Thom Yorke made as much as $20M from his BitTorrent experiment

As part of its mission to convince the music industry that it isn’t just for copyright infringers, BitTorrent launched a new product in 2013 called “Bundles,” which allow musicians and other artists to combine free downloads with paid products. One of the most high-profile figures to experiment with this feature last year was Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who used it for his new album — and not only did he become the most legally-downloaded BitTorrent artist in 2014, but he may have made as much as $20 million.

What makes those kinds of numbers even more impressive is that Yorke didn’t launch his album bundle, called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, until the end of September. By October — according to a comment on Twitter from an editor with Billboard magazine — the bundle had already been downloaded over 4 million times, and a year-end retrospective from BitTorrent says that the total number of downloads was 4.4 million.

When he released the album, Yorke said in a statement that he hoped the bundle would become an alternative to traditional music releases for more artists, saying it could prove to be “an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work [and] bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.”

Thom Yorke BitTorrent bundle

The paid portion of the bundle, which included seven songs, cost $6 to download — meaning the total amount of revenue generated by the project could be as high as $26 million. Since BitTorrent gives 90 percent of the income from its bundles to the artist, that means Yorke could have made almost $24 million from the album. That’s far more than he likely would have made releasing it using almost any other traditional method.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, as a number of music-industry watchers have pointed out: the $26-million revenue figure assumes that everyone who downloaded the bundle paid for it. But bundles also include free downloads — in Yorke’s case, a song and a video. And BitTorrent allows the artist to decide whether to release the exact breakdown of free vs. paid, something that Yorke has chosen not to do, according to BitTorrent’s head of content strategy Straith Schreder.

Whatever the actual breakdown of paid vs. free is, however, more than 4 million downloads is still a big number, and if even half of those who downloaded it paid $6 for the bundle then Yorke still made a substantial amount of revenue with very little overhead. It certainly makes BitTorrent’s bundle program look pretty good compared with other distribution methods such as iTunes, which takes a 30-percent cut of the proceeds.

Update: Glenn Peoples of Billboard magazine estimates that Yorke probably made between $1 million and $6 million on his album, based on the likely number of people who paid for it rather than just getting the free track. The low number is based on the proportion of users who pay for Pandora.

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