Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Streaming Follows a Trail Paved by Thieves and Pirates

Music industry revenues in 2019 tell a story of something like a comeback. The upward slope of the chart is almost entirely due to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. In 2010, subscription services represented a little over $212 million in U.S. sales — just three percent of all sales that year. In 2019, paid subscriptions brought in nearly $6 billion dollars in the U.S. and, for the first time, consumed over half of all spending in the country.

In music industry terms, then, 2010 is a lifetime ago. The iTunes Store may have been seven years old by that point, but nearly half of U.S. sales were still delivered in the form of a compact disc — and they were generating only a quarter of the revenue they did ten years prior. Almost nobody was spending over a hundred dollars a year on music, but streaming services today have convinced millions of people to spend ten bucks a month for a seemingly infinite selection.

It is remarkable, isn’t it? But paid streaming services are not the product of record industry brilliance. In fact, the most clear lineage can be traced back to websites that were repeatedly accused of destroying the possibility of artists making a living. Ironically, the world’s greatest libraries of digital music were created by loose groups of thieves and pirates.

And it all started with a pig-themed website — but I will get back to that.

The battle against unauthorized duplication is effectively as old as the ability to make audio recordings, but it predictably ramped up as equipment and techniques became widespread. The “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign in the U.K. was a response to a rise in sales of blank cassette tapes in the 1980s, a decade which also saw British music sales grow by 270%. The internet and the widely-used MP3 file format certainly made it easier to facilitate copying, but it wasn’t until the creation of Napster in 1999 that it became easy — user friendly, one might say.

In a story straight out of that era, my first memory of Napster was in the basement of a friend’s house, watching him download a copy of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” over his cable internet connection. I had dial-up at home, but that did not stop me from trying to acquire Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” as featured on the soundtrack for the “Matrix”. I did not realize that the song was over seven minutes long; it took over an hour to complete the seven megabyte transfer during which time, I might add, nobody in my household could use the telephone.

Steve Jobs was absolutely right when, during his introduction of iTunes in 2003, he excoriated software like Napster for its unpredictable transfer speed, lack of metadata, and mystery files. Plus, he said, it’s stealing.

Here’s the thing: in order to discuss the extraordinary influence of file sharing on today’s legal music streaming services, we must first acknowledge its murky ethics and dubious legality — so let’s get that out of the way. Studies of prolific music pirates find that they tend to purchase the most music. However, it is still illegal in many jurisdictions to acquire otherwise-paid files without permission, and it would be better for artists if all illicitly-acquired music were instead paid for. Subscription-based streaming services may have fixed the legality problem that Jobs identified, but many of the other issues he highlighted were sorted out well before the launch of Apple Music, or Spotify, or even the iTunes Store.

First: quality. It is a mistake to assume that file sharing is an anarchic collection of individuals ripping music with slapdash quality. In reality, most new music leaks come from a relative handful of individuals connected to Scene topsites. These are servers and message boards maintained by small groups, each of which aims to be the first to produce and distribute what will become a canonical rip of a new album, for example. They have rules and standards for file quality and naming conventions, and any deviation opens the door for a different group to nuke the release and replace it with a compliant copy. The files created by Scene groups trickle down throughout the web and make their way onto public BitTorrent trackers and music blogs — these used to reliably and inexplicably be Blogspot blogs, but many are now a part of the estimated 35% of the web that is powered by WordPress.

Of course, even if you have high-quality copies of each track labelled according to a standard, you still need a reliable and fast way to download them. And the Scene files lack something else, too: this process is very efficient, yes, but it also feels mechanized, without any sort of community spirit. I know I’m writing this about mass copyright infringement, but there is a spark to a group of passionate fans that is missing from mainlining Scene releases.

Enter Oink — or, to use its full name, Oink’s Pink Palace. Launched in 2004, just one year after the iTunes Store, Oink was a BitTorrent tracker that happened to catalogue an impressive collection of music, from decades-old recordings to albums that were not yet released. Or so I’ve heard — a friend of mine promised to invite me around the time that the site was forcibly shut down.

I cannot explain from firsthand knowledge what Oink was like, but former users recall that it was a discerning and exciting place for people who loved music. This was a site built by fans for fans. Trent Reznor was a memberappropriately enough — comparing it to “the world’s greatest record store” and deriding iTunes for “feel[ing] like Sam Goody”.

Oink lasted all of three years, until 2007, when European authorities shut it down. The mourning quickly turned into action, though, and a handful of similar torrent trackers took Oink’s place within hours. No website could truly replace Oink, but its closest spiritual successor was a place called What.cd.

Like Oink, What.cd was an invitation-only BitTorrent tracker with a focus on music. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that What.cd — like Oink and any other torrent tracker — did not actually host any music files. Trackers only keep track of which users have what portion of some file or set of files, and facilitate the transfer of data between users, but they do not actually contain music files.

Despite this, What.cd could accurately be described as the world’s greatest collection of recorded music. Like Oink and Scene rippers, users were required to abide by strict guidelines: only a handful of file formats were allowed, and all tracks were required to be correctly tagged and titled. Rips were only allowed from some sources — CDs and files from online music stores were preferred, and users could also apply to be allowed to upload vinyl rips, so long as they could prove their competence. Users were also required to maintain a good ratio of data uploaded to downloaded; you couldn’t just take any album you wanted without continuing to share it. And album rips that went a long time without anyone sharing them were automatically removed.

It wasn’t just the sheer volume of available albums, but the variety. There were releases from Canadian indie bands unheard-of outside of their hometown’s college radio scene; there were recordings of Nepalese folk singers. There were, of course, copies of every popular record you can imagine, in versions you’ve never heard of. Want the deluxe edition of some record with bonus tracks only sold in Japan? An instrumentals-only version? An original copy of a record only generally available in its remastered form? A specific vinyl pressing? In all likelihood, you would find it in What.cd’s catalogue, with artists’ releases organized just as well as on Discogs.

It’s hard not to see the influence of What.cd and Oink before it on the streaming services of today: of course in the sense of limitlessness and possibility, but also in how easy they are to use. Even the way albums are grouped and organized feels a little inspired by private torrent trackers.

But there remain obvious differences. Most notably, streaming services’ contracts are subject to the unique whims of the record industry, so there are gaps in the catalogue. I’m a huge fan of the Gun Club, but three of their most notable releases — “Miami”, “The Las Vegas Story”, and “Mother Juno” — are not available on Apple Music in Canada, despite the inclusion of cover art for all three in the thumbnail for the “Essentials” playlist.

Locally-stored files from these streaming services, meanwhile, are encumbered by DRM, which means backup copies may not work at some point in the future. That’s understandable for services predicated on users paying a monthly access fee, but it is nevertheless a limitation on their longevity.

Also, streaming services have a limited number of versions of each album: the original release, or perhaps a deluxe edition or a remaster, any of which might be available in clean and explicit variants.1 I’m not sure if it is the responsibility of artists or labels to provide different versions, but the result from my perspective is the same. Songs exclusive to special editions sold in other countries are missing from streaming services, as with vinyl-only and many hidden tracks.

My use of What.cd wained after I subscribed to streaming services — first, Spotify, and then Apple Music. But I liked that it was there for those times when there was a limited-pressing, old, obscure, or otherwise unattainable record. It was one of the few places where anything like this was possible — you knew that you were getting an entirely-correct, fully-labelled, high-quality copy of something that doesn’t exist outside of vaults and archives.

And then, on a day in November 2016, it all came to an end. What.cd dodged the spotlight of several high-profile leaks — ostensibly unpublished J.D. Salinger stories, a Radiohead track that may have been leaked by the band itself, and a copy of Microsoft’s forensics tools, to name a few examples — but the law caught up. At the time of its closure, What.cd had millions of members and tens of millions of songs; it was a massive hub for piracy, but also the greatest music community that has ever existed.

As I wrote earlier, it seems that streaming services learned lessons from private torrent trackers like What.cd. I only wish they would lift more ideas that these trackers pioneered. Over the course of researching for this piece, I came across a eulogy written by Nikhil Sonnad for Quartz after the site was shut down:

“Collages” were one of What’s best features. Users arranged lists of albums on the site into useful categories like “Intro to free jazz” or “Bands with a male and female singer.” These were indispensable sources of musical discovery.

Shared playlists are common on streaming services, but they are song-oriented; they don’t work very well for albums or groups of albums.

There’s an important caveat to this issue of legality, though: The site offered much that is unavailable via legal channels, even to those willing to pay. There were the albums that weren’t available anywhere else.

This is not an exclusive problem with streaming services — no digital music store that I know of has as extensive a catalogue as What.cd did. There are certainly various licensing and contractual issues preventing some artists and albums from appearing in some or all legal online music repositories. But it would be a net benefit to have as many of these works as possible catalogued and made available. There are old, limited-pressing records that surely should have the option of wider availability. One of just fifty total copies of the only Jokers Wild album, with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, is currently being offered on Discogs for €6,000. There’s no great reason why that record should only be heard by those wealthy enough to pay thousands of Euros.2 Kanye West’s 2016 release “The Life of Pablo” is generally available, but only in its final form — the iterations released in the months prior no longer exist outside of the hard drives of those who hoarded them. More people should have the opportunity hear the way the songs were very publicly tweaked and adjusted.

A limited selection of releases is a relic of the choices of these services and the music providers, but it doesn’t have to be this way: there is virtually unlimited space, and it isn’t impossible to organize multiple releases of the same record in a logical manner. Oink and What.cd demonstrated how to do that.

The reason some releases are not available online is surely down to artist preference, and that is understandable. It’s one of the key differences between What.cd and legitimate services: with the former, the artist didn’t get a choice, for better and for worse. That choice should be respected by streaming platforms.

It’s not the only aspect of private trackers that Apple Music and Spotify will find difficult to replicate. While they may offer lossless streaming in the future, it is not likely that either will offer files unencumbered by DRM, which means that users’ music collections are only theirs so long as they keep paying. And, of course, different streaming services don’t work well together, and it’s not easy to transfer a collection from one to another.

But, most of all, legitimate services will struggle to replace the community that grew naturally within What.cd. It was a place willed into existence by people who truly love music, not something that labels constructed to attract customers, and it was held together by that community. Some digital music services have tried to create similar connections — Apple Music and Spotify users can share their playlists, and iTunes users of the past could do the same with iMixes. Apple, in particular, has tried a little too hard on two separate occasions to turn music into a social network, with little success.

Make no mistake: I understand the legal and ethical ramifications of torrent trackers and file sharing. I would vastly prefer to pay artists — and it’s just the right thing to do. It was merely a perk that What.cd was free, but I do not see that as its defining characteristic. If it were a legitimate streaming service, but was otherwise exactly the same, I would have paid many times the amount of my current Apple Music monthly subscription. That’s how good it was.

I see a lot of the DNA of private torrent trackers in streaming music. It is a welcome development to be able to discover new music without any financial risk — to be able to take the plunge into an artist’s back catalogue, their influences, and those they have influenced in turn, without incurring wildly spiralling costs.

If you’ve arrived at the deep end of this essay confused about the dubious ethics of being influenced by pirates, here’s one small piece of advice you can take away from them that does not require you to part with a piece of your soul: try new things. You can be a picky eater, fussy about the books that you read, and extremely specific about what clothes you wear, but you have nothing to lose by listening to different music. Push yourself to complete entire albums that are from genres you don’t normally listen to. Lose yourself in an artist’s influences. Challenge yourself to listen to an artist’s discography, in its entirety, from their first record to their most recent. As with What.cd, it costs you nothing extra to listen to something new instead of something familiar. The only difference is that, now, the artist gets paid.


  1. One thing I desperately want from Apple Music is a toggle to allow me to only see explicit versions. Profanity is far less insulting to me than hearing gaps where words are supposed to be. ↩︎

  2. One of What.cd’s more interesting features was its request system. Users could pool bandwidth credits to reward the first person to upload a release, as a sort of bounty system. I recall the Jokers Wild request having one of the highest bounties; it was never filled. ↩︎