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.