At the time of writing this, Thom Yorke's second solo album—which he surprise released for the very reasonable price of $6 as a BitTorrent Bundle this morning—has nearly 60 thousand downloads. The record, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, is a collection of eight woozy, extremely Thom Yorke-sounding songs. Though immersive, there's nothing earth-shattering about the sonic space he's occupying here; what's really interesting is how he went about, in his own words, "bypassing the self elected gate-keepers." Reactions to the out-of-nowhere release ranged from shock and excitement to confusion. This isn't the first BitTorrent Bundle by any means, but since it's the first with a paygate and the highest-profile release by a landslide—it raised a few questions. Aren't BitTorrent Bundles supposed to be free? Why didn't he just put it out on Bandcamp—which takes the same percentage as BitTorrent (10%) and gives the rest to the artists? Is this going to be a thing now? Will artists who aren't at the same level find similar success? We sat down face-to-face with Matt Mason, BitTorrent Chief Content Officer, to try and make sense of it all. Read about how the project came together, BitTorrent's long-term intentions and how Radiohead's In Rainbows influenced the idea of Bundles in the first place.
How did BitTorrent get involved with Thom Yorke? Obviously, like everybody else in the world, we loved what Radiohead did with In Rainbows and it's just been the absolute gold standard for how to do something direct-to-fan on the internet—the idea of the [BitTorrent] Bundle was very much inspired by that. We wanted to scale that so that anybody could publish in the same way. I started talking to [Radiohead manager] Brian Message about two years ago, and he eventually put me in touch with Nigel Godrich, the producer for Radiohead. The first time I met Nigel was Christmas Eve in 2013, over in London; I just went and had a cup of tea with him at the studio. Radiohead had just had a year off, they weren't planning on doing much. There wasn't any sort of new material or anything so I wasn't going in there to pitch them on any big ideas. Brian just said, “Go on and have a conversation with Nigel, I think you guys have very similar ideas about the future of the internet. I was explaining the idea of the Bundle to Nigel, and telling him you know some point this year we wanted to get a paygate bundle out. And he said “Ok, well we should try and do something. It should be us."
From there, me, him and Thom had a another really, really good conversation with Thom. We just really had a shared philosophy of how things should be. You know the idea that all of the majors and everybody that's putting all of their eggs in their basket of giant streaming services that don't really pay off very much money, especially to new artists, and aren't an easy way to get discovered. So it seemed shortsighted to me and it did to Thom and Nigel, too. Is this the only game in town? Why are we not still trying to sell people music? Why not establish direct connections with fans? Why are none of the record labels trying to do that? The more we talked to him it was, “Ok, we want to be first."
Are you guys concerned with other things that labels do around a release, like promotion? No, not at all. We don't want to replace labels, the idea is that BitTorrent bundles should be a solution for labels, and lots of labels are working with us already. All of the major labels at this point have published at least one bundle. Major film studios are doing it. Obviously the major studios and labels are the most reticent to do anything new quite frankly, it's not really about BitTorrent, it's just hard to do things at big organizations sometimes.
Was Thom excited by the idea of making it a multimedia package with videos included? They wanted to release an album, as you can see from the Bundle. It's not some kind of ever-expansive cascading trans-media narrative driven project; it's an album in the most traditional sense of the word. It comes with the videos, but it's definitely an album. They wanted to release an album, and we were more than happy for that to be the first one.
A few people in my feed were saying, “I wish he would have put this out on Bandcamp." There's lots of cool direct-to-fan platforms. What doesn't exist is a direct fan platform with a large user base. Bandcamp, last time I checked, had half a million artists on there. In terms of people they can reach it's really up to the artist. Bandcamp's great, they've done a fantastic job and I would never discourage anyone from putting anything on Bandcamp, but the difference between BitTorrent and every other direct-to-fan service is [that] we have a truly global audience that we can put Bundles in front of. We reach 170 million people every month. It's more people than the combined audience of BandCamp, Spotfiy, Nextflix, Hulu—combined and doubled. We have one of the largest user bases in the history of the internet.
"We reach 170 million people every month. It’s more people than the combined audience of BandCamp, Spotify, Netflix and Hulu."
Do you think the built-in audience appealed to Thom Yorke? It wasn't a main reason that [the Bundle] appealed to Thom. He saw this as a better way forward—or at least the vision we laid out to him. Thom's was very clear, like, “This is an experiment. I want to see what you guys can do." In terms of our intentions, yes, we've got the global audience; yes, we've got the best technology for moving large files; yes, the price is right and you can completely configure it yourself. It's got all the ingredients.
I saw your sticker with the slogan, "You should be able to sell your art without selling your soul." Can you talk a little about that? We've had it on the stickers for a while, we haven't put it on a billboard or anything. That was something we felt was important. It's really hard to actually sell something online without giving up a fair amount of money that you're asking for. And equally as important is the data. If you're using a music streaming service or you're a moviemaker and you're using Netflix, it's really hard to get good data back from a lot of companies out there. This is something that we hear all the time from artists that we work with. It's your music, these are your fans, it's your creative works. That information should belong to you as a publisher. It shouldn't belong to a some middle-man tech company. It's not necessarily about people being greedy, it's just about how the internet is built. It fundamentally gets to the heart of what the internet is about. A decentralized internet where peer-to-peer is the main way that things travel. The internet we built today has these giant technology stacks. They're built that way because they're easy to monetize: Facebook, Google, Netlfix for films, Spotify. Not to bash all those companies—we at BitTorrent work with and use those companies everyday—but, if you build the internet with servers like that, stuff's going to get stuck. People don't have direct connections, especially artists and fans.
Do you think Thom would have released it as a pay-as-you-go model, like In Rainbows, if you guys hadn't linked up? When we started talking to them this album didn't exist. I don't know if Thom would have made the album anyway, but he wasn't planning on making a new album when we started talking to them. The idea of releasing something came out of the conversations that we had, which was, for us, incredibly humbling that they believed in this technology to the extent of actually making something especially for it.