Op-Ed: BitTorrent's Matt Mason Makes a Case for Art In the Digital Age

On September 22, Thom Yorke published an image of a vinyl record. The earth was thrown off its axis, as Consequence of Sound reported. And it was again, four days later, when the record was released as a BitTorrent Bundle. That isn’t hyperbole, but instead, obvious and insignificant. That’s what records are supposed to do. To throw you off. To draw you in. To make you hear, see, and remember the world around you differently. Every record, regardless of the artist, is our own: a personal history of listening, an artifact of life lived out loud.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is only a record. And maybe records are only sentimental objects. 2014 saw digital music sales decline by 13.3%. While music streaming is increasing in popularity, 75% of listeners refuse to migrate to paid subscriptions. In the industry’s struggle to keep up with the pace of Internet culture, sound quality has been sacrificed for the tech specs required by major online retailers. Albums have been stripped away until all that’s left is the single. Within this context, music has become nothing more than marketing. The 1% of artists can strike deals with Apple or Samsung to give away their content. The rest can accept a different set of terms; giving away up to 40% of their sales and 100% of their fan data, in exchange for exposure.

We cannot accept this.

Because the idea of "only a record" is also only everything. This year, vinyl sales grew again. Pressing plants are at, or beyond, capacity. The experience of vinyl is decidedly analog; leafing through liner notes, thumbing over art. But it’s increasingly an experience replicated, and pushed forward, online. Beyonce’s 2013 album shattered iTunes, and it was as much about art and video as it was about music. It was a record.

There are ideas in music, film, and art that cannot be compressed or constrained. Our goal is to protect them, preserve them, but most of all: to build them a place. This requires acknowledging three key truths.

The music is the music.

Art is not an ad. That something that you’ve spent the last three months or three years on is not free. Every creator should have the ability to sell their work, and set their own terms.

Art is not disposable. It's durable.

Creators should never be constrained by traditional storytelling or technical specs. Big ideas should never be reduced into bytes or boxes. Media should always spill out and over the frame.

Creativity is always part of culture, never apart from it.

Songs and films are social objects, held in common by artists and fans. There are no gatekeepers. Ideas spread, and they become more, and not less valuable, each time they’re shared.

The thing is, the world around us is already beginning to acknowledge these truths, to accept them, to move on. The music is the music. Its experience cannot be diminished, as live ticket sales will tell you. Communities of fans are formed every day around funding for the arts -- over $1 billion has been pledged to Kickstarter projects (and counting). And music is -- for all the upheaval -- deeply, profoundly part of our culture, in a way that’s never before been possible. To be alive in 2014 is to be listening. This is the future of music. We’ve inherited a beautiful opportunity, and a big obligation.

On September 26th, in collaboration with Thom Yorke, we released Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a means of handing back control of Internet commerce back to creators and fans. This -- the web -- is the last record store. But -- at 2 million downloads and counting -- Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is only the first record. The next one, ten, or ten million, could be yours.

Matt Mason currently serves as Chief Content Officer at BitTorrent, Inc. He is also the bestselling author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. He has written and produced TV series, screenplays, comic strips, apps and records, and award-winning, global advertising campaigns. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Adweek and VICE, among others.

Billboard welcomes responsible commentary. Please email the editor with ideas and pitches at andrew.flanagan@billboard.com.