in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Thursday, April 12, 2007

From Napster to Squibnik (‘Heaven on Earth’ vs ‘Our Worst Nightmare’)

Remember Napster in the ‘good ol’ days?’ When that puppy peaked in late 2000, almost everyone I knew was getting their first real taste of downloading. I’ve kept one of the first compilations I made on CD-R: it’s full of brittle, thin-sounding obvious ‘copies’ of each purloined piece. The volume and intensity of each track varies wildly, and a lot of them pop, click and glitch.

Fast-forward to ’03 and everyone’s on Limewire and Kazaa: mostly singles, lots of corrupted files, badly or incorrectly labelled tracks, no cover-art or proper tracklisting, and still no good for complete albums, very underground artists or up-to-date singles/EPs and remixes. That, and the spectre of dodgy spyware attached to a program that crashed and hung constantly. Certainly, it was no substitute for purchasing music, if you were serious about collecting.

Two years later, and people are getting whole albums off BitTorrent, ripped at 320kbps or even encoded with ‘lossless’ codecs, supplied with comprehensive tracklisting and cover art, and even (in some cases) pics of the original disc. The download speeds are still erratic, and you can’t get anything you can think of. But you can get almost anything. And suddenly, it’s almost possible to acquire a decent collection of music without paying a cent more than the cost of your broadband subscription.

But all that malarky, that’s just greasy kid’s stuff compared to Squibznik. Ladies and gentlemen, enter the ‘private tracker’. Private trackers like Squibznik (not its real name) are the private gentlemen’s clubs of the internet. In order to gain access, you have to be ‘invited’ by an existing member of good standing, who risks their reputation on you. Once invited, a new user is asked a range of questions, similar to the T&C everyone skips when downloading software. Having agreed to the various rules of the site, the new user is then allowed access to the Squibznik’s complete list of torrent files. But in order to keep downloading, you have to guard your sacred ‘ratio’ – if you don’t share torrents with others by allowing them to upload from you, you’ll eventually be barred. Like being discovered drunk and disorderly at the bar of the Melbourne Club every Saturday. It’s strict to the point of irritation, but users inform me that virtually any piece of recorded music (yes, really) can be had at 320kbps (at least), and all within ten minutes or so. Yes, really.

Basically, technology and sociability has ‘solved’ the distribution problem. Provided you’re wealthy enough to have broadband (or even live in a country with such luxuries), and are then invited by an existing member, you can have ANY music you want, without having to pay for it. For the music consumer, it’s heaven on earth. For the recording industry? It’s their worst nightmare. But given this situation, a profound question arises for your average cash-strapped and time-poor punter:

Why would I buy a CD?

What the entertainment industry is asking the consumer do is to pay AU$30.00 for something that can be had for about a dollar. The retail CD might be a bit prettier, but really, is it $29.00 prettier? Is it thirty times better? ‘But that’s illegal!’ you squeal. ‘That’s why you should buy the CD. You’re stealing from the artist.’

'Am I? Should I? That’s what we’ll be exploring next week.

© Peter Chambers 2007


Cameron said...

Awesome beginning. Looking forward to the continuation of this article ... (especially since I have been grappling with the very same questions recently).

Jimmy said...

So, you're a member, then? To get an invite would any squibzing of your nik be required? Coz, you know, I'm pretty open minded....

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.