Inside Anontune – The Hacktivists’ Answer To Spotify

At long last, the great online music war – between record labels and copyright-holders on one side, and proponents of ‘free’ on the other – might just be hurtling towards some kind of endgame. This week, the High Court ordered internet service providers to block access to file-sharing site The Pirate Bay. Grooveshark’s days of cheerful copyright infringement appear to be numbered. In America, the legal case against Megaupload gathers pace.

Can legislation ever stamp out music piracy completely? Of course not. But don’t be fooled by open web evangelists – like this guy – who claim it’s pointless to even try to tackle file-sharing. Forget the ISPs. If it wanted to, Google could cut the flow of traffic to the most high-profile offenders in a shot. They do it with editorial sites all the time, tweaking the pagerank levers, dispensing punishment or reward. Such a measure wouldn’t eliminate piracy. But it would reduce it dramatically.

Google spent $5m lobbying the US government in 2011. It’s in their commercial interest to bang the drum for ‘free’, because they can sell ads next to all those millions of searches for pirated MP3s. Just don’t expect them to channel any of those profits back into content creation. Ditto Apple. Ditto Spotify, whose CEO is now supposedly worth £190m. In the tech world, money flows into the pockets of investors and shareholders, not musicians.

Indeed it’s one of the great puzzles of the digital age that gigantic technology companies have generally been portrayed as the good guys, on the side of the consumer, while record companies are regarded as greedy and rapacious. Labels invest huge amounts in A&R, taking gambles on new acts, often at ruinous expense. iTunes drove almost £1bn in revenue last year. Will Apple ever sign a new artist? Don’t hold your breath.

So the battle rages on. The latest entrant into the melee is Anontune, a new and mysterious music site, basically the anti-Spotify, in that it draws music from a number of different sources on the web. It is nominally associated with the ‘Anonymous’ movement. Anonymous is a loose affiliation of hacktivists, best known for initiating Operation Payback, a string of cyber-attacks on organisations that have publicly condemned music piracy, from Universal Music to RIAA.

Billing itself as “a new and open social music platform”, at first glance Anontune would appear to be the ultimate expression of ‘freetard’ logic. Its mission statement is full of ‘Up yours, The Man!’-type bluster, intoned in a spooky-wooky, bad-guy-from-Saw voice: “It has come to our attention that the state of online music has been sabotaged by the fat hands of corporate involvement.”

That kind of thing. I wanted to talk to the shadowy folk behind Anontune, to find out if they really thought the artistic world would be a better place without any copyright laws in place to ensure creative people get paid for their work. However, the answers I got surprised me. In this debate, reducing things to an emotionally charged dichotomy – ‘freetards’ in one corner, major label fatcats in the other – helps nobody. And Anontune’s aims are more reasoned and nuanced than you might think.

Explain the thinking behind Anontune. What do you hope it will achieve?

We hope to make music more freely available to everyone – not as a commodity, but as an experience. The most important thing to note is that our motivation is not to offer music for free as in free beer, but rather for free as in ‘freedom’. We believe measures like DRM [Digital Rights Management] are unacceptable and, in the end, counterproductive to the true enjoyment of music. Additionally, having unrestricted (meta) information on music and the response of people to it, will allow for research in the field of music and the resulting emotions, as well as other related subjects. With the information that is currently available, and with nearly everyone going to ridiculous lengths to protect their ‘intellectual property’, this is not possible.

According to your white paper: “Anontune will never host any copyrighted music. Now will it be streaming music.” So what will it be doing?

Anontune itself does indeed not stream nor host any materials; all music is provided by external sources. Technically you could say that Anontune itself does not stream anything, but simply tells the player where to find a source that does. Our motivation is improving the experience of and research into music, not turning a profit.

If it does turn a profit, will any revenue go to the artists/songwriters/labels?

Aside from it being very unlikely that Anontune does actually turn a profit, we have a far better model to ensure income for artists and content providers (such as labels and streaming platforms): custom player content that they can provide. A content provider or artist will be able to define donation buttons, advertisements, and other information that will be shown in the player when playing their content. This opens a door for providers and artists to promote their concerts and merchandise (as well as downloadable versions of songs), and even to generate their income from donations alone. In fact, this model has already been shown to be quite successful for Creative Commons-licensed music on sites such as Jamendo.

You say in your white paper that legal alternatives to piracy are “horrendous”. What’s so horrendous about the likes of Spotify, and Deezer? Aren’t they preferable to widespread piracy?

Spotify employs DRM and geo-restriction, employs geo-restriction, and so does Deezer. None of these platforms offer a ‘real’ music experience to everyone and everywhere. Additionally, the actual damage of what is commonly called ‘piracy’, is disputable, partly due to the questionable history of groups such as RIAA (this is explained very well in the ‘$8 billion dollar iPod’ TED talk), which is referenced in the whitepaper. Finally, I would definitely not say that location-based and device-based lock-in of listeners purely for profit motives, is preferable to a voluntary model of artist compensation where people are not limited by arbitrary restrictions.

How are you affiliated with Anonymous, exactly? Are you involved in Operation Payback, the DOS attacks on Universal Music, RIAA etc?

Anonymous is a decentralized, leaderless, and ideology-less ‘banner’ that anyone can use for anything. There is quite literally no universal ideology or goal. The ‘Anonymous’ name does not in any way imply participation in any past activity employed by other Anons. Considering anyone that calls himself Anonymous is automatically Anonymous (and there is no-one that can say he isn’t), theoretically you could reason that those involved in Anontune are part of Anonymous – not due to what they do or have done, but because of their claim they are.

More from your white paper: “By the very nature of music it seeks to be free. It seeks to be heard and by setting a price, its distribution is inhibited.” Don’t musicians deserve to be paid for their creativity and hard work?

The generation of income for an artist and the lack of a set price, are not mutually exclusive. The problem with the current model of distribution is that it is assumed that the only way to generate an income, is by forcibly demanding a specified sum of money. Many alternatives (not only regarding music) such as Jamendo, the Humble Bundle, Kickstarter, Vodo, and thousands of open-source or otherwise Free projects, have shown this not to be the case. We are not arguing that artists should not get any income; we are simply arguing that the distribution model should evolve to provide this income without arbitrarily limiting the freedom of a listener, simply because those in charge of distribution refuse to make an effort to improve it.

You say: “Piracy is superior”. Megaupload’s Kim Dotcom made an estimated $175m by selling ads around pirated content. None of that went to artists. Is that fair?

I would personally consider multiple sides to be at fault here. While it is unacceptable for authorities to have taken down Megaupload, I do also find it unacceptable that someone earns a lot of money by effectively doing nothing himself except for ‘coordinating a site’, without compensating those that did most of the work involved. The same, however, goes for many other organizations where the CEO earns a disproportionate amount of money, while he does not actually do the work that made the organization to what it is. Ironically, the same goes for record companies that take a giant cut of the revenue without fairly compensating artists based on their part of the efforts.

Isn’t the record label system – whereby labels invest in new talent, signing new bands, often at ruinous expense – preferable to a system whereby everything is given away free while a few gatekeepers get filthy rich?

I would personally consider both systems to be unacceptable (and they are remarkably similar). The revenue generated should be going to those doing the actual work.

If record labels go out of business, who will invest in new talent?

While it is not our goal to put record labels out of business (as explained in the answers to previous questions), even if this happens, there are various other ways to provide the funds that new talent needs. A prime example of these alternatives is the Kickstarter model, which has shown to work very well. Another example is the model used by The Tunnel, where individual frames of the final movie were ‘sold’ to people. You would pay $1 to ‘claim a frame’, eventually making up the total budget of the movie when all frames were sold. Those that bought frames actually had a frame allocated to them, and received an extremely high resolution version of that frame.

Finally, please do realize that our intention is not, as seems to be the impression from people, to ‘put record labels out of business’, or to ‘do away with income for artists’. Our intention is to improve the model for both the listeners and the artists (and to an extent, to researchers), by giving them more freedom. Additionally, Anontune is not just a ‘streaming music player’ – it will incorporate much more in the future, as is explained in the whitepaper. The current prototype is quite literally that – a prototype, a very early representation of the core application, that everything else will be built on.