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Ripped to Shreds

In the dying days of the music business as we once knew it, record labels are waging war on leaksonly to discover that many of the saboteurs come from within the industry itself.

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Prop styling by Jared Lawton.  

One day last fall, several hundred thousand music fans were confronted with a harsh new reality. OiNK, an exclusive, members-only file-sharing community, had been shut down, its servers confiscated; Alan Ellis, the 24-year-old mastermind behind the operation, had been arrested. Once a premier outlet for free music, OiNKwith its iconic, headphones-wearing pink pighad been active for over three years. But that day, OiNK users who went to the site to get their daily music fix were greeted with this message:

This site has been closed as a result of a criminal investigation by the [International Federation of the Phonographic Industry], the [British Phonographic Industry], Cleveland Police and the Fiscal Investigation Unit of the Dutch Police (FIOD ECD) into suspected illegal music distribution.

And, more chillingly:

A criminal investigation continues into the identities and activities of the site’s users.

You had to be invited to join OiNK, but once a member, you could, at the click of a button, access an incredible array of free music. It was the greatest record store of all time, filled with not-yet-released albums, obscure live performances, the rarest of B-sides, and a fabulous bonuseverything was free.

Getting cut off from these riches was more than some OiNK members could bear. Anger, tears, and recriminations poured out. OiNK is Gone, oh God! Please, Please Please, Please, Please Come Back! posted one devastated user on a bulletin board. Another wrote, I miss OiNK more than anything in the world now. Former OiNKers organized an online fund-raiser for Ellis’s legal fees.

The OiNK bust was the flashy culmination of a two-year investigation by Interpol, the BPI, and the IFPI, no doubt inspired by the increasingly harsh battle being waged by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against music piracy in the States. OiNK had over 180,000 members, but as one file-sharer points out, it’s just the surface. It might be 0.001 percent of the file-sharing community. Indeed, public music-sharing sites like the Pirate Bay and Soulseek are open to anyone with the slightest bit of technical know-how. Others sites such as Waffles, OiNK’s heir apparent, are invite-only, with much stricter rules regarding what types of files get traded and who gets to trade them.

What made OiNK such a rich target? According to IFPI, the site helped facilitate the spread of new music that record companies had not yet officially releasedtunes that had been pirated from recording studios or, more commonly, distributed as advance material to retailers, radio stations, and journalists. Record labels consider the spread of unreleased music to be the most damaging of all file-sharing because it effectively renders every new record out of date and cuts into one of their most significant streams of revenuesales in the first few days after an album comes out. By attacking OiNK, the music industry has indicated where it will dig its trenches and fight for its life. The strategy makes a certain amount of sense, until you consider the ramifications. A war on leaks forces the industry to investigate the relatively few people who have access to a recording before it’s releasedpressing-plant employees, label interns, publicists, music journalists, even record executives. The industry, in other words, has to investigate itself. And what it will discover is that some of the major culprits in this crime are the very same people the crime threatens mostthose who work in or profit from the music industry. File swapping is, to a remarkable degree, self-sabotage.

Words can hardly convey the dread that has overtaken the record business as it watches the number of file-sharers skyrocket. Nielsen SoundScan has tracked a 45.8 percent increase in legal download sales in the U.S. over the past yearand according to BPI, for every digital track that is paid for, twenty are downloaded illegally for free. Domestic sales of physical CDs, meanwhile, plummeted 18.9 percent over this past year alone.

Figures like these have set off a wave of layoffs and consolidation throughout the music industry. As the record companies buckle under an avalanche of new sites, their counterattacks against these sites can sometimes seem arbitrary, if not clueless. Consider, for example, Capitol Records’ efforts in the fall to help convince a federal jury to fine Jammie Thomas, a 30-year-old Minnesota woman, $222,000 for sharing 24 songs.

File-sharing technology changes so rapidly that the record industry all but acknowledges that it has little hope of controlling it. Although MP3-downloading sites have been around for at least a decade, OiNK had used a newer technology called BitTorrent to move files around the Web much faster than Napster ever did. The way BitTorrent works is also what makes it so difficult to track: Instead of individual files being shared from one user to another, bits of information spread out over a large network are pulled from many users simultaneously. Copyright cops can temporarily interrupt the flow of communication, but as one network dies, others spring up.


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