I wrangled my invite to What.cd in early 2008, while working an internship that required so little of us that one of the other interns would leave to go watch movies at the nearby AMC during the day. It was a happy day — a whole world of music to torrent was suddenly open to me. And yet news yesterday that the site had shut down was mainly a reminder I hadn’t signed into the site since 2010.
Getting music and listening to music on your computer in the mid-’00s was weird. The iPod and other MP3 players had quickly given everyone the ability to listen to more albums than anyone who went through high school with a massive binder of CDs could have imagined, but you usually got that through a hodgepodge of ways. You could, of course, download albums from iTunes, but they came with substantial DRM headaches. Napster was dead and its replacements, Limewire and Kazaa, were filled with fake-out files, badly mislabeled files (who can forget the David Byrne classic album Another Green World?) and straight-up malware. You could try your luck with finding sites like MediaFire hosting direct downloads of albums. Public torrent trackers like the Pirate Bay were okay if you wanted the new Jack Johnson or Alicia Keys, but usually stalled out if you wanted anything even slightly off the beaten path.
What.cd, and its predecessor OiNK, were different. They were private torrent trackers, open by invite only. They both had strict download-to-upload ratios in place: You had to give back about as much as you took, or risk being booted altogether. And the place was a treasure trove for hard-to-find or older albums — I was able to find local bands that I assumed no one outside my hometown had ever heard, neatly organized and arranged. It was also one of the few places to download .ogg files, a file format that allowed you to listen to extremely high-quality audio. What.cd was a place for people to release their own music, before Bandcamp and SoundCloud came along. For a certain type of media consumer (obsessive, sometimes more interested in simply having everything over even listening to it all) it was heaven, and filled with like-minded people. The forum members knew their shit — if you wanted to know more about the Detroit soul group the Spinners, someone would quickly point you toward Tri-Phi Records and Harvey Fuqua. Amazing “collages” would pop up, primers in everything from Yugoslav rock to Northern Soul.
Yes, it was all stealing, no doubt, but I’d been stealing music for nearly a decade at this point. I rationalized it away by saying I was also going to see shows and thus giving artists some cash (while ignoring that downloading the entire of discography of, say, Oval, a German glitch group that rarely tours outside of Europe, was very unlikely to turn into any actual money for them).
But even while keeping an eye on my upload/download ratio and filling up a MacBook hard drive with music, the end was coming. It was the launch of Rdio in 2010 and then Spotify that, for me, was essentially the end of torrenting music. Both services had their gaps, but both also had the vast majority of what I wanted to hear. The price was reasonable, and the ability to listen to an album without first loading it onto my phone was, at the time, mind-blowing. And it felt good to, well, pay for music (even if the economics of music streaming are still pretty bad for the artists).
So the shutdown of What.cd was more a reminder of a different time, a hit of nostalgia for when I lived in a different city and took different trains, than a real sense of loss. Torrenting itself is on the wane — torrent trackers are being shut down left and right, and as more services like HBO Go come online, more users are willing to pay instead of pirate. There are still private torrent-tracker sites for movies and music and e-books and comic books, but the media industry has largely caught up in offering what they produce in an easy format for users. Most people greatly prefer using a legit service over going onto a public torrent site or over begging their way into a private torrent tracker.
There’s an argument to be made that some private sites serve as a place for unfindable stuff to live on. Streaming services have no incentive to try to secure rights to deeper cuts; suddenly having a streaming version of Jacques Rivette’s 12-hour New Wave film Out 1 probably isn’t going to get a significant number of people to sign up for your service. There will always be a few diehards out there — there’s already talk of which site will be the next What.cd. But for a lot of people like me, the days of private torrent sites are done — I’ll stream and pay and slowly forget that once I could find a that one seven-inch I hadn’t heard in years in just a few minutes.