Libraries or Pirate Places

DJ, musician, and cultural critic Jace Clayton recently wrote about the demise of a file and album sharing site called Oink (“Defending the Pig — Oink croaks“); Interpol came knocking, and Oink is now off air. Oink got into trouble for releasing and sharing material that was obviously in-copyright.

Oink had several distinguishing features including currency, high quality audio files, and carefully prepared, extensive descriptive information (metadata) on songs, artists, and albums.

Jace raises several issues noting (at a gross level) the similarities between pirate shops, music marketing portals, and libraries; the distinctions are not necessarily as clearly delineated as they might seem at first glance, as we move from a world of scarce analog resources (like books or records) to widely available, easily disseminated digital media. Transitioning between organizational categories also implies portentous passage from one rights regime to another.

The growing fuzziness across social sectors that provide market-based access to content, those that are historically withdrawn from commerce on behalf of the public good, and those seeking subsidiary gain through marketing and advertising is stressing our predefined conceptions of organizations and services.

The very extensive comments to Jace’s post are informative, providing diverse perspectives and examples of explicit marketing and release by musicians, and the difficulties of establishing new generation financial models that adequately remunerate artists, permit unnecessarily encumbered distribution, and actively encourage user enjoyment and education.

Jace lays out the issues:

More than anything else this year, music & software file-sharing site Oink changed the way I thought about the music industry & BitTorrent technology. I’d heard rumors of Oink for years but hadn’t seen the members-only site until early ’07. Oink was anal, Oink was comprehensive. The site administrators were fierce about quality — only high-quality files from original CD/vinyl rips could be posted. Many releases were even posted as FLAC (lossless) files. Oink allowed only entire releases, with complete tracklist information (uploading an incomplete album or a poorly labeled MP3 could get you kicked off). No bootlegs or concert recordings or unfinished pre-release mixes were permitted.

In many cases, I believe that downloading an album from Oink would be both faster (more on this in a bit) and give you more information about the CD than sites like iTunes.

Think about that … a free website, which gives fast downloads of music at equivalent or higher quality than the paid music sites. And this free site has an incredibly deep collection of both new and old releases, usually in a variety of file formats and bit-rates. It’s overwhelming! First thought: wow, Oink is an amazing library. Second thought: wow, I really need to start selling DJ Rupture t-shirts, CD sales will only continue to drop & I gotta make money somehow!

My library metaphor for Oink makes more sense than economic analogies: for digital music & data, there’s lots of demand but no scarcity at all, which either requires that we rebuild an economic model not based on supply & demand, or start embracing commons analogies. I like living from my music but I also like libraries, the ideas behind libraries …

For fans, consideration of the music comes before questions of money and ownership – this is how it should be. Any system that doesn’t take that into account as a central fact is going to generate a lot of friction.

One of the most library-like things about Oink, Jace notes, is in the depth of its collection. Oink users were very active “crate-diggers” — craving the discovery and selection (curation) of rare material –making it more widely available, and more easily discoverable, while fostering a climate of pervasive contribution, quality, and sharing.

Watching Oink work helped me to understand the structural intelligence of BitTorrent architecture. Oink, like BitTorrent itself, became stronger & faster the more people used it – scalability writ large. Folks wanted to share – to maintain high share ratios. New releases were highly valued. But users kept older releases available as well (you never know when someone will want your Norwegian proto-deathmetal collection, so you keep your bandwidth open). Whether you call it distributed tape-sharing (to use an 80s term) or distributed piracy (to use a 90s industry term), Oink’s use of BitTorrent & careful quality control did it elegantly.

Based on these considerations, Jace returns to a conclusion that has been repeatedly drawn — this is a type of service that is highly desired by large numbers of users who are increasingly spending time online, and the technology is subject to a theoretically open-ended design curve of nearly limitless sophistication.

But Pandora’s Box has been opened. Remember when Napster croaked? Piracy File-sharing is so much easier now. The anal-retentive British site admins kept Oink organized. Bittorent architecture kept Oink efficient. Oink’s alleged 180,000 users won’t forget how useful it was. The next Oink will be sturdier & more multiple. The overall movement is towards more ways to share music & ideas with like-minded individuals on the internet.

The way I see it, this can only be a good thing for music fans. And what musician is not first a music fan?