Music Piracy & Discovery

December 23, 2016

A remembrance of what.cd

Remember Napster? I sure do. I was 12 when it came out. I was just getting into computers and I was just getting into music and Napster basically changed my life.

On our family’s 56k modem, I downloaded songs I heard on the radio that I liked. Here are some early downloads I vividly remember: Papa Roach: “Last Resort”, Limp Bizkit: “Rollin” (both the Air Raid & Urban Assault versions), O.P.M.: “Heaven is a Halfpipe”. Absolute garbage that 4th graders who are just getting into music might be interested in.

It wasn’t a straight upward trajectory, but things got better for me musically. My big obsession in middle school was Weezer (and also a lot of punk rock music we don’t need to talk about). I used Napster (and when Napster got shut down, services like Limewire, BearShare, Kazaa and all the rest) to find rare tracks, tons of bootleg concerts, radio show appearances and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. It took 15 minutes to download a song and it was amazing.

Eventually, I got on Weezer message boards to learn more about Weezer and also to read about music that other Weezer fans liked (Hereae’s retrospective from the heyday of Weezer’s message board). I’d read a thread about an artist, then head over to whatever music pirating program I was using at that point and download an album to figure out if I was interested in them also.

The quality of these downloads were often terrible. There were low bit-rates and weird bleeps and cutoffs. Sometimes you’d have to download different album tracks from different places, and sometimes it took days to get the rare file you were looking for. But for a young person with an abundance of time, an insatiable interest in discovering new music and a satiable budget, it was incredible!

When I found an artist I liked, I tried to download as much of their stuff as possible. And eventually I’d buy the CDs. As I grew older, I’d attend more and more concerts.

To this day, I buy 10-20 physical albums (some CD, some vinyl) a year and probably attend on average a concert a month. I love music, and I spend money on music.

I really believe that one of the catalysts for me loving my music the way I do today was the ability for me to discover, hunt down and acquire (steal) music on my own at a young age. (The other catalyst is my father’s love of music.) The idea of knowing bands’ whole catalogues, finding bands that my friends had never heard of, or finding weird recordings of bands my friends loved but had never heard… all of it was wonderful.

Eventually, Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and BearShare all got shut down, or became too much of a hassle, or just weren’t that great.

Then eventually I learned about torrents.

Getting music through torrents is like getting music from Napster, but better in almost every way. On a peer to peer (P2P) service like Napster, when you downloaded a file, you were downloading it from 1 person. If they logged off of Napster, your download would stop. With torrents, you download from multiple sources as the same time, sometimes tens or hundreds. When one person logs off… it doesn’t matter! It just redirects and starts downloading from elsewhere.

Another amazing thing about torrents: You could download whole albums at the same time. No more searching for the last track of an album, or getting things from a ton of different sources and bitrates. Everything was right there in one folder.

But some things still sucked: Sometimes music was mislabeled and you’d download a virus. Sometimes the quality was garbage. Sometimes there were no seeders (that’s the term for the people you download music from) and you couldn’t download anything at all. It was tough to find a good torrent site and you’d spend a good amount of time searching for one.

Then, I started to hear about the amazing world of private torrent sites. These were invite-only sites that had rules in place to make sure that the user wouldn’t experience any of the problems above: Music wasn’t mislabeled or a virus, because you could get banned from uploading mislabeled music. Quality wasn’t garbage because they set minimum standards for that, and they were all labeled so you knew the quality of file you were downloading before you started. There were always seeders because you were required to keep a certain ratio of content downloaded to content uploaded.

The first one of these sites, and certainly the most popular at that time was Oink’s Pink Palace. This ugly site had rules like the ones listed above and also silly ones like “You have to have a cute avatar” (almost everyone had pictures of cute puppies). I got into Oink (I think from an invitation from someone on a Radiohead message board) about a year before it got shut down, and even though I had only been a member for a short amount of time, it was devastating when it happened.

Out of its ashes came an incredible site called What.cd and I rushed to get access as soon as I could. For the last 9 years, until it was shut down last month, What.cd has been my source for music discovery.

Not only did they have the best organized library of music known to man, quickly surpassing Oink’s selection, but they got everything the moment it became available (legally or otherwise), and they also had incredible tools for discovery.

There was a top 10 page where you could easily see the most downloaded torrents that had been uploaded in the last day/week/month/year. Easily visible for each release was the artist, the title, the type of release and the file file format. And even better, each upload was tagged with a smattering of genres: indie, indie.pop, indie.rock, garage.rock, etc. And when you clicked on a torrent’s page, you could participate in a discussion about the release and see what others were saying about it.
It was from this Top 10 page that I downloaded countless releases from artists I had never heard of before… and so many times I was rewarded with incredible music. So many of my new artists on my top 10 lists over the years have been a direct result of a random download.

A lot of times, I wasn’t able to get into whatever I had downloaded. But the cost of downloading was so low and the payoff for finding something great was high, so I kept going.

And just as I did with Napster, when I found an artist I liked, I bought their CDs and went to their concerts. From fourth grade until last month, while my musical tastes have evolved, my general habits of music consumption have not changed.

So it hit me like a punch in the gut a few weeks ago when What.cd was shuttered, its servers taken by some government agency in Europe. Like Napster and Oink before it, I knew that illegal music sites are never long for this world. But it felt like this was different. This site felt like it would be around forever.

Now I’m lost and confused. I’ve been depending on something for so long and now it’s gone. I don’t have a plan of attack for music discovery going forward and it is a little scary to me. Do I look for the “next What.cd”? Do I trust a combination of Pitchfork reviews and Spotify Discovery playlists to encourage my music growth going forward? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am not ready to stop listening to new music. I will not give up on finding and supporting new artists I like. When I have children, I will play current music for them that they think is weird in various ways. And I will keep putting together these stupid top 10 lists at the end of every year as long as I can stand to write them. I don’t think I know that I am not a good music critic, but I know the joy that music brings me and that I will keep doing my part to share that joy with others.

Other 2016 Year-end music posts:

  1. Top 10
  2. Runners Up (You are reading this, right now. No need to click anything)
  3. Stats, Data & Trends, 2006 – 2016
  4. Music Piracy & Discovery
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