It was only a matter of time, here in the digital age, before someone invented the spam album.

Leave it to the folks over in BitTorrentland, forever in search of something for nothing, to have inadvertently done just that. It’s kind of like the way Post-It Notes were invented by mistake, by an engineer who initially thought his new glue just wasn’t sticky enough.

In this case, the BitTorrent gang first thought they had created a platinum download. The headlines started breaking late last week.

Indie Band Tops a Million Downloads, Breaks BitTorrent Record,” said the blog TorrentFreak on Friday. By Monday, similar headlines had sprouted around the web, including this one, from Prefix Magazine:

Sick of Sarah Go Platinum Through BitTorrent.” (This headline had originated at Hypebot, which at least had the sense to put the word “platinum” in quotes.)

But it turns out this isn’t about “going platinum” at all. It is rather about the unfortunate lengths people will go either to promote music or to justify piracy. Or both.

And the end result? The spam album.

Let’s start with the facts.

The Minneapolis-based all-female punk-pop quintet Sick of Sarah released their new album, 2205, for free, via a partnership with BitTorrent Inc. on February 15. Within 18 days, it had been downloaded, freely and legally, by a million people, according to TorrentFreak. The figure stands at 1.44 million as I post this on March 24.

The partnership with BitTorrent involved the bundling of the Sick of Sarah album with the download of popular clients (i.e. programs that manage the upload/download process using the BitTorrent protocol). Meaning that everyone who downloaded the uTorrent or the BitTorrent Mainline application for an entire month automatically downloaded the album. They specifically had to opt out not to receive it with the software they were purposefully downloading.

“Opt out” (rather than “opt in”) is widely considered an underhanded marketing practice; its premise proves its deviousness, since opting out preys on either laziness or ignorance (or both) and naturally yields greater numbers than opting in. And yet this aspect of the Sick of Sarah story has been downplayed. Here’s Prefix Magazine on the matter:

“Those numbers are sort of inflated—anyone who downloaded uTorrent or Mainline got the album too—but it’s still a massive number for a small band.”

“Sort of inflated”? Try very inflated. “A massive number for a small band”? No. It becomes irrelevant whether it’s a small band or a big band if the numbers were cooked by an opt-out option on an unrelated download. The album arrived on hundreds of thousands of computers as spam. This is news, for sure, but of a different sort than the headlines indicated.

TorrentFreak likewise blinks not an eye at the spammy nature of the Sick of Sarah giveaway. It succinctly reports that the million-plus downloads “would never have been possible” without the opt-out bundling.

The fact that BitTorrent is in the first place sending out press releases and pushing this story as some sort of file-sharing milestone is additionally dubious. There’s this element of “See? The world loves file-sharing!” about the PR, which overlooks the fact that the Sick of Sarah album, unlike the overwhelming majority of music downloaded via BitTorrent, is free and legal.

The press release furthermore sidestepped the opt-out nature of the album download, saying merely that the album was “offered to new users during the installation of the BitTorrent Mainline and uTorrent software.”

In the end, this story proves nothing except the fact that a million free downloads, even if actively versus unintentionally sought, are not the same as a million sales, not by a long shot.

And here’s why: getting something for free involves no friction at all. The paradigm of the marketplace changes from “I really have to want it” to “Sure, why not?” Or, to “I didn’t even know I was getting it!” Comparing statistics from one paradigm to the other is both silly and deceptive.

And let’s take this a step further. If getting something for free involves no friction, the exchange itself is inherently meaningless. Life is about friction, about contact. If you don’t have to invest money, or time, or thought, and you get it anyway, what have you really gotten?

In the land of the free and excessively convenient, the line between what is significant and what isn’t is carelessly erased. We gain things but lose meaning.

Fortunately, meaning is wired into human nature. This—far more than economic theory or music futurist smoke-and-mirrors—tells me that freeloading has no mainstream future.

By the way, look how easily the spam album slipped into the freeloading system, and look how it was embraced. They say you can be known by the friends you keep. Pirates and spammers—joint inventors of the spam album—get along quite cozily, as it turns out: one wants things for free that aren’t, the other wants to give you free things that you don’t want. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But I don’t think either of them deserves a voice in the shaping of our actual digital future.



  1. Eugenia on Thursday March 24, 2011

    >They say you can be known by the friends you keep. Pirates and spammers

    I don’t use bittorrent, but I know that Bittorrent users are not all pirates and spammers. The majority might be so, but not all are. There is a lot of legal content distributed by torrent, e.g. Linux distributions, and even some new web TV series. Sure, I’d say that more than half the people who downloaded the album, considering that some installed bittorrent just to get the album, are 60-40 pirates. So if that makes their 1.44 mil downloads are actually about 500,000 legitimate downloads, that’s not a bad number at all compared to what an indie artist actually sells. Even if only 50,000 of these legitimate downloaders translate to core fans, and buy the band’s next album, that was a win for the band.

  2. fingertips on Thursday March 24, 2011

    You may well have that experience anecdotally as someone very familiar with the tech community. And I do apologize for making generalizations, which are never completely fair. That said, a study published earlier this year by the British firm Envisional, entitled An Estimate of Infringing Use of the Internet, found that more than 99% of the top 10,000 files managed by the PublicBT Tracker were copyrighted material. The study’s analysis further indicated that private bittorrent sites “are overwhelmingly used for the purposes of illegitimately sharing copyrighted data.” But of course who really knows about these studies. In any case, I’m thinking your 60-40 guess is rather optimistic regarding the non-pirate segment.

    I’m also thinking your estimate of a one in ten conversion rate is optimistic. There was a statistic circulating a couple years back about how one in 12.5 million spam letters (!) gets a response (and yet it still profits the spammers, somehow). On the other hand, direct mail, traditionally, was considered a success with a rate of one to two every 100. I’d buy the one or two in a 100 idea, but it’s all guesswork. The real point to me is: is that how you want to operate, as a band, or as anyone? Tricking people into trying your product, whatever it is, doesn’t seem like the sort of “do no harm” philosophy I’d like to think we all strive for in our interactions. But hey, maybe I’m the one who’s optimistic, in this case.

  3. Sean on Friday March 25, 2011

    @Eugenia
    ‘Only’ 50,000 album sales? Such a measly little amount, right? Perhaps your sense of the numbers in the music business have been skewed somewhat by the current runaway success of Adele’s ’21’, which has managed to reverse a trend of declining album sales by cracking the magic million sales mark last week. If so, you’re not alone in having your thinking altered by Adele’s success – frankly, the entire music industry is looking at Adele and thinking ‘well, it’s quite nice, but million-plus sales, why?’ However, my point is, until 21 raced to the top of the US album charts two weeks or so ago, the figures for album sales at the number one spot were grim. Taylor Swift was the last non-compilation album to hold the top spot before Adele. Her album sold 43,000 units the week before she was knocked off the number one position. She’d only held it for a week. I’m not saying this from any sympathy with Swift, just pointing out that your choice of 50,000 album sales as a sort of consolation prize for Sick of Sarah exposes a certain lack of knowledge about the margins the music industry is working on these days. 50k sales would (unless Adele’s album sales are suddenly going to become typical numbers, rather than some inexplicable anomaly) almost certainly propel Sick of Sarah to a top position in the US charts. With that in mind, do you, honestly, think that a freebie giveaway on Bitorrent (not really the best place to go looking for people who take the now-eccentric option of paying for albums) would result in the kind of sales that someone like Taylor Swift (horrible music, not a fan) can only manage through 360-degree, constant media promotion? Take aside all notions of quality and integrity, they’re useful things for small acts and labels to have, but they really have very little to do with getting to number one on the album charts. What makes those kinds of sales is being omnipresent in the lives of the kind of people who buy records – these days those are mostly the kind of people who aren’t really very interested in music, certainly not enough to go signing up to BitTorrent. They’re the kind of folk who, once a year, put a cd into their basket when they’re doing their grocery shopping.
    SIck of Sarah will find out quite quickly that, although there are now plenty of people who have heard their music (even though they haven’t engaged enough with the band to actively seek them out), although they will now have quite a few ‘fans’ who claim that they’ll come to their shows, that without some financial support – playing all those gigs to fans spread out over the entire reach of Bittorrent, is a daunting task. They might sell some t-shirts and weed-grinders over the web – more likely to fans of Bittorrent than fans of SoS – and they might very well garner some corporate sponsorship, but they’ll likely not sell 50,000 albums.

  4. Q on Tuesday March 29, 2011

    >In the land of the free and excessively convenient, the line between what is significant
    and what isn’t is carelessly erased. We gain things but lose meaning.

    This statement about defines the internet. Convenience over knowledge makes the world a dumber place.

    BTW- no Sick of Sarah track this week? A million Sick of Sarah fans can’t be wrong!