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.
"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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
"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."