The recent shut down of What.CD is so much more than the loss of another torrent tracker and represents a massive, unimaginable blow to the chronological history of music.
Much like 8 tracks, audio cassettes, and compact disks, torrents are a dead medium. What used to be a bustling community of rampant piracy has devolved into a shell of its former self. Personally, I never minded paying for quality content, but I can’t say I wasn’t a user of such illicit sites in the past, especially in my broke college days.
If this crackdown was in regards to sites that only pirate software or games or movies and other pieces of media that are readily available for purchase elsewhere, then I wouldn’t mind one bit. I wouldn’t be writing this article if that were the case. The shutdown of What.CD, however unfortunately, represents a vastly more depressing realization about the volatile nature of musical record.
If you’ve never used What.CD, its existence may mean nothing to you. It’s just another website in a limitless list of websites for thieves to share files and data that they don’t own the rights to. What.CD was something entirely different, though. Much like Oink that came before it, What.CD was about compiling all of the world’s music into a well-documented, perfect, well-managed whole. Every new album released and a large portion of older releases were painstakingly ripped in all conceivable formats. From lossless to highly compressed to vinyl, every popular codec was represented.
Was there a Japanese release of an album with an extra couple of tracks? You could find it there. Was there an EP only distributed in a severely limited quantity on certain tour dates? You could find it there. Was there a rare bootleg of a show you attended with your now wife that you wanted to surprise her with on her birthday? Your prayers were answered.
The moderators made every conceivable effort to QA all rips and the community did the rest by upvoting quality files and downvoting/reporting transcodes. What this sense of duty left us with was a highly-detailed, painstakingly-precise, successfully-curated compendium of audio files.
It’s not the retail releases that are mass published and easily accessible on streaming services like Spotify or Google Play Music that are most disheartening to lose, but it’s the rarities. It was a wonderful platform for emerging artists to share their b-sides and demos and gather interest for their act. It was a place for singles and vinyl rips and box sets that may be out of print. There were musical collections that existed on What.CD that aren’t available from a single other place online or in everyday life. Now, you’re beginning to see why this is such a horrible event.
While I completely understand the need to shut down websites advocating piracy, this argument has nothing to do with the distribution of the music. I will never defend piracy. My argument is for the public record of this music, a backup of this wealth of beautiful aural artistry. The loss of What.CD is akin to a total destruction of the Library of Congress. This is a matter of public record, historical significance, and the preservation of some of the most amazing and inspiring portions of popular culture.
I and many others would gladly pay $50, $100 a month for the privilege to access What.CD’s music library via streaming. I’m by no means against paying creative people for their craft. What I’m basically begging for is a single repository of said art where I can pay a fee for unlimited access. The music industry has made great strides with the existence of streaming services, but it needs to go further. It can’t just be popular music that’s available. We need a more complete chronicling of music as a whole.
There’s really nothing I can say that will help to mend these wounds, but if even a single person of influence reads this and realizes how much data like this means to human record, then it’s done one small bit of good in the world. My only hope is that a mirror or backup of What.CD’s entire catalog of music exists somewhere and that, in time, it bleeds its way back into the mainstream.
Everyone with a pair of functioning ears deserves to hear even an infinitesimal fraction of the treasure trove of creative genius held within What.CD’s servers.