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BitTorrent Is Not The Solution

Blog | January 25, 2011 | Updated: January 26, 2011 | Posted by Basilisk

One of the most common suggestions I receive is to open a BitTorrent tracker for free music, ostensibly to decrease hosting costs. There are a number of problems with this suggestion, however, and given how frequently it is mentioned, I figure a full post might be helpful to explain why BitTorrent is not the solution.

BitTorrent, as most people know, is the de facto standard for large-scale peer-to-peer file sharing. It works wonders when shared content is in high demand and there are strong incentives to seed. These conditions are realized on private trackers communities dedicated to (mostly) copyright content, particularly those with a ratio system, where downloads are limited to encourage behaviour beneficial to the community (i.e. seeding and uploading). With a stringent set of rules and guidelines in place, private trackers can become the very model of peer-to-peer distribution, offering fast download rates, excellent availability, and a breadth of content unheard of in the commercial arena.

So what could be the problem? Consider the ideal scenario described identified above: strong demand and incentive to seed. Demand for free music is certainly high but it is nowhere near that of mainstream content under copyright. Still, it is not unreasonable to expect that demand would be sufficient for a free music tracker to be viable on some level, with exceptions for older, less popular releases. In truth, it is the incentive to seed that seems most difficult to me. A ratio system wouldn’t work and altruism will only get you so far. I expect the result would be a poorly seeded tracker and a huge reduction in the amount of downloads.

My forecast has a lot to do with the barrier to entry. BitTorrent requires special software and a certain amount of familiarity with the protocol, or at least some computer savvy. Not much, admittedly, but the population of people familiar with BitTorrent technology is necessarily a subset of those familiar with direct downloads. If I were to implement a tracker with a ratio system that would force users to register and log in, thereby increasing the barrier to entry and thinning the audience. There is absolutely no way to make BitTorrent as accessible as Ektoplazm is today. Given that the vanishingly low barrier to entry is fundamental to the value proposition of the entire site this is not something I want to play around with.

It is also worth noting that even the most prominent private trackers don’t push as much psytrance as Ektoplazm does. Scope out some of the majors and you’ll see that even Shpongle and Infected Mushroom only account for–at most–several thousand snatches. The audience just isn’t anywhere near as large.

Then there are the technical issues. BitTorrent trackers are not permitted on many web hosts (mine included). The reason given is often related to CPU/memory intensivity but I would wager that the strong association between BitTorrent and the exchange of copyright content has a lot to do with it. There are other technical issues but it hardly seems useful to go into the prosaic details given everything else I have raised.

Finally, it is worth noting that I have some experience with operating a BitTorrent tracker. In fact, Ektoplazm began as a BitTorrent tracker back in 2005! Read about the closure of the Ektoplazm BitTorrent tracker in 2007. Take a look at the numbers: 12,000 full releases served in nearly two years of activity. After switching to direct downloads the count blossomed to 100,000 in six months. Three years later the total has exceeded 3,000,000. Part of this is no doubt due to the growth of the site–but that growth would not have been possible had I remained with BitTorrent.

At the root of all this is some confusion regarding what Ektoplazm is limited by. Currently the site is not limited by bandwidth nor hard drive space for these resources are available on an unlimited basis thanks to our excellent provider, Dreamhost (sign up from that link and we’ll get a little bonus). Instead, Ektoplazm is largely limited by CPU/memory resources (the other main limitation being talent, which I may discuss in a future post). Ektoplazm’s hosting bills are proportionate to how much traffic is coming through–and how heavy the load on the server is in any given month. I’ve already taken steps to optimize the site but some expenses are unavoidable. Donations are always welcome should you wish to help out with this.

In conclusion, free music providers are likely to encounter many of the same issues I have outlined in this post. Although it excels in certain situations, BitTorrent is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all your file sharing needs. Direct downloads are likely to be a much better means of distributing legal content licensed under the Creative Commons.

Photo credit: wire trap.


  • Julian says:

    You make a great point! We had thought about using bittorrent to distribute our tunes, but in the end, we realized it didn’t make any sense. The demand for our stuff isn’t enough that there will be enough seeders, and the majority of people are still in the dark about the nature of BT.

  • BuZzR says:

    Ur absolutely right. BT is not the solution here.
    i rather see a community responsibility here to share these free releases.
    maybe a new area would make sense where people can publish urls of trackers exclusively set up for this purpose

  • Harry says:

    I love this website for the fact that I can download on demand at fantastic download speeds. BitTorrent would cripple that experience, largely because my ISP throttles BitTorrent connections! Also, what about the streamer? That little thing is brilliant and we’d surely lose it. Plus, you’d never catch me seeding anything.

  • Kris says:

    The solution is that people start to donate so the server can be expanded continuously as more music arrive. As it is now I find it sad to see only 13 has donated. Get on it people ;)

  • Rf says:

    No you get on with whatever. That’s just the flattr system, some of us prefer paypal.

  • Kris says:

    I don’t need to get on with anything mate. I’m releasing my music for free her. I guess that’s plenty enough :)

    My point was that Ektoplazm deserve more donations. Especially when you see how many downloads this portal generate.

  • Kris says:

    By the way I would never again use paypal after the way they acted in the case with Wiki-leaks.

  • Abstructure says:

    Torrents, users and the majour tycoons

    Bittorents and P2P software have lot of problems, rather technical or due to being blocks by the ISP who don’t want to deal with the big media companies (such as Warner and Universal). By doing this, they are not just being rediculess while fighting a lost battle, they are also bother users who would use this kind of technology for personal file transfer and not just downloading illigially, music which they can’t get elsewhere. The other problem with the traditional records stores is that they have limited space and on each squared meter they pay taxes. Therefore, they just can’t afford to sell notch music and prefer to fill the shelves with the same Main-Stream products which the big media companies (such as Warner and Universal) will sponsor.

    In both cases, those who being hurt are the clients who loves certain underground music and of course many independed artists, who tries to get to them and get some attention with their work. Nowdays, there are new channels online and because the physical place for music is now virtual – there’s a place for everything. Yet, you may still find a video on Youtube which is being blocked because of those big media companies (such as Warner and Universal…) who are still hold that “last century” attitude and try to keep their status quo as the mass-media leaders and controllers, and by doing their ridiculess acts, they don’t give much chance, but to their own “Robo-dolls” to get to the media.

    However, there are many people out there who just don’t buy the “Hit-Culture” product anymore and stick to what they are really like and not to some mass-media products which someone told them to consume. Ektoplasm for example is just one alternative which prooves that the main market these days lies in the notch music and we will probably see more and more websites like this one, which offer their products free with the option for donations. This way, any kind of music (or films, books, etc.) has it’s place and anyone can have acess to it. It’s leagal so finally your 8 year old kid who wants to download something for his own use, won’t be considered as “pirate” like most of the kids today who were born to the Web 2.0 age and one day some of them will join and share their own work by the same way they have grown with (and some probably new ways as well). The Gerbner’s term: “Main Stream” (which was originally refered to TV programs) as we know it today, will become just as another “Tribe” on the endless ocean of other indie media “Tribes”, so finally we get the democracy in this field, which was disabled for years by they fortune owner, who were the only one who could afford the production cost (such as… you already know ’em)

    Bye Bye media monopoly.
    Welcome to a new decade!

    Rotem (Abstructure)

  • Rf says:

    You may never use PayPal again but Flattr uses them.

  • William says:

    I think you are a light about eletronic music! Free music 4 people! Thanks!
    Bittorrent can’t get your numbers!

  • Ruslan says:

    Re-read and comprehend text menyayutsya times and you should think about the torrent, not as a substitute and as an alternative to the REAL unloading servers! I sometimes keep seed up until a few years and I think that there are many!

  • mitry says:

    Hi! Sorry man, your justifications is useless.
    On bad connection(like my) only torrents can help. I cannot download even one release from browser.
    Dont think everybody stupid, only you is d’Artagnan – just run the tracker. One day job!

  • Spektrolyte says:

    Same here. I am unable to download from Ektoplazm through my browser. I get 2kb/s which is useless for a 600MB FLAC album. Why not just run the tracker on and seed all of the content from a small fileserver like HP G7. Wouldn’t take much effort to set up, and it doesn’t need to replace your own server, just add another download option.

    I am now going to search torrent sites for Ectoplazm releases because I cannot download them from the Ectoplazm website.

  • Lalocura says:

    Man, good you are up to this information, it’s necessary these days, not very clear for many of us, but trying to catch up. from Mexico.

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