The music industry has always practiced the dark arts. Billboard built a business on claiming to accurately measure the most popular music in the country, but albums could be bought in bulk by labels, radio spins could be easily manipulated to favor select artists. Billboard didn't truly reflect the music tastes of the people, it reflected the priorities of the music industry. And in the increasingly fractured internet age, those numbers grew even more meaningless. Determining the most popular music now means adding up physical sales, YouTube views, Spotify streams and more, each outlet with its own complications. Who could possibly understand what "equivalent album sales" means?
I know first hand how murky music numbers can be online. DJBooth was one of the first sites to stream songs on the internet, period, exclusively released some major projects in our day (like K.R.I.T. Wuz Here), and helped launched our sister site Audiomack, which has grown into a major streaming player. Being that close meant being able to see download and stream numbers free of any manipulation, figure out what artists seemed popular on the surface but didn't have a deeper fan base and vice-versa, and more fundamentally, see what realistic download numbers looked like. Remember back in 2010 when Lil Bow Wow claimed he got over one million downloads of his mixtape is just a few hours? Common sense said that was a ridiculously inflated number, but I had seen years of data about what kind of traffic a Bow Wow release could bring in, I knew it was ridiculous.
And so frankly when I heard that Ratking's 700 Fill album was downloaded almost 1.5 million times last year via BitTorrent I was skeptical. Ratking was rising in the underground hip-hop scene, but this was still the underground hip-hop scene, and 1.5 million downloads would place their popularity on par with many huge major label acts. None of their usual channels suggested that kind of reach—not their Twitter, not their YouTube videos—could it be true? To answer that question I had to go to the source, and in speaking with BitTorrent's Director of Content Strategy, Straith Schreder, I discovered an almost parallel universe to the mainstream music industry that's connecting seemingly underground artists with massive fan bases in literally unprecedented ways.
"It's not really about re-engaging people who are already fans on Twitter or SoundCloud. It's about reaching a brand new audience that's passionate about the same things you are."
BitTorrent is one of those things that's somehow simultaneously massive and overlooked. Those who haven't heard of BitTorrent or used it could be forgiven for thinking it's some small, dark corner of the internet, but for BitTorrent users, it's the universe, and that universe is enormous. According to Schreder, they have over 170 million active users, and on any given day BitTorrent can account for as much as 70% of all internet traffic. It's kind of a big deal, and when an early experiment revealed just how interested their community was in music, they decided to launch their Bundle program, which allowed any artist to offer specialized downloads of their music that included bonus songs, lyric books, videos or whatever the artist could imagine. "It's a little more like vinyl," Schreder explained. "Something that's an entire package as opposed to music you just throw on in the background. I think that's profoundly different than the experiences you get in the broader music landscape."
The response to that profoundly different experience has been staggeringly successful, at least for those of us accustomed to living in that aforementioned broader music landscape. In 2014, Curren$y released a Drive In Theatre Bundle via BitTorrent that reached over three million downloads, a number that reveals a vastly larger audience for Curren$y's music than traditional metrics would indicate. And while Ratking was the most successful Bundle release of 2015, the New York City crew was far from alone. Paul White and DJBooth favorite Eric Biddines released their collaborative project, Golden Ticket, as a Bundle and racked up 1.3 million downloads, while producer Salva's Secret Stash 2 garnered 1.2 million, and Little Simz' Age 101 project pulled in nearly 800,000 downloads. Honestly, none of those projects even crossed my mind when thinking of 2015's most popular releases, but now I realize that's only because that as forward thinking as I like to think I am, I was woefully blind to BitTorrent's potentially seismic influence.
"With the growth of fast food music, we think there's a real demand for more substantial music experiences, especially digitally."
Traditionally, the underground is called the underground because it's seen as lesser than, beneath, below, every music executive will tell you that truly large scale success can't be found there. But BitTorrent is proving that's only because those music execs have no idea how to truly reach that deep. "The underground is massive, there's a huge amount of people out there who are hungry for something that isn't necessarily on Apple Music, something that hasn't necessarily been vetted by labels or gatekeepers," Schreder said. It's becoming clear now that mainstream music's dismissal of the underground is like sticking a fork in the ground and then declaring the land worthless, completely unaware that there's a diamond mine just a few feet deeper.
Artists hoping to access BitTorrent's thriving user base will have to do much more than simply put the same product in front of a new audience, it will take an almost complete mind shift. In that spirit, "access" is the wrong word to use. Access is one-sided, transactional. Schreder pointed out that the projects that find success on BitTorrent are those that approach music less like a painting to be admired from a distance and more like a canvas anyone's welcome to put their hands on, even change. "These are the kids who don't see their music dividing into neat genres, they're very interested in the new culture that's emerging through new voices. They really see songs as conversations, they see music as a community, as an open source movement." A concept like that is anathema to a larger music industry that's spent much of the digital age trying to shut down innovation only to grudgingly attempt to adopt that innovation once it became inevitable, but maybe that's why the larger music industry is struggling even as interest in music reaches historic highs.
"Getting people to approach music less as an item for consumption and more as a tool for collaboration, that's something we believe. That's how Bundles work and that's how we believe music should work."
Crucially, all of this is more than empty "art" talk, nice in theory but unsustainable as a business model. BitTorrent's also proven that its Bundles can translate to real revenue streams for artists. Most obviously, some Bundles also have a purchase option, which Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke recently utilized to sell his Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes project, which netted him at least several million dollars. And even when artists choose to release music for free, they can see real booms in the other revenue streams that have come to define the music business in 2016. As Austin Briggs, Jet Life’s Digital Marketing Strategist, said after the release of Curren$y’s Drive In Theatre, "Over the course of two campaigns, we’ve reached an audience of over seven million fans. We’re selling out shows, merch sales are up..."
And BitTorrent's core philosophy of transparency and openness means they share all the data it collects with the artist, from fan email addresses to geographic locations, allowing them to more effectively plan tours and sell tickets. "Looking at the landscape of music right now, it's almost impossible to build a career if you don't have access to data," said Schreder. "It's almost a human rights issue, right?"
Don't expect to see BitTorrent download numbers show up on Billboard charts anytime soon, even though they should if those charts hope to do anything resembling the actual music listening habits of the world. But any sort of wider acceptance doesn't really matter, BitTorrent's already built the scaffolding of a parallel music industry that's fully capable of launching careers in a way even the best major labels struggle to do. I made the mistake of discounting BitTorrent once, I won't make it again.
"This is very much about showing how the world of music can work in a more transparent way. We want people to be able to easily understand not just what's happening in our own ecosystem, but how the larger music culture is changing. That's valuable information for artists and fans, it's critical to understand how music is evolving."