Thom Yorke’s surprise new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, has been released via a file sharing platform notoriously associated with piracy. What’s Thom’s thinking behind the release, and could BitTorrent prove a sustainable method of distribution for other artists in the future? Piers Barber investigates.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes: what’s all the fuss about?
Apart from being a new and highly unexpected solo album from Radiohead and Atoms For Peace frontman Thom Yorke, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is notable for becoming the first album to ever be sold as a BitTorrent ‘bundle’. It costs just $6 and is available for download now (it’s also out on vinyl).
I am trying something new, don’t know how it will go. but here it is:) https://t.co/1noGMiZ5sC
— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) September 26, 2014
What’s BitTorrent, exactly? Isn’t it just a particularly convenient way of stealing music?
BitTorrent is a massively popular piece of peer-to-peer software which facilitates the sharing of files between its users. Today it boasts 170 million active users – double the amount currently using Spotify, Hulu and Netflix combined. Although it hosts an increasing amount of legal content, BitTorrent remains best known as one of the internet’s most comprehensive sources of pirated music.
The company itself, of course, would rather be seen to be a neutral platform that champions creativity and the rights of the artist. As a result, it has made a major effort in recent years to re-position itself in opposition to streaming giants such as Spotify: “Major labels have really given up on selling music,” Matt Mason, BitTorrent’s chief content officer, said in a recent interview. “Pushing Spotify to an IPO is what most of the senior executives at the major labels are concerned with…but it doesn’t bear any relation to an artist trying to make a living from their work on the internet.”
Earlier this year, BitTorrent passed 100 million legal downloads and streams. Thom Yorke’s new album, released as a ‘bundle’, is a major coup for the platform and will do much to enhance its reputation as a friend, rather than a foe, of those making and selling music.
The likes of Madonna, De La Soul and DJ Shadow have dabbled with this method in the past, though Yorke is the first to put his work up for grabs on the platform in exchange for money, rather than just a piece of information, such as an email address.
What’s in it for Yorke? Why can’t he just release a CD?
The BitTorrent release is the latest in Yorke’s personal and fascinating crusade to find a way to hand distributive control of artistic wares back to their creators. Here’s Yorke’s own explanation of the release, published alongside the album as a co-written letter with his producer and partner-in-crime Nigel Godrich.
It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around …
If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work.
Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves.
Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.
If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done.
So in theory, it’s all about cutting out the middle man – distribution costs are cut, meaning music is cheaper for fans and more lucrative for musicians. The hope is that cheaper, legal downloads will always appeal to music lovers, regardless of the platform.
Seems smart and morally virtuous enough, no?
We’ll let our knowledgeable friends at Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records summarise some of the scepticism that has greeted the release:
This is all very well but Thom was quite happy using the gate-keepers he now wants to avoid to establish his fan base in the first place. — Avalanche Records (@avalanche_edin) September 26, 2014
What Thom Yorke needs to do is explain to those artists starting out now exactly how they build up decent fan base to care about their music — Avalanche Records (@avalanche_edin) September 26, 2014
It is, of course, hard to get away from the fact that Yorke’s revolutionary distribution methods – releasing Radiohead’s In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-like basis and removing some of his records from Spotify – came after he had been long established as one of music’s most influential and powerful deities.
The BitTorrent experiment is undoubtedly an intriguing one. Still, whilst it’s great that distribution costs are lower, it means nothing if an artists possesses no promotional clout to push consumers to look for it in the first place. Yorke is fortunate enough to be able to call on the heavyweight backing of some serious PR muscle – not to mention the fact that he is, well, really, really famous already. It’s very easy to be a revolutionary when you’ve already made your major breakthrough.
So who deserves to win this argument?
As Yorke admits in his statement, no one is really sure how this experiment will work out – although at the time of writing, the album has already been downloaded over 180,000 times, which suggests he could well be on to something. Although the release is undeniably partly self-serving, it’s exciting that he’s still trying out new ways of distributing music within an uncertain industry. The release may yet prove to be way more than just an elaborate publicity stunt.
And what about the music? Is it any good?
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is all melancholy bass wobbles, erratic drum machines and glitchy chunks of intriguing techno – it’s not a major progression from Yorke’s other recent output, but that doesn’t make it any less exhilarating. The fact remains that whatever the release format, it’s always worth listening to this man’s work – personally, I still think he’s a hero.
This isn’t the first time Yorke has pushed for a major transformation of the music industry. Find out more here: Is Spotify killing music?