Last week Thom Yorke dropped his sophomore solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. The eight track album seems to pick up right where The Eraser left off eight years ago. But the obvious story isn’t necessarily the album itself, though it is well worth its own article. And I’m sure you’ve already read about how Thom Yorke “removed the middle man” and released the album on BitTorrent. This is what I want to look at, because artists are asking “What does this mean for us?”
Bands and artists who have an established audience will find that their music is being seeded on BitTorrent’s p2p network. Thom’s music with Radiohead happens to be among the most distributed and seeded albums on BitTorrent. So when BitTorrent, who is now providing store fronts for musicians to legally give their music away (optionally in exchange for email addresses), agreed to sell Yorke’s album for $6, it made perfect sense for Thom to do this. Especially when you consider that BitTorrent was only keeping 10% of the sales, compared to iTune’s take of 30%.
But what about the independent artist? Will this be a good way to distribute your music? Will this devalue music even further? These are questions I’ve heard people banter around.
In Thom’s case, BitTorrent is a smart move, and the same can be said of established artists whose music is being seeded by hundreds of computers. Why not capitalize on this and gain from your hard work, if not through sales then through email addresses? But if your band is just getting started then it’s one more platform to distribute your music that requires some marketing. Your music won’t magically take off because you created a BitTorrent store. You’ll still need to get the word out, just as you would on BandCamp or iTunes.
I don’t see selling on BitTorrent as a devaluation of music. If you sell your album for $6, you’re going to potentially make more money than you would if you sell on iTunes, considering that iTunes keeps 30%. Digital music has already devalued itself, so I don’t see these BitTorrent stores doing more harm to the monetary value of music.
But here’s where I see a BitTorrent storefront being beneficial for independent artists: promotional copies of your work. How many times have you given your CD to your friends, whether it’s a burnt copy or one that you invested money to replicate? How often do you give people a link to download your songs… just to get your name out there? If your answer is “too often,” then maybe this is an ideal platform for you. If you’re at the stage where you just need to build an audience, then you need to place your music in people’s hands. And let’s be honest, most people on BitTorrent aren’t looking for opportunities to purchase music. They would more likely ask their friend to rip your CD for them than to buy your music. So in this sense, a storefront where you give your music away, or at least in exchange for an email address, is worth it.
I know it can be painful to give your music away, and I’m not suggesting that this is the path to stardom. As a producer and artist manager, I’ve spent eighteen months recording an EP… only to struggle to find buyers. It’s not easy. And it can be downright painful to work that hard and to hand people files for free. But in this music saturated market, sometimes that’s the only way to get listeners. And that’s why I think Thom Yorke’s approach can be a beneficial route for independent artists. Because, let’s be honest, a lot of us simply need to be heard.