What comes after subscriptions? — Part 1
JUNE 24TH, 2016 — POST 172
I write everyday with headphones in my phone, pulling music from either SoundCloud, Bandcamp, or Apple Music. But there’s also Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music, and YouTube Red. Netflix and YouTube are my video streaming services of choice, but Amazon Prime, Hulu, Starz, and in Australia services like Presto and Stan stand as Netflix’s cronies. Whether free, paid, or kinda-half-half (like Bandcamp), there are unarguably a lot of choices for streaming music and video into your headphones or into your home. And there’s another one on the scene. Now BitTorrent’s got one: BitTorrent Now.
A company that has its heritage in the .torrent file type that enabled the current piracy moment to resist takedown where services like Napster, Kazaa, and Limewire fell, BitTorrent has become evangelists for the legitimate use of .torrent files to disseminate media. Having achieved some success with their Bundle distribution — a way for artists to pay-gate a .torrent download — most notably with Thom Yorke, BitTorrent Now is apparently to seek to consolidate not only goodwill but also tastemaker image to a streaming service that will handle both music and video.
As Billboard reports, this isn’t some pay-monthly service in the same vein as the industry titans of Tidal, Spotify, or Apple Music. Even though these three services might break apart right at the tip of the pyramid with different exclusive artist catalogs (or not, like Spotify), these services all share the same bundle of licences which gives them all basically the same catalog of 30 million songs. BitTorrent Now isn’t bothering with this chunky bundle, or a subscription fee. Rather, it is providing consumers who have unlocked a pay-gate to a .torrent release the opportunity to stream that release on one of their devices, instead of having to download and wrangle a bunch of MP3s or MKVs. The model then is very similar to Bandcamp which won’t even let you make an account on its mobile app without first making a purchase on the online store.
As Bandcamp is evidence of, BitTorrent Now’s model will give it a distinctly unique catalog. Sure, there might be some crossover — like there is with Bandcamp and SoundCloud when an artist hosts their music across both platforms — but for the most part, and especially for video where the only similar service is Vimeo On Demand, BitTorrent Now ought to boast a tight-knit stable of artists that are as evangelical about the legitimate uses of .torrent as the company themselves. Like Bandcamp, BitTorrent Now will be defiantly niche, at least at launch. Both artists and consumers will join the service out of some pirate patriotism, yielding another slice of a digital underground where presumably electronic music and hip hop will first take root.
What is most fascinating about BitTorrent Now is that it is an affirmation of a model we thought we were done with: single-release purchasing. Even though I’ve had some of my own music on Bandcamp for years, I got into the platform until I worked out the mobile app deal. Sure, I would pull up releases occasionally when I was at a computer, streaming them through the browser, but I wouldn’t bother saving them anywhere, or buying them for knowing I’d be paying in time spent in iTunes with MP3s and syncing far more than I would with actual money. But there’s music sitting on Bandcamp, and soon BitTorrent Now, that you can’t get anywhere else. And slinging an artist $5 for a record I’ll have on repeat for the next week or so just feels better than Apple yanking $10 out of my account ever month. If Apple transformed music purchasing with iTunes, it was ended by the streaming revolution led by Spotify. However, BitTorrent Now and Bandcamp signal that, just maybe, buying can still make more sense — if implemented as intelligently as is the case with these stream-if-bought models. (Just an aside, this is surely, almost certainly, most definitely what Louis C.K. will implement with his upcoming app — if you bought it on louisck.net, you’ll be able to stream it anywhere).
This stream-if-bought model has far-reaching cultural implications, not only for its potential to upset the hyper-dominance of a handful of artists (Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Taylor Swift) but also to mark a hard line in the silicon between “the archive” and “the new”. These might take some time to work through and digest.
So I’ll give a Part 2 a stab tomorrow.
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