June 17th, 2015
From Stephen Witt‘s recent book titelled “How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy“, a few lines on Oink’s Pink Palace, revered by many, entered by few; bear in mind that there’s a lot more to read in the book, so go buy it! Here we go:
Over the next few years, several of these private trackers would flourish beyond their founders’ imaginings, snowballing into large-scale indices of pirated material whose archival breadth surpassed not just the Pirate Bay’s but also the Scene’s and, in some cases, even the Smithsonian’s. The best of these, which grew from the humblest of origins, was the legendary music tracker known as Oink’s Pink Palace.
Nor was he expecting any legal trouble. When he registered for the domain name “Oink .me.uk,” Ellis paid with his own credit card and used his real name.
Oink became the premier destination for the tech-obsessed music nerd (and his close cousin, the music-obsessed tech nerd). Public trackers like the Pirate Bay were overrun by plebs, while Oink members were knowledgeable, cool, and occasionally even socially well adjusted. By the end of 2004, several thousand users had signed on, the kind of core base of dedicated file-sharing peers that could support exponential growth. Ellis’ ability to serve the site from his bedroom was quickly outstripped. He enlisted technical support from the site’s users and found like-minded administrators to help him meet demand. He migrated the site from Windows XP to Windows Server 2003, then to Linux. The physical location of the hosting computer moved to other users’ bedrooms, in search of high-bandwidth connections—first to a small town in Canada, then to an apartment in Norway, then finally to a professional server farm in Holland.
Hosting bills began to mount. By December, the tracker cost several hundred dollars a month to maintain. In early 2005, Ellis posted the address of a PayPal account for the site and made a polite request for donations. Cash began to trickle in, denominated in currencies from all over the globe. More than money, Oink’s army donated labor. They built out the archive, and their enthusiasm for this venture put even the Scene to shame. Oinkers uploaded their own CD collections, and the CD collections of their friends. Some of the site’s elite “torrent masters” uploaded a thousand albums or more. As Scene participants had done before them, Oinkers started to search eBay for rarities and import pressings. As record stores started closing, Oinkers showed up to buy their fire sale inventory in bulk, and these compulsive uploaders were the music retailers’ last, best customers. First, there were 1,000 albums. Then 10,000. Then 100,000. Ellis the elitist presided over it all. It was a beautiful thing: no low-quality encodes, no fakes, no dupes, no movies, no TV shows. Just music. All of it, in perfect digital clarity. All the music ever recorded.
Oink grew explosively. By the beginning of 2006 the site had 100,000 users and hosted torrents for nearly a million distinct albums, making it four times bigger than the iTunes Store. The site’s user base was uploading 1,500 new torrents each day. Every album was available in multiple formats, and soon Oink had complete, thoroughly documented discographies for any musician you could care to name. Think of the most obscure release from the most obscure artist you knew; it was there, on Oink, in every issue and reissue, including redacted promo copies and split seven-inch records and bonus tracks from Japanese pressings you’d never even heard of.
Take the artist Nick Drake. Obscure in his lifetime, Drake sold only 5,000 copies of his final album Pink Moon before overdosing on pills in 1974 at the age of 26. Over the next 25 years his reputation grew slowly. He became a “musician’s musician,” beloved by connoisseurs but unknown to the public. Then, in 1999, the title track for Pink Moon was featured in a commercial for the Volkswagen Cabrio: young trendsetters on a nighttime joyride, scored with the chronically depressed singer’s lyrics about the meaninglessness of life. It ended with a pan to the sky, where the Volkswagen logo stood in for the moon. The campaign was a bust from Volkswagen’s perspective. The Cabrio never sold well in the United States and was discontinued within three years. But the effect on Drake’s back catalog was dramatic—the advertisers had done a better job selling the music than the car.
Within a few months of the commercial’s first airing, Pink Moon had sold more copies than it had in the previous quarter century. And since Drake had released his music on the UK’s Island label, his back catalog was now part of the behemoth they called Universal Music Group. The music executives there moved quickly to take advantage of this serendipitous gift. You could learn all this on Oink, which acted almost as a museum exhibit of Drake’s critical afterlife, charting the repeated attempts to cash in on his growing critical and commercial stature.
The website’s incomparable archives had Pink Moon ripped from eight different sources: the exceptionally rare, extremely valuable first-edition 1972 vinyl from Island Records; the 1986 box set CD reissue from Hannibal Records; the 1990 CD release from Island; the 1992 CD re-reissue from Hannibal; the post-Cabrio 2000 CD re-re-reissue from Island; the accompanying Simply Vinyl 180-gram audiophile re-re-reissue, also from 2000; the 2003 Island Records digitally remastered re-re-re-reissue on compact disc; and the Universal Music Japanese vinyl re-re-re-reissue from 2007. Each of the reissues was then encoded into an alphabet soup of file types—FLAC, AAC, and mp3—so that ultimately there were more than thirty options for downloading this one album alone. You couldn’t find stuff like this on iTunes. The size and scope of Oink’s catalog outdid any online music purveyor, and given its distributed nature, the archive was essentially indestructible. But its growth made it difficult to maintain. Alan Ellis now spent almost all his free time keeping the site running, and as his grades suffered, he was forced to repeat a year at university. By the summer of 2006, Oink was getting 10,000 page views a day, and the hosting bills had grown to thousands of dollars a month. Several times, Ellis ran pledge drives on the site’s front page. The response from his community was overwhelming. In the span of a year Ellis’ army donated over 200,000 pounds—nearly half a million dollars. People liked Oink. They were even willing to pay for it.
By the time Ellis finally graduated from university in 2007, Oink’s army was 180,000 members strong. Among the foot soldiers were several famous musicians, including Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who admitted in an interview to being an avid user of the site and described it as “the world’s greatest record store.” Ellis himself could attest to this. While administering the site, he’d gone from being a casual music listener to a total fanatic. He used the music-tracking site Last .fm to publicize his listening habits, and during the three years he’d been running Oink, he had listened to over 91,000 songs—6,000 hours’ worth of music.
iTunes was just a store, basically a mall—Oink was a community.
The evidence trail amounted to the easiest bust in the history of online piracy. On Tuesday, October 23, 2007, Ellis woke before dawn to prepare for another day in the IT pit at the chemical company in downtown Middlesbrough. He took a shower in his apartment’s shared bathroom, then returned to his bedroom, where his girlfriend, having spent the night, was still asleep. As he did every morning, he logged into Oink as administrator, checked the server logs, and read the overnight messages from his deputized lieutenants. Then the door slammed open and a dozen police officers swarmed into his room. All ten of Ellis’ bank accounts were frozen simultaneously. Across the country in Manchester, his father was inexplicably arrested as well, and charged with money laundering. Alan Ellis’ home computer was seized as evidence. So were the Holland servers, which contained the IP and email addresses of all 180,000 Oink members. Unlike the Pirate Bay administrators, Ellis had not planned for this contingency, and the torrents Oink served went dark.