​Remembering what.cd, the Internet's Greatest Music Archive

In its nine years of existence, the beloved torrent tracker embodied the utopian possibilities of crowdsourcing.

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Nov 22 2016, 5:05pm

In 2010, I was living in Pullman, Washington, working during the day as a Music Director at KZUU my college's radio station, and at night as a cashier at the only record store within 100 miles. Having a reliable source for free music wasn't a priority, but stranded in a small rural town, I desperately needed variety. While lamenting a fruitless Google search for Deerhunter demos from the band's late-aughts blog to a friend, he invited me to what.cd, a private peer-to-peer torrent tracker. A BitTorrent tracker is a server that facilitates communication between file-sharing peers. What.cd didn't actually host any illegal files on their servers, but they enabled people to independently swap files, utilizing a legal grey area to stay alive for nearly a decade.

Launched in 2007—on the same day that another popular tracker, Oink, shut down—what.cd was something of a mythical place on the internet, lauded for its massive library and derided for its stringent application process and strict rule enforcement. Though new releases would appear on the site, what set what.cd apart was its vast, deeply specialized archive of rare and unusual records; users were given a study guide and expected to understand the nuances of analog and digital media, transcoding audio files, and spectral analysis. This combination of uncompromising principles and community sourcing made what.cd incredibly successful: before it shuttered unexpectedly on November 18, the site was possibly the greatest and most extensive archive of recorded music in human history.

What.cd had survived through massive DDoS attacks and threats of shutdown, but two posts from its Twitter account left little question of its demise: "Due to some recent events, What.CD is shutting down" the tweets read. "All site and user data has been destroyed." The French Society of Authors, Composers, and Publishers of Music (SACEM) announced that the Cybercrime Unit of the Gendarmerie in France, in cooperation with the SACEM, had seized 12 servers belonging to the site. The legal grey area that had enabled what.cd to exist for so long had ended up being its downfall. "This is a follow up to the investigative work carried out by SACEM for more than two years, as part of its anti-piracy activities," a representative from the organization told TorrentFreak. "It puts an ends to an estimated damage of €41 million to music creators."

There was a tab that displayed the top 10 most active torrents of the past day, five of which were often various bitrates of the latest Phish concert; for six whole years, that tab effectively served as my Billboard chart.

When I joined the site in college, it offered uninhibited access to a fathomless infinity of music. User-made "collages"—what.cd-speak for collections of albums tied together by a unifying theme—were rabbit holes of discovery, user-tagged with genres, featured artists, and producers. Each associated discography was sorted and cared for as pristinely as the one before, and a spiderweb graph of clickable links at the bottom of each artist's page showed you related artists. You could start at the 90s chart-topping R&B trio SWV, and easily end up discovering Mahogany Blue, a similar, yet mostly unknown trio with a single album released in 1993. There was a tab that displayed the top 10 most active torrents of the past day, five of which were often various bitrates of the latest Phish concert; for six whole years, that tab effectively served as my Billboard chart.

Last year, in a piece for The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance wrote about the illusory permanence of the internet. "The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It's not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness," she wrote. "[It] is being destroyed even as it is being built. Until you lose something big on the Internet, something truly valuable, this paradox can be difficult to understand." During its 9 years of existence, it seemed what.cd was the exception to that rule. It felt like the greatest realization of what a digital library could be, its longevity a testament to its permanence.

A manifesto on the site's slate grey landing page promised Candyland meets The Matrix: "You've stumbled upon a door where your mind is the key. Beyond here is something like a utopia." It wasn't hyperbole. Past that homepage lay access to over a million albums, most of which had multiple sources, from original vinyl rips, to remastered CDs and rare imported editions, each in different bit rate formats. This massive, meticulously curated database was the sum of knowledge and hard work of what.cd's user base, which was among the most passionate on the web.

Like a utopian society, every user had a stake in the wellbeing of the site, simply because the only way to keep buying in was to keep contributing.

If what.cd was a world unto itself, then data was its currency. Users had to maintain a ratio of downloaded to uploaded content, and if you fell below a certain ratio (i.e.: you were leeching too much without giving back), you got banned. This system required you to contribute to stay a member. Many users utilized "seedboxes"—private servers that constantly uploaded torrents—to maintain their ratio. Users increased their ratio by filling requests for rare albums or unique versions and adding them to the library. To me, it always felt like what.cd had perfected the crowdsourcing model: like a utopian society, every user had a stake in the wellbeing of the site, simply because the only way to keep buying in was to keep contributing.

Albums missing from the database had what the site referred to as "bounties," or collective pools of download credit awarded to the first user to upload a sought-after release. Users could add download credit to the bounty attached to a given release, subtracting from their own ratio to entice others to upload a missing album. This led to some absurd bounties: the user who filled the eight-year-old request for Wildflower, The Avalanches' first album in 16 years, earned 10.3 terabytes, or approximately 2,000,000 songs, in download credit.

The small town that had once been a barrier to music discovery was now my key. I used my time at the radio station and record store digging through basement boxes, scouring record racks, and uploading forgotten local college and high school band's records. By the time I had graduated in 2013, I had racked up a healthy ratio that sustained me until the site's shutdown. I think I took the freedom what.cd offered me for granted. When the site suddenly shuttered without explanation last Thursday, I had hundreds of gigabytes of download credit left.

Books and comics were also shared on what.cd, and when one user created a request for three unpublished J.D. Salinger works that have been barred from release until 2060, many threw their proverbial coins into the wishing well, amassing a bounty worth over 6 terabytes. The only known copies of these stories was sealed away inside private, supervised rooms at Princeton and the University of Texas. In 2013, a what.cd user filled the request with scanned pages of the books, leaking the stories to the world for the first time.

This was the beauty of what.cd: its underlying suggestion that anything could be, and should, be accessible to the public. History will remember it as the Fort Knox of illegal pirating, but free music was never really the point of it—you can find free music nearly anywhere else on the internet. What.cd was ultimately an archivist project, a collaborative effort to combine popular and forgotten cultural artifacts into one place, and make it as easy as possible to experience them the way you wanted. It encouraged first-time digitization of hundreds of out-of-print and private press records, and it remained the only place on the internet where you could reliably find them. In that respect, I would argue that what.cd had a salutary effect on music and culture as a whole; after all, studies have shown that pirating does not necessarily equate to lost sales, and that people who pirate music tend to buy more music.

In college, I gave a presentation on sampling in music, pirating, and copyright law. In grading my work, my professor endearingly deemed me a "copyright communist," meaning that I had argued for equal access to artistic works for all, and disagreed with the music industry's obsession with defending capital over art. I realized at that moment how much what.cd had molded, not only my musical taste, but also my nascent political awareness, opening my mind to a world where information and cultural production was freely available.

Late Friday, the site's staff posted one last message to Twitter, celebrating the spirit that made What.CD so special and offering hope that a similar site would crop up to take its place. "We've seen what happens when thousands of people work together to build a tribute to human culture free from concern over profit or acclaim." They attached a link asking fans to donate to archive.org, a nonprofit that works diligently to catalog pretty much everything in existence, including, with Wayback Machine, the internet itself.

If you type in what.cd into that machine, and navigate to any day before November 11th, 2016, you'll see that familiar grey homepage with its static manifesto. "There are none who will lend you guidance; these trials are yours to conquer alone," it reads. "Find yourself, and you will find the very thing hidden behind this page. This is a mirage." It always seemed like a nonsensical way to manufacture mystery, but when I tried to log on Thursday morning and found it gone, I finally understood the paradox LaFrance was talking about. Like a mirage, what.cd had disappeared.