“So long and thanks for all the fish.” This was the final message OiNK users would receive from the site’s staff before its doors were closed forever. The well-known “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quote was the sign that Oink’s Pink Palace, or OiNK for short, had met its end. OiNK was a private tracker where users could illegally download music, ebooks, and software through the BitTorrent protocol. On Oct. 23, 2007, a raid by Interpol brought the site down and seized the domain. Servers were confiscated and admins were arrested, but there wasn’t enough data on the actual users to make any arrests.
Despite the shutdown, the users were not deterred. Internet piracy is like a hydra; cut off one head and more will pop up. On Oct. 27, just four days after OiNK's doors were forcibly closed, former OiNK user WhatMan launched What.cd. Shortly after came other contenders, like newcomer Waffles, and the Pirate Bay’s quickly abandoned BOiNK. What.cd struggled for dominance against Waffles, but in the end, it solidified its place as the new major music tracker.
The main thing that separated What.cd from OiNK was its userbase. While OiNK invites were easily available, and people joined just to get free albums, the users of What.cd were of a completely different nature. Invites couldn’t be given out publicly, and users were responsible for the people they invited as well. Without an invite, the only other way to get in was an IRC (internet relay chat) interview about ripping, encoding and categorizing music. Prospective users were asked questions about themselves, other sites they were a member of, and about audio formats and transcoding. Audio related questions covered everything from what files could be transcoded without losing quality, to ripping different quality MP3s, CBR vs VBR, to analyzing spectrals of audio files to see if it was transcoded incorrectly. It took about 30 minutes to an hour to complete, and depending on the size of the queue, it could take days to even get into an interview. At that point, anyone who got in had motivation to contribute to the site and follow the rules. People who just wanted the latest Taylor Swift or Kanye album had left long ago. All that was left was enthusiasts willing to build one of the most complete and well organized collections of music in the world.
The site had a ratio system, based on upload divided by download. Users had to maintain a certain ratio based on how well they seeded the content they downloaded, but for the majority of users, the required ratio was .60. One of the best ways to gain upload and gain ratio was to rip albums that were not already on the site. This led to people uploading incredibly rare releases that couldn’t be found anywhere else. From obscure electronic records that only got one run of pressings, to rare versions of popular albums, What.cd’s catalogue was astounding. There was a rip of the mono pressing of the original “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” an accidental pressing with different tracks, in FLAC and three different versions of MP3. It’s a $15,000 record with less than 20 known copies in existence, and it could be downloaded and listened to for free. Popular albums with multiple releases were common too. There were 49 different rips of official releases of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to choose from, ranging from the first release to the rarest limited editions.
The most incredible thing about What.cd was the sheer scope of it. Practically anything imaginable had been ripped and uploaded. What.cd was great for getting music that was normally inaccessible. Plenty of records uploaded to What.cd were releases that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, and were given a new lease on life on the site. Not only were these available, but they had plenty of added info, meticulously tagged, and ripped perfectly. Along with the detailed info attached to records themselves, there were also collages. Collages were collections of albums under a certain theme that were put together by members of the site. These themes could be anything, from a collection of a review site’s perfect scoring albums, to collages of albums for people looking to get started with new genres. There were even collages with strange or inane themes, like “Tip Your Driver: The Comprehensive Pizzacore collage,” a collage of releases about pizza.
What.cd was compared by some to the Library of Alexandria at its peak, due to the staggering size of the torrenting giant’s archive. On Nov. 17, 2016, it was destroyed, much like the aforementioned library. French police raided the servers of webhost OVH, where What.cd had setup reverse proxies to protect itself. In response, the admins of What.cd pulled the plug and destroyed the data to protect the users of the site. Collages, related artist webs, release info, ripping guides, and more were gone. While the music was not technically lost, as it was all stored on users’ hard drives, it was as if the map to access the music had been lost.
The story of What.cd raises a question: Is piracy okay for the sake of preservation and availability? Plenty of albums on What.cd were impossible to buy, let alone in lossless quality. There’s always the possibility of buying used, but tracking down a used copy could be next to impossible, and the artist gets nothing from it. Most of the torrents on What.cd were for albums that can’t be streamed online or bought from stores, meaning most people weren’t going to be able to pick up legitimate copies.
What.cd had recordings that would slip through the cracks of time otherwise. One of the more notable examples of this was the Phish community on What.cd. Phish is a jam band that does a lot of improvisation on stage, so each concert was a unique experience. The What.cd Phish community was one of the most active groups on the site, collecting and archiving bootlegs of the latest shows. There was always a Phish release or bootleg on the day’s list of top torrents. Access was now available for hundreds of different shows they’d played, that many people had never been able to experience before. This wasn’t exclusive to Phish, either. Plenty of bands had similar concert bootlegs uploaded, or demo tapes that might never be heard again without the site.
The request system also drove the ripping and archiving of releases that had yet to be uploaded. Users could put some of their upload up as a bounty, and other users could claim the upload by finding the requested record and uploading it. Plenty of requests were filled every day, expanding the already massive collection What.cd had to offer. Some of the biggest bounties had driven incredible uploads, for example scans of a collection of three stories by J.D. Salinger that had never been released before made their way to the site’s ebook section. The stories had a bounty of over six terabytes, due to the fact one of them is under lock and key at Princeton, and the other two are similarly secured at the University of Texas. While the J.D. Salinger stories were removed to protect the site from the massive media attention, plenty of rare and long sought after releases were finally unearthed by people looking to claim these bounties.
Another important reason is format availability. Even with all the secondhand vinyls in the world, there’s still no way to take them on the go. Vinyl rips make that possible. On What.cd, vinyl rips were heavily scrutinized, and 90 percent of them were done by approved submitters with almost professional quality ripping setups. For the average person to buy their own good quality vinyl ripping setup, it could easily cost upwards of $500. They can either drop a lot of money on a vinyl ripping setup, or download from someone with a top of the line system already experienced in doing so.
Along with the vinyl problem, even albums bought legitimately on many digital marketplaces may not be in the desired format. A lot of albums on the Google Play Store or iTunes aren’t sold in lossless formats. For those interested in transcoding between different file formats for different devices, it’s important to start with a lossless format or else the file will lose quality on each transcode. What.cd offered FLAC for almost everything on the site, as its main focus was getting a lossless format first, then MP3 320 and MP3 V0. Anyone interested in transcoding for other devices or archiving the media for preservational purposes would want lossless files, which most services will not provide.
Finally, What.cd opens up access to the music Spotify and iTunes do not think are worth putting on their services. Spotify and iTunes hold their ground by providing the popular tracks that most people want to hear, like a new Kanye or Taylor Swift album. It’s not worth their time to bother getting the rights to less popular or more obtuse music. Spotify isn’t going to gain many new subscribers by adding Judy Dunaway’s “Balloon Music” or Whitehouse’s “Bird Seed.” In a world that’s quickly turning to streaming and digital download, we’re relying more and more on the libraries that these services provide us with. Plenty of albums will be lost to time due to not being carried on digital distribution sites, which could be prevented with an archival site like What.cd.
The loss of What.cd is a devastating blow to music lovers and archivists alike. Terabytes of great musical data were now gone. From incredible edition information, to sprawling collages to aid in discovering new music, the demise of What.cd felt like the end of an era. But What.cd’s ending was the beginning for other trackers. The torrent hydra lives on, with three new sites popping up shortly after What.cd’s demise. Pass The Headphones, Xanax, and Nostream had all opened their doors to the public. Within a month, Nostream was hacked and taken down, with attempts to relaunch failing due to users not joining due to security concerns. Pass the Headphones and Xanax both went through some growing pains, renaming to Redacted and Apollo respectively, and NotWhat popped up as another tracker with much stricter rules. Waffles, which had been down for a small while, raised funds to renew the hosting and come back.
On Oct. 23, 2017, the day that would have been What.cd’s tenth birthday, What.cd, the tracker presumed to be dead, released one final breath. The site’s Twitter account updated, posting the “What.cd 10-year Anniversary Mixtape.” A backup of the non-user data was made before the site was originally shut down. The collages, release info and related artist web were able to be saved and released to the public again. A lot of data was still lost, but the 10-year mixtape has helped other trackers progress in their goal to rebuild the incredible archive on What.cd.
What.cd was officially closed down on Nov. 17 when a reverse proxy was seized by French police. Because What.cd had protected itself better than OiNK, federal agents never got access to user data, and the domain was not seized. The What.cd staff closed the site with one final message: “Due to some recent events, What.CD is shutting down. We are not likely to return any time soon in our current form. All site and user data has been destroyed. So long, and thanks for all the fish.”