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Radiohead's Thom Yorke offers new album for sale -- through BitTorrent

Radiohead's Thom Yorke offers new album for sale -- through BitTorrent
Thom Yorke of Radiohead, shown performing at the Coachella music festival in 2012, has released a new album. (Los Angeles Times)
Radiohead's Thom Yorke more than just surprised fans by releasing an unexpected new album Friday. He broke new ground by selling the downloadable release exclusively through BitTorrent, using a technology favored by illegal downloaders to deliver not just its content, but also a means to pay for it.

The eight-track album, "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes," sells for $6, about half the price of a major new release at Apple's iTunes Store. The album is being offered as a BitTorrent Bundle, a format that offers downloaders a free sample of its content -- in this case, a single and a video from the album -- before inviting them to pay to unlock the rest.

In a prepared statement, Yorke and Nigel Godrich cast the effort as a proof-of-concept for artistic self-determination.

"It's an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around," they wrote. "If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of Internet commerce back to people who are creating the work.

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"Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers. If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done."
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Of course, Yorke (and Godrich, one of his bandmates in Atoms for Peace and a solo artist in his own right) have the luxury of a large, devoted fan base that makes this sort of experimentation feasible. It also helps that BitTorrent takes a much smaller cut -- 10% -- than Apple's 30%.
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Radiohead famously experimented with a voluntary set-your-own-price release strategy for its LP "In Rainbows." Its members have also been vocal critics of emerging streaming music services such as Spotify, which pay copyright owners extremely small fees per song played.
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The BitTorrent file-sharing protocol has long been the most popular vehicle for copying music, movies and television shows online for free, making the BitTorrent brand an epithet in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, San Francisco-based BitTorrent Inc., which developed the software, has been trying for most of its history to persuade content providers to use the technology as a legitimate distribution platform.
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It's had only limited success. Some independent producers, attracted by BitTorrent's massive global user base (current population: 170 million) and rock-bottom distribution costs, embraced free file-sharing as a way to build an audience. Others have used BitTorrent to share promotional material or offer full-length content in exchange for donations.

For major artists and entertainment companies, however, one stumbling block has been hard to surmount. BitTorrent was designed for the endless redistribution of files with no strings attached, which isn't a good fit for a business model based on selling content.

Friday's release of "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" represents the culmination of BitTorrent Inc.'s second effort to address that shortcoming. The first was the BitTorrent Entertainment Network, a site the company launched in 2007 to offer movies and TV shows for sale or rent. The files were wrapped in electronic locks to deter people from copying or sharing them without paying. But the locks and the file format were incompatible with many users' devices, and the effort was scrapped a year later.

The company tried again last year with BitTorrent Bundles, which took a different approach to securing content. In addition to media that could be freely shared, the bundles contained a gate that, once unlocked, allowed the user to download more items. Anyone who shared the free content automatically passed along the gate too.

The presence of the gate allowed publishers to demand something from the public in return for the extra content. When BitTorrent launched the Bundles with content from DJ Kaskade in May 2013, however, it wasn't able to collect payments from downloaders. Instead, publishers asked for email addresses. That's been enough of an inducement for roughly 11,000 content providers, who have distributed more than 100 million Bundles.

The Bundle for "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" is the first with a gate that collects a payment. Matt Mason, BitTorrent's chief content officer, said "paygates" took this long to develop because "we're not building a Web-based experience that's only going to work in North America." It's easy to add a storefront to a website, Mason said; it's much harder to create a transferable one that works wherever someone might be using BitTorrent.

Yorke and Godrich were enthusiastic supporters of the idea from the start, Mason said. Although Yorke and his bandmates weren't planning on releasing anything for a couple of years, a conversation with Mason in the studio over Christmas changed their minds, he said. "They got it into their heads ... they had to be first, because of who they are."

The feeling was mutual. "We really, really wanted them to be first, because of who they are."

Still, grabbing a copy of "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" won't be as easy as buying a CD at Target. Would-be buyers will need software that runs the BitTorrent protocol (a BitTorrent "client") on their device before they can download the album. There's no such software available for an iPhone or iPad from Apple's App store, although there are versions for Macs, PCs and portable devices running Android or Windows.

Nor will anyone be able to pay cash for the album. Unlocking the paygate will require a credit card or a Paypal account, although the system is set to accept 140 different currencies.

And for Yorke, there's the risk -- no, the guarantee -- that some of those who buy "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" will offer copies of it free through BitTorrent and other file-sharing mechanisms online, removed from the original Bundle and its gate. But then, that's true for every downloadable song sold on iTunes.

Actually, Mason said, he's seen the opposite happen. Bundles are showing up on pirate sites, and in some cases have been more popular than the versions without gates. Granted, none of those Bundles required people to pay for content. Still, Mason said, research shows that people feel differently about artists who offer them content directly. "They're also willing to pay a slightly higher price when they think the money's going directly to the artist," he said.

"It does feel like it's ... something that's been sort of handcrafted," Mason said of the Bundles. "This is something that's going to be more likely to make people consume stuff legally."
A more tangible benefit that BitTorrent offers publishers is the ability to set the price of their content, along with the ability to gather data about their audience. With BitTorrent, the content providers, not the retailer, find out who's buying, where they're located, and who took the free material without unlocking the rest.
Unlike download sites that rely on central servers, BitTorrent's technique of turning downloaders into redistributors enables the protocol to perform better as the demand for a file increases. Whether that remains true for Bundles with paygates, which have to interact with payment processors on the Web, remains to be seen. That's why BitTorrent is starting with just one Bundle with a paygate

"The Bundle we release Friday will be a test," Mason said, and the results will determine how quickly paygates will be offered to other content providers. He added, though, that work on the technology is complete. "It's a real product," Mason said, "ready to go for everybody else in the world the next day."

Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow his intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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