Sick of Sarah, whose album "2205" was legally downloaded more than 1.7 million times thanks to BitTorrent's Artist Spotlight. (Photo: Amber McDonald)
Sick of Sarah is hardly a household name, but the all-girl punk band from Minneapolis have had their latest album "2205" (Adamant Records) downloaded more than 1.7 million times. That is more than new albums by Lady Gaga, Sade, Drake, Usher or Ke$ha sold through 2010 (Billboard.com, 1/5/11) and it's all thanks to a file-sharing protocol with a rather notorious reputation known as BitTorrent.
San Francisco-based BitTorrent Inc. last August launched a new program called the Artist Spotlight initiative that gives users legal access to all kinds of content for free, including recorded music, when downloading the BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software. This technology was originally designed to make the transferring of massive files over the Internet easier.
It is also the same technology that many in the global music industry, law-enforcement authorities and the judiciary consider a scourge. They object that the technology can be used to enable pirates to set up "BitTorrent sites" that allow users to illegally download huge amounts of copyrighted music without compensating rights owners.
"We estimate that around 95% of music files downloaded worldwide are unlicensed," says Jeremy Banks, London-based anti-piracy director at international music-industry trade body IPFI. "Illegal BitTorrent sites are a significant part of that."
BitTorrent's notoriety is so universal, anti-piracy lobbyists, like the Recording Industry Association of America and IFPI, have turned to the law.
IFPI, for example was instrumental in taking the co-founders and backers of Sweden-based The Pirate Bay, the infamous illegal file-sharing site that linked to torrent files, to court in 2009. After highlighting the damage the site was causing the music industry worldwide, the Swedish legal authorities invited IFPI's then chairman/CEO John Kennedy to give evidence at the trial in Stockholm. The defendants were sentenced to prison for encouraging copyright abuse.
Other anti-piracy actions resulting from rights owners' campaigns include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shuttering several copyright-infringing file-sharing websites that traded in torrent files such as OnSmash.com, torrent-finder.com and RapGodFathers.com.
On her March 15 White House website blog, U.S. copyright czar Victoria Espinel ( who is the keynote speaker at this week's World Copyright Summit) wrote that "in appropriate circumstances, infringement by streaming, or by means of other similar new technology, is a felony" in her recommendations to Congress for stronger anti-piracy law enforcement.
And this April, Google's senior VP/general counsel Kent Walker spoke at the U.S. House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet's debate on a senate bill entitled Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. The bill aims to give attorney generals the right to shut down serial infringing websites. Kent's participation follows Google's agreement to censor predictive word search results featuring the word "torrent."
Despite these indictments, it seems a new generation of musicians like Sick of Sarah and music-industry professionals alike are reassessing the technology's legitimate potential benefits.
"It can be an effective music-promotion tool," declares BitTorrent Inc.'s chief strategist/executive VP Shahi Ghanem. "The (technology's) viral effect helps get these acts' name out there," he adds.
To prove that point, the company launched its Artist Spotlight program last summer to enable consenting artists, which includes unsigned musicians, to reach a broader audience.
This is done by bundling an app called the App Studio with BitTorrent Inc.'s two key file-sharing software products called "BitTorrent Mainline" and "uTorrent," which Ghanem says together have 100 million-plus active monthly users.
The Bittorrent App Studio features content creators have agreed to give away via Creative Commons liscenses. (Photo: Courtesy Bittorrent Inc)
Clicking on the App Studio gives BitTorrent's users access to content that creators have agreed to give away via Creative Commons licensing as well as apps. As part of the Artist Spotlight promotion, Ghanem says, the App Studio "helps content owners gain exposure by reaching our millions of users, who are hungry for content."
BitTorrent Inc. registers completed ("not partial or abandoned") downloads via the independently controlled tracker ClearBits.net, which is where you can find the number of downloads for acts like Sick of Sarah.
Sick of Sarah's "2205" album cover Mike Minehart)
Critics have pointed out that Sick of Sarah's album "2205" was bundled with Bittorrent applications and was only separated from the download if users opted out rather than opted in. Some even nicknamed their "2205" album the "spam album." A spokesperson from BitTorrent, however, says it is a graphical promotion that very clearly communicated what the user would receive and made it easy for them to decline any download offers.
Regardless of how Sick of Sarah's album was downloaded, the band's manager Jim Merlis says the Artist Spotlight helped the band to "promote live shows and increase the the band's social media," even if it didn't necessarily result in a dramatic increase in music sales.
Hollywood-based unsigned rock/hip-hop act Paz submitted his debut 12-track mixtape "Young Broke and Fameless" to Artist Spotlight last August.
He says the campaign has yielded results and that he's now in the studio recording with Printz Board, The Black Eyed Peas' musical director. He's a regular headline act at Board's live showcase at Club Five0Four in Hollywood.
Paz, whose mixtape was downloaded nearly half a million times via Bittorrent's Artist Spotlight program.(Photo: Getty Images)
He recently performed live in Los Angeles with Girl Talk and Mike Posner. And the number of 'Likes' on his Facebook page has jumped to nearly 40,000 from 10,000.
BitTorrent Inc. says his mixtape has more than 480,000 downloads according to ClearBits.net. Paz reports more than 700,000, if free downloads via his own site, Facebook and iTunes are added in.
Although none is paid for, Paz tells Billboard he doesn't want to approach labels yet because "my goal is to use BitTorrent to build as large an audience as I can, and I want to be where people my age go to hear new music."
The major labels declined to be interviewed on the topic of BitTorrent. But a Warner Music Group source who declined to be identified, denied the technology's possible promotional and technological uses and scorned the idea of using BitTorrent's data-gathering potential. "(BitTorrent) supplying us with the number of free downloads alone is unhelpful to the bigger picture," he said, "its value is a lot less than not having the BitTorrent data."
Other music-industry practitioners and observers, however, are not as dismissive. PIAS Entertainment Group, the pan-European label with Editors and Grace Jones on its roster, monitors P2P sites for leaked albums, says Adrian Pope, managing director of digital & business, "but we don't use BitTorrent for marketing."
London-based Giles Cottle, senior analyst at research firm Informa Telecoms & Media, insists labels do analyze BitTorrent activities: "There's value in knowing which artists have the propensity to be pirated."
London-based social-media measurement company Musicmetric, which measures and analyzes music activities on BitTorrent sites, argues that signed acts need that knowledge, especially for international artist-development strategies.
"For example, a Chinese artist-management company wanted to use our software to help track the popularity of Korean artists in China, so that it could make informed decisions about what kind of Asian artists to import into China," explains Marie-Alicia Chang, Musicmetric's head of business development.
And for Sick of Sarah bassist Jamie Holm, the debate couldn't be more straightforward: "You can't fight against the technology people are using. People are using BitTorrent to discover music and we want them to hear our music."