Boon or Bogeyman
by Mike Grebb.
This article first appeared
Musician's Atlas' January 2005 Atlas Plugged Newsletter
and is used by permission. The
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Once upon a time, the band Ten Mile Tide was living
a fun but relatively low-key existence playing local clubs in the San Francisco
area (save an occasional mini-tour
here and there). Money was tight, so none of the six band members dared quit
their day jobs, which ranged from molecular biology to the culinary arts. One
guy was even a music journalist by day (talk about a bad gig… geez).
But by the summer of 2003,
something happened. Their fan base exploded, allowing band members to quit the
day jobs and go out on the road full time. Since then, the band has sold nearly
6,000 song downloads over the Internet and some 10,000 CDs through all
channels. They now each collect a good salary from the band and just bought a
tour bus. Their music, which their Web site describes as "a smooth blend
of feel-good acoustic rock, foot-stomping folk, and beer-drenched
bluegrass," is now a full-time passion and career.
How did they do it? Did a
record label sign them? Did a big booking agency or management company decide
to take a chance on them? Did the God of Indie Bands bless them with mystical
powers? None of the above.
While Ten Mile Tide’s
success does involve the usual blend of talent, luck and timing, one fact
remains: the band owes its tremendous exposure to a technology that has now
swept the Internet and literally rocked the entire entertainment industry to
its core. That technology is peer-to-peer networking, aka "P2P".
Bottom line? Without P2P, the boys of Ten Mile Tide would still be cranking out
tunes in the Bay Area and shackled to their day jobs. "Kazaa is the whole
reason we have any national fan base," says Ten Mile Tide’s Marc Mazzoni
(keyboards, lead vocals).
Kazaa, in case you don’t know,
is one of the most popular P2P software programs. You can download it for free
(although it comes loaded with plenty of annoying adware if you do so) or buy
the ad-free Kazaa Plus version for about $30. Millions of songs, movies,
software and other content (yes, plenty of porn) zips around the Internet every
day enabled by Kazaa’s P2P software, and much of that content is copyrighted
Some copyright owners are
furious. They see Kazaa and P2P in general as nothing but a system for mass
piracy, allowing millions of people around the globe to steal copyrighted
material with reckless abandon. And because Kazaa doesn’t have any kind of
central server monitoring all of this traffic, it’s practically impossible for
affected copyright owners to shut it down. The genie is out of the bottle, as
Of course, while many
established artists and labels with catalogs to protect see P2P as a major
threat, indie bands and labels looking for exposure have been less willing to
dismiss P2P or regard it as evil incarnate.
In the case of Ten Mile
Tide, P2P put them on the map. Here’s how: In 2002 the band won recognition as
one of the "30 Best Bands" in a joint promotion between Kazaa and the
Web site www.cornerband.com,
and their downloads began slowly.
Using a tracking software
tool provided by Kazaa, the band tracked about 10 song downloads the first
week. Not bad. When they checked the next week, about 100 people had downloaded
their tunes. Even better. Within a few more weeks, it was in the hundreds of
thousands, and the band was in a state of shock. "It basically snowballed
exponentially, and it really grew our fan base," says Mazzoni.
Before long, Kazaa’s
executives — eager to find an example of how P2P could help rather than hurt
the music industry — latched onto Ten Mile Tide's success. Kazaa offered to
take out ads about the band in national magazines and help work the press. The
band accepted, and Mazzoni says the band now has logged nearly 18 million song
downloads through Kazaa. "It’s a mutual kind of thing," says Mazzoni.
"They’re using us, and we’re using them."
Here’s the interesting
piece of the P2P puzzle: Because all of the band’s songs are available for free
download, it would seem logical to assume that many people would bypass
actually purchasing the albums. But 10,000 CD sales later, the band is amazed.
"It’s crazy how this has caught on," says Mazzoni. "I wouldn’t
have thought that downloading would lead people to buy our CDs, but it has.
People really want to support the band."
Now for a reality check.
Ten Mile Tide’s experience isn’t typical of the thousands of bands whose music
is also readily available on Kazaa and the other P2P networks out there. Much
of Ten Mile Tide’s recent exposure is clearly the result of Kazaa’s corporate
publicity department, which certainly doesn’t do that sort of thing for the
many artists whose songs are available through Kazaa.
So why was Ten Mile Tide
cherry-picked by Kazaa's gatekeepers? As in any business, it comes down to the
numbers. In this case, Kazaa's choice mirrors the current major label model -
putting their resources behind an act that has already built up a sizeable fan
base. For as Mazzoni is quick to point out, the band had already logged about
one million P2P downloads before Kazaa corporate came calling.
But as the music industry
wrings its hands over P2P, the question arises: What if record labels or even
indie artists did these kind of promotional deals with Kazaa and other P2P
companies all the time? Would CD sales rise rather than fall? Would concert
attendance go up? As the VCR spurred a multi-billion-dollar video rental
business, could P2P offer the same potential for the music industry? No one
knows the answers to these questions, of course, but recent events suggest that
both sides are at least talking.
Recent deals between record
companies and companies such as SnoCap,
which offers P2P-friendly digital rights management, and Wurld Media, which wants
to start an industry-sanctioned P2P network, could finally
"legitimize" P2P. But it’s unclear whether consumers will bite.
P2P has become so big that
even the government has gotten involved. In December, the Federal Trade
Commission hosted a workshop on P2P technologies at its Washington, D.C., conference center. The event
attracted representatives from the record and movie industries, as well as
several executives and advocates for P2P technologies. A number of academics
also showed up to present studies on how P2P affects record sales (not
surprisingly, the studies disagree over whether P2P has had a directly negative
At the FTC event, several
executives at P2P companies were on hand to battle with industry reps—even as
they tried to find common ground. Sam Yagan, president of the popular eDonkey P2P company, showed
up even though the Motion Picture Association of America had only a day before
the conference targeted eDonkey users in a lawsuit against several P2P
services. Yagan, however, held up a CD by the band Bishop Allen, which he said
rose to the number-two spot on Amazon.com after eDonkey helped promote it among
its users. "A lot of people say you can’t compete with free," he told
attendees. "These guys would tell you otherwise."
And in an unusual twist for
a stuffy Washington conference, songwriter Wood Newton of the Nashville
Songwriters Association International actually serenaded the crowd with a song
about… what else?… Copyright. Newton, who has helped write songs for
greats such as the Oak Ridge Boys and Kenny Rogers, had a decidedly different
take on P2P networks. While "excited" about P2P technologies and
their potential, he said the current trading of copyrighted works without
permission threatens the livelihood of thousands of songwriters who depend on
royalty checks. After all, these are folks who have already paid their dues
under the old system that existed before the Web changed everything. They
aren’t looking for more exposure; they’re just looking to eat. Meanwhile,
artist-supported site www.whatsthedownload.com
tries to educate consumers about "the value of paying for music" and
how many people depend on those revenue streams to survive.
Perhaps that, more than
anything, is the central conundrum. For every Ten Mile Tide and Bishop Allen,
there are no doubt thousands of people in the music industry whose lives and
income streams have been turned upside down by the rise of P2P networks. It’s a
time of great uncertainty. But it’s also a time of great opportunity. There’s
no reason why the traditional music industry can’t work out ways to harness
rather than squash P2P. And there’s also no reason why P2P software companies,
which are interested in making money and staying in business (rather than
defending against lawsuits and risking corporate liability), can’t acknowledge
that they bear at least some responsibility for the actions of their users.
After all, putting all the
for-profit P2P companies out of business may only add strength to underground
networks such as BitTorrent,
which programmer Bram Cohen created for fun, not profit. "What’s more
frightening are these rogue anarchists," Yagan told attendees. Someday,
the music industry may yearn for the day when the original Napster’s central
servers controlled most of the download traffic. Back then, the industry might
have nipped the entire P2P movement in the bud with one sweeping deal that
legitimized file sharing. Instead, they sued Napster out of business (the new
Napster is simply a pay-per-download site like iTunes) and gave rise to
harder-to-stop P2P services.
The genie it seems, isn’t
just out of the bottle. He’s dancing on the graves of the old music business.
And he’s looking for partners.
(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and
singer/songwriter based in Washington, D.C.
He has written for numerous publications, including Wired and Billboard. He
just completed his debut solo record, Resolution, which is available at www.mikegrebb.com).