Thom Yorke’s second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, was surprise released via BitTorrent last week, sparking debate and discussion about what (if anything) this might mean for music sales and distribution. So, we decided to go right to the source and speak to the mastermind behind the project’s release, Matt Mason. Mason is BitTorrent’s Chief Content Officer and worked closely with Yorke to debut the album through their new pay gate system. The pay gate system allows users to purchase music directly from artists, sidestepping labels and, according to Mason, it will “change not only how consumers consume content, but how creators create as well.”
Are pay gates and torrents the future of the music industry? Read on to find out why BitTorrent thinks so.
How did you first connect with Thom Yorke?
I originally met with his manager. We were talking and I ended up meeting Nigel Godrich, the producer for Radiohead and longtime collaborator with Thom. Me and Nigel met in London on Christmas Eve for a cup of tea in the studio and at the time Radiohead had just had a year off. The more we talked the more we realized that what we were trying to do was what Radiohead tried to do with In Rainbows. That is, make it easier for independent artists to sell their content online.
We had a couple of conversations and at the end, Nigel decided that they had to be the first people to do a pay gated bundle. The plan was for Thom to do a four track EP. We sat down with them again at SXSW and their manager Chris [Hufford] told me it’s not an EP, it’s actually going to be a full album. For a full album to be recorded for the launch of this particular product was incredible and it happened because we had this shared vision for how the internet should be. Thom and Nigel were really hands on with us in terms of figuring out the best interaction and user flow. It was the deepest collaboration we’ve ever done with an artist.
It happened because we had this shared vision for how the internet should be.
We know that Thom has protested streaming services, specifically Spotify. How do you think paid torrenting compares to streaming sites, iTunes, and other means of distributing and selling music?
All of these things, from our point of view, are useful as a part of the equation. We’re not looking to replace any one of these things. You can stream through bundles as well. To rollout pay gate, one thing artists can do is build a subscription-gated bundle, where users can stream music from a bundle without downloading it. We look at things like Spotify and Pandora and its great for users to be able to listen to all the music that they possibly can. We just think there’s probably some fairer ways to do that for artists, and we’re going to experiment with that.
iTunes will take 30-40% of the money you make. BitTorrent takes 10%.
With almost a week to reflect, how would you evaluate the success of this launch?
I can’t quote sales but, as of Monday morning, we’ve seen 620 000 downloads of either the free portion or the paid bundles. [Ed note: The figure is now at 1.1 million.]
I will quote Thom’s manager Chris Hufford in saying that “this couldn’t have gone any better.” We absolutely agree.
It sounds like BitTorrent is going to continue to carve itself out a niche in the world of music distribution. Can you elaborate on your plans?
Absolutely. Bundles have been around for over a year now. In the last year we had over 120 million people unlock a bundle when downloading a film, music, etc. This was a major step forward in terms of evolving the bundle ecosystem. We want artists to be able to self-publish here. We want fans to think of this as a destination to get stuff directly from artists. One of the greatest things about a bundle is that you can embed it anywhere. It can contain music, videos, PDFs. We can ship it to hundreds of millions of people at zero cost. That’s why we can charge a competitive price.
Unlike Apple, we don’t have to have giant server farms everywhere loaded with everybody’s content which could be hacked or could break. As we saw with Thom Yorke, everything just worked perfectly. If you look at the Beyonce album, it broke iTunes. With the Jay Z Samsung thing, it broke Samsung’s mobile devices. When De La Soul released their entire discography over Dropbox, it broke Dropbox. You can’t break BitTorrent. The more people who use BitTorrent, the more robust it gets. That’s one advantage of using it. We’re absolutely going to be pushing into this stage.
If you look at the Beyonce album, it broke iTunes. With the Jay Z Samsung thing, it broke Samsung’s mobile devices… You can’t break BitTorrent.
If a young artist was looking to sell their music through BitTorrent, how would they do it?
We haven’t open pay gate to the world just yet, but right now any artist can sign up and publish a bundle on BitTorrent and they can use email-gates and give stuff away for free. We’re adding pay gates for everybody by the end of the year. It’s as easy to use as WordPress. You make an account, add content, and set where the gate opens. It’s that simple.
We’re adding pay gates for everybody by the end of the year.
Where do you see pay gates fitting into the music industry going forward?
What’s so interesting about the music industry right now is that everybody’s got their own scheme. It’s different for every business model and piece of content. The thing about bundles is you get to decide the price, where and what the gate is, and how much content is free or paid. We’re adding more functionality so that eventually you could have two gates in a bundle.
The first might be by pay and the second might be something else. We’re introducing a number of different ways for artists to monetize their work. I don’t know what the future looks like for artists, labels, or studios. All we know is that everyone we’ve worked with in the past few years has had a completely different business model. All we can do is build the most efficient and robust system possible, because artists are smarter than us. They know their audience better than us and what we’re trying to do is give them the tools to go and realize their vision.
Are there any upcoming BitTorrent projects we should look out for?
There’s one really interesting one called Children of the Machine. It’s a sci-fi series, and it’s the first piece of original content being produced exclusively for BitTorrent. The creator and producer of this show is named Marco Weber. He wrote and conceived it specifically with bundles in mind. He’s spending a million dollars of his own money filming the pilot. We saw the scripts, we loved it, and we decided to work with Marco on it.
The way it’ll work is you’ll get the full hour-long pilot for free, and there will be a pay gate on it that says, “If you like this, click here to pay Marco $9.95.” Once it’s collected enough, Marco’s going to make the remaining 8 episodes of the series and then deliver the entire series back to whoever paid for it. We’re very excited about that.
The possibilities of bundles are far wider than other platforms and we think we’re on to something here. It’s going to change not only how consumers consume content, but how creators create as well.
If you haven’t taken a look yet, below is the pay gated bundle for Thom Yorke’s new album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.