When Converge Studios and Rock Mafia wanted to get the word out in August about an original TV series, they turned to an unconventional partner: BitTorrent, a file-transfer protocol that distributes large amounts of digital data and is often used in peer-to-peer file sharing.
Within the first week, more than 1 million people downloaded the 500 MB file, with 50,000 people opting to receive emails about "Fly or Die," a fictional show based on the real-life experiences of Rock Mafia founders Tim James and Antonina Armato, a Santa Monica, Calif., songwriting duo that has penned or produced dozens of hits for Ellie Goulding, No Doubt, Mariah Carey, Green Day and others.
"We got such a great reaction that we're thinking, 'This is really worth rolling up our sleeves and giving it a real go,'" Armato says. "We've had lots of big TV producers contact us and say they're interested in taking the show to the next level. We never would have known this if we hadn't done the pilot this way."
The producers of "Fly or Die" weren't the only ones to have teamed with the San Francisco-based BitTorrent on a release. During the past 12 months, Public Enemy, the Pixies, Linkin Park, Pretty Lights and Kaskade have been among those that have quietly distributed content through the service. And it's not just music groups-filmmakers, TV producers, graphic novelists, university professors and even book publishers have ventured into BitTorrent's community of 170 million active monthly users to find their audience.
"There's a fear in the music business about file-sharing technology," says Gary "G-Wiz" Rinaldo, Public Enemy's producer/manager. "We don't have that fear."
The entertainment world's fear and loathing of BitTorrent has, lately, started to give way to a more pragmatic attitude -- something along the lines of, "If you can't beat them, at least learn how to leverage them." The shift from pariah to potential partner comes as the result of BitTorrent's efforts to reach out to media companies and deliver tangible data results -- email addresses, awareness, traffic and, eventually, sales.
Central to this approach is the BitTorrent Bundle-a new file format that lets content creators put up free content to encourage downloads as well as layers of additional content behind a "gate" that downloaders can unlock by completing an action, such as submitting their email addresses, sharing the content, taking a survey or entering a contest.
"There's no other option available where you can take a couple of months of an artist's work and put it out in a creative way," says Austin Briggs, digital marketing and brand strategist for hip-hop act Jet Life, which released a mixtape in August as a BitTorrent Bundle. "It's activated local promoters, and there's been a heavy lift from Twitter and Facebook that's still resonating. We saw a 30% jump in presales from the time we dropped the bundle, and a 500% growth across the apparel site, both in sign-ups and merchandise sales."