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.