Applied Science #3

“I might just fade into bolivian”

(Sean Fanning, founder of Napster | Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the music business, we tend to look inward for solutions rather than outward. That instinct often results in gossip, bad action, and shortsightedness. We end up repeating the mistakes of our predecessors. We narrow our worldviews, focused on hit records at the expense of sustainable systems and lifestyles.

Reading books and articles specific to the music business can be helpful, but sometimes it pays to step outside the frame. So this is Applied Science, an attempt to thread my concerns through problems, solutions, and concepts from other thinkers and fields. I’m trying to unearth the human aspects within the machinery of the music business, and turn some of my experiences as a manager and label co-founder into working philosophies that others can use to understand and solve their problems. I'm not sure I'm going to solve anything here. I hope I'll spark some questions, some debate, and maybe reach some people that can help enact change. It’s an experiment.

“Politics and morals in the abstract make no sense. We find the British statesmen and publicists defending slavery today, abusing slavery tomorrow, defending slavery the day after. Today they are imperialist, the next day anti-imperialist, and equally pro-imperialist a generation after. And always with the same vehemence. The defence or attack is always on the high moral or political plane. The thing defended or attacked is always something that you can touch and see, to be measured in pounds sterling or pounds avoirdupois, in dollars and cents, yards, feet and inches. This is not a crime. It is a fact. It is understandable at the time. But historians, writing a hundred years after, have no excuse for continuing to wrap the real interests in confusion.”

  • Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery

Thanks for reading (or at least clicking on) the first Applied Science of 2020. I’m aiming to publish monthly this year; naturally, I’m starting out on the right foot by skipping January. This edition dives into ways we’ve been misled by the prevailing illegal downloading narrative, revealing missed potential inherent in some acts of music piracy. Before that, a related aside about my December. 

I spent my 2019 holiday break in Cambodia, a country that overwhelmed my senses. Its history is far too complex, rich, and difficult to condense into a few sentences in a newsletter about the music business. The destruction of so much music and art in Cambodia’s past rattled around my brain as I traveled across the country, learning about events simmering with haunting recency. 

Civil war crippled Cambodia in the early 1970s. Vicious dictator Pol Pot emerged out of smoldering chaos, seizing power on April 17th, 1975. He sought to convert Cambodia into a wholly agrarian society, expelling citizens from cities, imprisoning and executing any perceived dissidents. Pol Pot aimed to suppress Western influence, controlling cultural narrative through the destruction of countless albums, films, books, and works of art. Artists and intellectuals joined the millions dead in the killing fields. An inventive rock scene that had flourished in the 1960s all but vanished. 

After the genocidal regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), two decades of civil war stilted Cambodia’s economic progress. The U.S. and United Nations refused to recognize the interim, Vietnam-backed government that deposed Pol Pot in 1979, a decision driving decades of deliberate underdevelopment. One of the world’s most callous dictators maintained a seat at the global table while ordinary Cambodians were forced to live lives abbreviated daily by looming danger. 

Cambodia emerged from this conflict boxed into limited economic options—a source of cheap (often dehumanizing, barely lawful) labor for foreign corporations; a country still internally reliant on agriculture as an economic and civic pillar. The blighting of so much art and creative infrastructure hamstrung an emergent entertainment industry. A miraculous handful of bootlegs, cassette dubs, and recovered records survived the Khmer Rouge’s attempted erasure. Historians and archival labels have pieced together an impression of what was, suggesting what could have been. Sweeping dispossession ensured that this picture could only ever be partial. In 2020, many citizens still work to subsist, living off of the product of family farms and small markets; upstart record labels like Yab Moung point to sparking scenes, but the arts seem to form a path of privilege in a country fighting for its economic footing.

In the last fifteen years, local organizations (such as the Bophana Center, founded by decorated Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh) and foreign individuals (like Massachusetts-born Nathan Hun and Florida-based DJ Oro) have worked to catalog, restore, and digitize much of the music and art threatened by Pol Pot’s rule. Without bootlegs, without rogue consumers who became impromptu archivists, without the memory of survivors, Cambodia’s vibrant, eclectic mid-century musical legacy would remain muted. 

It would be a stretch to say that bootlegging alone saved Cambodia’s rock history, but illicit reproductions of albums did form a foundation of important archival work. Just as illegal copying can hurt commercial prospects, so too can piracy preserve history. As tinny Cambodian psychedelia blared through the speakers of the taxis and tuk tuks we rode around Phnom Penh, I thought about the ways in which the narrative of piracy in the American music industry warped our perception of its potential.

To recap for those who may have missed the big standoff at the turn of the century, the prevailing story: since 1999 the industry at large has been working to stop the flood started by Napster. Illegal downloading existentially threatened the music business. Labels and responsible consumers alike needed to fight it in all its forms. Downloaders stole from the artists you love and endangered the labels that release their music.

It's a tidy tale with clean lines—pirates vs. creators, thieves vs. legitimate businesses, good vs. bad. 

For me, this narrative always begged the question: who’s really being hurt and what does that hurt look like? We were told to be sympathetic to big corporations whose bottom line was being undercut; multi-national companies who goaded star artists to be the faces of legal battles against average people in the crusade against illegal downloading; major labels that cried foul about cratering profits, while scarcely acknowledging that many of the artists who generated those profits reaped decidedly little of the return (and sometimes none, depending on the fine print). Ultimately, the financial damage was undoubtable, if difficult to fully measure. The fog of war obscured piracy’s possibilities for positively morphing the music business. Most of those beneficial prospects are yet unrealized and may never blossom, but still merit exploration.


“The problem isn't piracy. The problem is obscurity.” 

  • Cory Doctorow

“The enemy of the author is not piracy but obscurity.” 

  • Tim O’Reilly

Seth Godin paraphrases the above quotes on a particularly informative edition of his Akimbo podcast from 2018. The topic: copyright law in all its necessity and bizarre idiosyncrasy. Perhaps as a knowing joke, perhaps due to its uncertain parentage, Godin quoted without attribution—a nod to the slippery peripheries surrounding any copyrightable creative property or concept. I only discovered these two prospective sources through a bit of googling.

Godin is a decorated marketer, Doctorow an award-winning sci-fi author, O’Reilly a successful entrepreneur and evangelist of open source software. All three appreciate the social currency of ideas; all benefit from the free exchange of their products, while also understanding that their livelihoods demand the building of boundaries that allow for the extraction of value (monetary or exchange) from their ideas. This intersection, this fine, brutal balance, defines the music industry’s precarious, toxic dance with its audience during the internet era. As Stephen Witt details in How Music Got Free (a riveting read for students of music business history), major labels engaged in a multi-front war against the spread of illicit music in the early 2000s. Most famously, they sued the shit out of average people. 

As profits collapsed, labels hoped to protect their main cash cow: CD sales. In the process, they alienated consumers, painting average people as pilfering criminals. Labels—never wholly in the good graces of artists or the public—built on reputations as villainous mega-corporations by levying lawsuits against teenage downloaders. I remember sitting at home, praying my illegally downloaded copy of Jurassic 5’s “Quality Control” wouldn’t land me in court and bankrupt my parents (it did not, though it would definitely lead to relitigation of my pre-teen tastes when I hit adulthood). In spite of their efforts, labels hardly stemmed their own bleeding. iTunes provided a precarious band-aid before the streaming era arrived and restored prosperity.

The immutable truth that piracy (specifically theft of intellectual property) is flatly bad forms the spine of the post-Napster narrative. Pirates are criminals. Piracy torpedoed the music industry we all knew and were told we loved. Later, Spotify cauterized old wounds (even as it cut new ones), but the apparently endless gulf between collapse and rebirth bred desperation. Never mind that Napster ushered in perhaps the greatest consumer revolution in the history of entertainment (a seed that would blossom into streaming). Kids with computers were sinking profits. They had to be stopped!

There are a few healthy antidotes to this dominant narrative. I’d like to add to them in reconsidering piracy’s ripples.

Greg Kot’s 2009 book Ripped gives numerous examples of enterprising artists (The Beastie Boys, Tom Petty, Radiohead, Prince, Wilco) harnessing the power of the internet. In many cases, this meant using free downloads (or inventive pay models, as Radiohead did in pre-figuring Bandcamp) to galvanize fan activity, press conversation, and, perhaps most importantly, economic activity in other verticals relating to an artist's public persona (ticket sales, merch sales, brand deals etc). 

David Turner wrote an excellent, likeminded debunking of the popular assumptions (or rather the dominant projections) about piracy last year in an edition of his fantastic Penny Fractions newsletter. Turner erodes a foundational myth of the piracy tale while also pointing to the danger of prizing intellectual property over individual rights:

An acknowledgment that record labels colluded to inflate CD prices in the 90s and eventually led to the bubble burst makes it hard to believe that a single company (like Napster) or a few dedicated internet users could bring down an entire industry simply through file-sharing. It’s an absurd American tall-tale where a few individuals in their bedroom can ruin a global industry rather than the reality where numerous multinational companies should be blamed for the misdeed.

Instead, my concern with that era of piracy, which I covered earlier this year, is the RIAA’s prosecution of individuals with onerous lawsuits that were designed to ruin the lives of average people overtaking pennies from an industry worth billions. That the narrative of piracy allowed for such punitive abuse of power is far more troubling to me than any threat of copyright theft.

In Free, Witt’s intercontinental story of industrial evolutions eventually lands at Oink’s Pink Palace (or, more succinctly, OiNK), the utopian, invite-only torrenting site founded by young Brit Alan Ellis. It connected a relatively large, diffuse group of music obsessives, united in their quest to illegally download music in a "safe" manner. I want to hover on the edenic promise of OiNK. 

OiNK commanded users to maintain a certain ratio of uploads to downloads. For every megabyte of data you downloaded, you were expected to upload an equal or greater number. A ratio below 1.00 meant you were parasitic; ratios above 1.00 signaled virtuosic users, fully committed to community standards, uploading as much or more than they downloaded. Those who maintained ratios above 1.00 for sustained periods or cultivated ratios far exceeding 1.00 unlocked privileges, starting with invites for new members, extending to enhanced download speeds, exclusive forums, and content, etc. Those who remained below 1.00 for too long risked suspension and expulsion. Hosted on a series of servers in Ellis’ home in the British countryside, OiNK’s model relied not only on the self-policing of a dispersed community, but also on the understanding that these ratio rules benefited all OiNK users. On a microcosmic scale with relatively low stakes, it is a socialized concept that also allows for a dose of exceptionalism: Do a great job and you’re rewarded in kind, do the expected work of simply maintaining a healthy ratio and continue to reap the rewards of the wider community’s work (and, furthermore, maintain the fabric of the community). 

(Above, you can see an example of an Oink user’s main page. The ratio is in the upper left hand corner, next to the number of gigabytes uploaded and downloaded.)

OiNK’s collective super fans dedicated themselves compiling the metadata for every release uploaded to the site. Whether the latest Kanye album or an obscure Cambodian psych rock record, OiNK’s standards demanded that prospective uploaders properly and completely attribute the works they were uploading. Full metadata became a point of pride for uploaders, whose musical contributions were accompanied by their aliases and ripper tags (the names identifying the pseudonymous online groups and individuals who “ripped” music from physical media and uploaded it to the site).

The short-lived result was a community that saw music as social currency—a loose guild building a living archive that would rival any in existence were it still accessible. 

Of course, piracy feels bad and is, by definition, illegal. The term conjures pillage, rape, and violence. It immediately signals the primacy of copyright and the moral severity of violating intellectual property law—tracing an invisible divide between the law-breaking pirate and the law-abiding citizen. Even in the example of OiNK, gray exists beyond the illicit nature of downloading: Ellis solicited donations from users to ostensibly cover server costs with little to no transparency on spending (to say nothing of a plan to redistribute overages to copyright holders, for example). 

Dissecting the ins, outs, and legitimacies of copyright law would require a book-length exploration. Suffice to say, my career relies on a certain level of copyright protection and the profit derived from intellectual property. Still, we must interrogate this treatment of copyright and related profit as sacred, inviolable rights. Such a mindset incited the music industry's holy crusade against illegal downloading in all its forms, long term effects be damned. The major labels can hardly be blamed for their approach; they saw their pockets besieged and, like white blood cells sensing a virus, blitzed the threat. Ironically, this obsession with copyright law metastasized into ambulance-chasing lawsuits in which intellectual property laws are pushed to protect “vibes” and “feelings,” as fledgling producers set sights on superstars and major labels. It would be humorous karmic return, if high profile lawsuits against Katy Perry and Pharrell didn’t have such dangerous implications for all creators.

As it pertains to piracy, I believe established powers lacked the foresight that some artists divined from the chaos of digital sharing. Lawsuits and new platform "solutions” (such as iTunes and Rhapsody) were medicines that masked symptoms without addressing underlying causes. Labels vastly, intentionally overinflated CD prices, warping music’s commercial value—an imperfect concept in any era. Music has always been inherently social, emerging from oral traditions and serving as transmitter of information as much as source of entertainment. In a time when exorbitant prices formed a moat around most commercial releases (timeless classics like Sugar Ray’s 14:59 and Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other, for example), piracy—or at least some alternative to tyranny of Sam Goody—was inevitable. The rush to punish “pirates” in court diverted attention from the possible good. No time was spared on a critical rethinking of how to treat copyright violation or how to work with engaged listeners—be they buyers, streamers, or supposed leeches.

The industry's approach to piracy swiftly alienated and criminalized a nascent, decentralized archivist workforce. Return to the example of OiNK. An international community self-regulated with simple rules as a backbone. One particular goal underscored the user experience: The correct, complete entry of musical metadata. OiNK gamified strict cataloging of the requisite details accompanying each release, promising constant reward to virtuous uploaders (new music for free, drawn from a seemingly endless historical library). To be sure, some uploaders were more meticulous than others, but the setting and constant satisfaction of a basic standard showed that a disjoint community could unite around common principles and work towards an informational good.

OiNK showed that proper incentive could engage random super fans in the painstaking effort archives require: data entry, research, maintenance, fact-checking, bias-policing. Archives historically appear the domain of librarians, a laborious civil service with little sex appeal whose utility only seems to inspire discussion in moments of loss (such as the fire that destroyed millions of Universal Music Group’s masters). OiNK’s archive could have been the foundation for all of the credit systems on current DSP's; the communal fact-checking body for the Recording Industry Association of America, Recording Academy, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and any other administrative or regulatory body in the business; a streamlined database for sample clearance and sync license purposes; a foundational node in music's corner of Wikipedia (or perhaps an autonomous music wiki that functioned better than Discogs or AllMusic.com). It would have given artists and labels alike means to directly communicate with and reward fans, opening a kind of consumer channel that more passive fanclubs have often failed at building. 

This labor could have served as payment in kind (or eventual payment after a certain point) for tracked songs and bodies of work. Complete enough metadata over enough time, help enforce community standards, you get free downloads. Share that music illegally, you get banned from the community and charged with a commensurate real-world penalty (not slapped with an injurious criminal case—at least not for small infractions). I’m spitballing, but the idea of gamified work and self-regulating communities takes loose shape on sites like Wikipedia. From here, you can also imagine how streaming platforms and storefronts like Bandcamp could be built atop this “pirate” foundation.

Archives, in themselves, don't necessarily spell huge profits for corporations or creators, but a constantly-updated, industry-sanctioned, central archive could have saved the creators and companies from the breakage of the streaming age. As companies like Songtrust warn, there is a $2.5b black box of money sitting in escrow waiting to be claimed and collected by rightful copyright owners. 

(Above excerpted from Songtrust’s 2019 year-end blast encouraging users with unpublished catalogs to sign up for their service.)

This money floats in the ether because compositions and master recording data aren't properly paired; that essentially means songs are generating royalties, but digital streaming providers and collection societies can't always determine where to route those royalties. So the money sits, uncollected and often lost forever to those with rightful claim to it. The development of a true central archive (something the industry has attempted and failed for years because of various squabbles) upheld through decentralized effort could have solved attribution issues before songs generated considerable revenue, helping corporations and creators alike in reducing the amount of money held in the black box.

South Africa provides some interesting corollary possibilities from the last half decade. WhatsApp groups have become a hub for one of South Africa’s most electrifying dance genres, gqom. Users—artists, DJs, and fans—have created a kind of invite-only network for the sharing of MP3’s and information. The exclusivity and importance of these groups forms the bulk of this interview with Polish DJ/curator Mikolaj, whose love of gqom inspired him to tiptoe into a community developed by South Africans largely for South Africans. 

The obsessiveness of the gqom audience combined with digital socializing around musical fandom reminds me of OiNK’s spirit (without the implicit archival mission). The extinction of OiNK and rise of informal music sharing communities like WhatsApp groups calls to mind a quote by Andy Chatterley, CEO of MUSO (an anti-piracy startup):

You don’t visit piracy sites to casually browse: you visit because you’re a fan and want a specific release or title. There is insight into geographic content trends and city-level demand; data that is of vital importance for marketing, touring and wider release strategies.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that as subscriptions to music services inevitably slow down – as we have started to see in Scandinavia – this too-long-ignored audience will become highly sought after. Here is an active music fan who may not already be subscribing to a streaming platform; that’s gold for digital advertisers and driving up paid subscriber numbers.

With approximately 3.5bn people connected to the internet globally, and only around 10% of them paying for subscriptions to music streaming services, there is an enormous opportunity in converting more people to paid subscribers. Piracy is an obvious place to find them.

There is, undoubtedly, a level of implicit fealty to the recorded music business in Chatterley’s vision that seems to ignore the full scope of piracy’s capacity to help drive attention and profit elsewhere. It’s not so difficult to imagine a gqom producer using WhatsApp or any artist starting a Discord channel, for example, to plant a musical seed that draws considerable press or social engagement. Some might remember The XX’s campaign for their sophomore album Coexist. The band gave one fan a free copy of the album eight days before its release with the instruction to share the album with whomever they pleased. The spread of the album from one hard drive to the next was tracked on The XX’s website, where fans could also eventually stream songs from the album and pre-order it while they watched it spread across the globe on a mesmerizing map (pictured below). Coexist spawned one of the band’s biggest songs (“Angels”) while helping to push them towards prime festival billing and sold out arena shows.

Now more than ever, music serves as a gateway towards other monetized aspects of an artist's existence. Proper cataloging and certain forms of free, incentivized exchange could build new artists in the way it helped The XX (and in ways that free music more broadly helped build a generation of stars such as Billie Eilish, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, and Tyler The Creator). OiNK, gqom WhatsApp groups, The XX sharing their album: All show the potential inherent in the social energy of supposed piracy and the digital cataloging of information. Do they all undercut traditional label profit centers? Yes. In so doing, however, they promote a different vision of “free” music listening, not the sort of selfish, asymmetrical exchange major labels used to vilify a generation of supposed pirates (mostly kids who didn't understand the full implications of their actions on Napster and KaZaa). OiNK envisioned a world in which "free" music comes at the cost of ideological and collective commitment, for which payment can come in the form of service and utility. The logical outgrowth forms systems that drive super fans towards artists whom they can monetarily support in other ways.

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As always, here’s a playlist for those of you who made it (or skipped) to the end. I spent a lot of my time in Cambodia listening to Korn’s debut album. I will spare you that. Lil Wayne is back and hardly needs my help in pushing his new album Funeral, but “Mahogany” is an early frontrunner among the year’s best rap songs and is easily one of Wayne’s brightest moments in a decade. When I wasn’t listening to Korn in Cambodia, I was jamming experimental L.A. transplants Ed Balloon. I sprinkled in some Thundercat and Sly Stone as well, because there’s never a bad time for either.

(I’m starting fresh for 2020 and wiping the old playlist. You can find last year’s archive here.)

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