They Burned Down Our Library — RIP What.cd
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges
Is it a stretch to say when they (the French authorities) took away What.cd, they took away our freedom?
It is. But it feels close enough to the truth that we’ve been saying it without irony around the shop* for days now. We can’t seem to shake the loss of What.cd.
What we lost was the freedom to hear any music we wanted at a moment’s notice.
To understand what that means, and to clearly grasp why it is streaming services (which many of us are subscribed to!) don’t cut it, you have to really have an unquenchable thirst for music. We aren’t mourning the loss of being able to steal Beyonce’s new album, though no doubt many people did steal that, we’re mourning the loss of everything that never got a CD release, everything that will never be available to stream, everything that sits locked in the grooves of impossibly rare records that most people will never hear.
What.cd was a legend before we lost it. It was a library of legendary proportions.
If you’re unfamiliar with What.cd, the simplest description on offer is “the Internet’s largest invite-only, music-trading torrent site.” But it was more than that, it was a community of people focused on building the world’s most complete music library — and that’s the source of a large swath of the internet’s collective pain right now.
We lost something that we had built together, over ten years. And that hurts, regardless of its legality.
What.cd was a network of donors. Donors with an unhinged passion for music, who contributed in any way they could to the building of that library. People gave so much time to see What.cd work, and to ensure that everything we placed on its shelves was of the highest quality. From the site architecture, to the quality of conversations in the forums, everyone had an eye on quality — there were even people who checked the quality of wave forms! If the uploaded files didn’t pass their spectral analysis with flying colors, they were 86'd. There was no room in the library for incomplete works.
As amusing as this sounds, because the site operated outside of the law, policing the quality of the music files, the community, and each other was of the highest order. And despite what sounds like a law and order environment, What.cd was home to a vibrant community.
The most astonishing thing about What.cd, which dawned on you slowly because you first spent so much time navigating such a vast and impressive library, was that the community was intelligent, and further, kind. It’s rare to find a space on the web that isn’t overrun with trolls, and What.cd was one of those rare places. And so, beyond being a library of music that was free for the asking — torrent sites are for piracy after all — What.cd was a library in the real sense of the word.
What.cd was a place where you could join a book club (we read Gravity’s Rainbow, and Ulysses together), dissect the election cycle with people from across the aisle (and world) and expect everyone to keep a cool head, chat about the playoffs, NASCAR, video games, farming, your relationship woes, or legal troubles.
What.cd was a treasure. The system worked because we shared a sense of respect, for the music and for each other. What.cd wasn’t comprised of pillage and plunder pirates, those types were booted from the community. What.cd was a gathering of librarians.
Wild pitch pipe dream here, but let’s put it out there anyway.
Give us 5 years without What.cd. Leave everyone with the options of having to buy rare records in the used market, new records in the supermarket, and streaming, to slake their thirst for sounds they haven’t heard yet.
If after 5 years there is no significant increase in the use of streaming sites or physical media revenue, let us rebuild What.cd. (It’ll be a better What.cd though, because we’re going to spend the next five years thinking about how to make it better).
You see, nobody joined What.cd to hurt the music industry, we joined because we’re insatiable consumers of music. We buy your CDs and LPs, we go see live music, we pay for streaming services, and after all that, we still had something to give to the operation of the What.cd servers.
What.cd was a library, not a den of corruption. Did piracy occur? Yes, of course, but if we didn’t archive the lost music of the world, who else would have? Admittedly, we weren’t exclusively sharing the rarest of the rare, but that’s what we’re mourning. That and the sudden loss of all of our friends who we only knew as avatars within that walled paradise.
OK, so we didn’t lose our freedom to discover new music, we just lost access to music that no one is offering, nor will they because they have no economic incentive to do so. Unearthed Nigerian LPs are once again lost. Japanese indie-pop records you won’t find in Amazon Music or on Spotify will remain local legends (unless they become economically viable). Forgotten soul records will continue to be passed around among small, knowing circles of people who are desperate to enrich the lives of others through music, that is, until a fledgling record label can afford the license to press a small batch of reissues.
What.cd was where those hungry for music went to eat. Where those longing to discover lost connections among music scenes, or to trace the threads running through bands went to learn. Where people who possessed an alienating passion for music went to feel at home.
What.cd was our public commons. A place on the net that we built with love and care. A monument to every recorded sound we could find.
What.cd was our library.
Let us have our library back.
*Our bedroom after 8:30pm. We Dig Records is an online used vinyl vendor that operates out of a small Brooklyn apartment. We’re a married couple with two children under 5.