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Sharp Darts: The Pirate's Code

The elite file-sharing site Oink may have been a den of thieves, but online music retailers could learn a lot from the things it did right.

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In late October the beloved BitTorrent bazaar formally known as Oink's Pink Palace was shut down, accused of facilitating the illegal distribution of copyrighted music. British police arrested the site's creator, 24-year-old Alan Ellis, later releasing him without charge, and in Amsterdam authorities confiscated the servers that hosted the site. I can't say I grieved—I'd only been a member briefly, acquiring a few albums of major-label hip-hop and out-of-print British glam rock, before I got booted for failing to maintain the ratio of uploads to downloads that the site required. Oink's forums felt snobby to me, and I wasn't comfortable contributing to a network where people traded copies of current independent releases.

My experience with the site wasn't necessarily the norm, though. Because it was accessible by invitation only and its content was heavily curated by the dyed-in-the-wool music obsessives who made up the bulk of its membership, Oink acquired the aura of a secret society—and plenty of people found the feeling of being in on something irresistible. Other members I knew would get a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when they talked about Oink, and they were dilettantes like me—the site's power users traded files by the gigabyte, and after the takedown, in blog posts and comments on tech and music sites around the Web, those guys described Oink in almost religious terms. The consensus among hard-core Oink members seems to be that they're entitled to skirt copyright law because they're more than just typical listeners—they're an elite group of tastemakers who publicize everything they listen to, whether in print, online, or by word of mouth, and as such they're hardly ripping anybody off when they get hold of music for free.

Whether you buy that line or not, Oink was in fact something special. With about 180,000 registered members, almost half of whom fell into the "power user" category, it was a thriving community, and it had grown up organically, entirely by word of mouth—there was no marketing campaign, no corporate backer, no profit motive at all. No money ever changed hands on Oink unless someone felt like donating to the site. Contrary to many mainstream media reports, Oink didn't actually provide any music for download—all it hosted were BitTorrent files, which members uploaded to let the rest of the network know they had a certain song or album available for sharing on their computer. Users were responsible for every bit of Oink's vast virtual music library: they hosted it, organized it, annotated it, vetted it for errors and malware, and policed the sound quality of the files (the minimum bit rate was 192 kbps). For harnessing the obsessive energy of tens of thousands of music nerds, site founder Alan Ellis was named to Blender magazine's Powergeek 25 list in July. If Oink hadn't depended on the illicit swapping of copyrighted music, I'm certain that record labels big and small would've been scrambling to figure out how to buy access to its user base.

It's a shame file sharing has been so stigmatized by industry hacks, because legitimate online music distributors have a lot to learn from pirates. Oink's main asset was its members' strong sense of community, and that's incredibly hard to manufacture. Each Oink user was held responsible for everyone he invited to join, and could even be kicked out if a recruit misbehaved—pretty much the opposite of the incentive-based model that for-profit online communities tend to use, but guaranteed to foster solidarity. It's this feeling of personal involvement that made the Oink community willing to work to maintain the site's library. Even members who didn't do any work were helping speed up the network's traffic just by making their personal music collections available—a BitTorrent download pieces together the file from multiple sources, and the more sources there are for it to draw on, the faster it goes. In terms of efficiency, it whips ass all over a centralized server.

Oink's peak population of 180,000 was nothing compared to the millions of shoppers clicking through the iTunes store, but the site had personality to spare. Sure, iTunes has a decent selection and tries really hard to be user friendly, but it still feels like an online Sam's Club. I visit pretty regularly, but I've never once browsed around just to see what's there—and it's impossible to see who's there. Oink, on the other hand, rewarded casual hangouts. Instead of automated suggestions, it had thriving forums full of actual people who seemed physically incapable of restraining themselves from recommending records once they learned what you liked. And whatever they mentioned, it was always available through Oink. As long as you didn't care whether it was legal, it was yours.

Currently digital music retailers don't seem to have figured out the value of giving their customers the opportunity to interact and form communities. Amazon users can submit reviews to its MP3 store or rattle off their favorite songs with its "Listmania!" function, but neither lets them talk to one another. There's no way for them to feel like their music expertise is making a difference—and it goes without saying that customers can't meaningfully influence the store's inventory or how it's organized. No one on Oink would've stood for finding Pink Floyd's The Wall filed under "Dance & DJ," but it's the number two album in that category at Amazon.

Microsoft has recently started hiring experts to help round out the Zune Marketplace's low-traffic departments, like folk music. It would've been more cost-effective for the company to take a hint from Oink—if it could connect a bunch of brilliant music freaks with an appreciative audience for their comprehensive knowledge of vintage Turkish psychedelia or obscure Japanese noise or insane Bollywood soundtracks, the Zune Marketplace might start looking more like Amoeba Music and less like Borders. Such a strategy could even pull in some of the hard-core nonmainstream listeners Microsoft has been fruitlessly pursuing since the Zune's launch.

The thousands of Oink fiends who kept the site up and running didn't exactly do it for free, of course; they did it with the understanding that other members would provide them with all the music their broadband could handle. A retail operation looking to take advantage of their expertise would have to offer a similar deal—unfettered access to its entire inventory, for instance, might serve just as well as a paycheck. Winning over some of the listeners who'd otherwise be pirating their music would certainly be worth the outlay. I'm sure Oink's successor is already up and running somewhere, pulling in file traders by the thousands.v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

sharpdarts@chicagoreader.com

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