These days may go down as the best of times and worst of times for the corners of the internet that are usually too shadowy for the general public.
BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol that's been used to power hotbeds for pirated content like Pirate Bay, is relishing the present. Last week, Thom Yorke, the Radiohead front man who is nearly as well known for his pay-what-you-want pricing experiment as he is for his music, issued an announcement that took the music and technology industries by storm: He would self-distribute a solo album exclusively on BitTorrent.
Coincidentally, BitTorrent is enjoying a PR coup while other fringe communities, namely the lurid 4Chan and its geeky distant cousin Reddit, have found themselves tangled in controversy surrounding the distribution of intimate photos stolen from celebrities. While Reddit has been turning on itself, others have been so outraged by 4Chan that they’ve orchestrated elaborate hoaxes in attempt to shudder the site entirely. If appealing to the mainstream factored into either site’s growth plan, it could be time to consider Plan B.
No such plan is required for BitTorrent. Thanks to Yorke’s win-the-internet announcement, which threatens to cut the middlemen like iTunes and Spotify out of music distribution while simultaneously positioning BitTorrent’s new Bundle product as a way for artists to profit from their work and connect with fans, the public is seeing the technology company in a very different light. Talk about a turnabout for a brand that was once so associated with illegal file-sharing that it blogged in late 2012, “Does BitTorrent = Piracy?” (Spoiler: The answer it gave was, “No.”)
Turning Around BitTorrent's Reputation
Answering common questions isn’t all BitTorrent was doing to turn around its reputation at the time. According to the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, it wasn’t much later that the company began conversations with Yorke, discussions that eventually led to last Friday’s news.
Kaykas-Wolff explained that two years ago this Christmas Eve will mark the anniversary of a conversation over tea in London between BitTorrent’s Chief Content Officer (then VP of Marketing) Matt Mason, Yorke, and his management. The two sides enjoyed what Kaykas-Wolff termed “an ideological match” in that they both felt the internet wasn’t helping artists and fans to connect in the way it should.
Yorke and his manager recognized BitTorrent’s potential to distribute recordings directly to fans and not only monetize the transaction, but also give the artist access to everyone who downloaded the files. Eventually, Mason spun up a new product, called BitTorrent Bundle, which Kaykas-Wolff describes as “a record store for the internet generation.” Files can be email-gated or pay-gated. Yorke’s solo effort, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, is the first pay-gated torrent.
In time, the PR frenzy will subside. It always does. The BitTorrent-Yorke agreement marks a moment that runs much deeper and endures much longer than any news cycle. Simply, BitTorrent has fused its product together with content.
“This (partnership) is an absolute form of content marketing. It’s all about supporting the artists and matching it to what the BitTorrent community has said it wants,” said Kaykas-Wolff. And he’s right. The Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes release isn’t entirely unlike a marketing technology company running a popular blog on its own software -- it becomes difficult to distinguish the product from the content. And that’s exactly the point.
Yet although the BitTorrent partnership is structurally similar to what business-to-business marketers have been doing for a few years, it would have been easy for Mason to have been so blinded by tried-and-true content marketing programs that he could have overlooked the larger opportunity presented by Yorke.
When asked about his company’s willingness to “think big,” Kaykas-Wolff responded, “Everyone is following the content model taught by marketing technology vendors. There needs to be room to experiment with different formats, different ideas, and reaching different audiences that you didn’t have access to previously.”
So if any marketers are looking to experiment with large, multimedia files in their content mix, I know a popular protocol that’s ideal for distribution. It’s also suddenly a highly trusted brand.
Image credit: BitTorrent