread further and wider, thanks to the same reason terrestrial radio still matters: anytime, anywhere access. The smartphone revolution finally makes my years-long dream a potential reality.
In the meantime, MP3 depositories have boosted the Internet's population of CD clerks and music writers, who swim in an endless supply of great, challenging, and far-reaching tunes. They try, and then they buy. Until my dream comes to fruition, we, the "pirates," will continue enjoying the closest thing we have to an old-school radio station.