Audio Galaxy was the best thing to happen to illegal music downloads since Napster. Now that it’s gone, it’s hard to convey just how much cooler Audio Galaxy was than its better-known predecessor, the company that popularized peer-to-peer file sharing. Simply mentioning the two companies in the same sentence dramatically undersells the importance of a business that might have proven the commercial viability of the peer-to-peer model, had it been founded this year and not in 1999, when the other shoe dropped on widespread free music and Audio Galaxy, like Napster, was stripped of its title as Greatest Thing To Happen To Boring Jobs, Ever.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of what Napster did, of course, which was to capitalize on the ubiquity of always-on Internet access among the musically-engaged and tech-savvy demographic of college kids and dot-com workers, making each Napster user’s individual library of MP3-encoded music available for direct download by anybody with an Internet connection and a copy of the free application. In effect, this made it possible for anybody to listen to any song that had ever been released on CD, on a whim. You could search for tunes by title or artist, browse individual users’ libraries if you appreciated their tastes, or chat with them if you wanted to discuss music you’d never heard, all the while devouring the network bandwidth of your school or office (which confounded and frustrated schools and offices across the nation).
Napster was the first to go, but pretenders to the peer-to-peer throne were everywhere, driven almost by the notion itself. It was simply too elegant an concept to ignore, one of those rare ideas that seem to explain the existence of a piece of technology; the Internet, developed for communication among scientists and academics, had been annexed by sophomores in dorm rooms for a revolution in music. Today, P2P file sharing accounts for up to 60% of the traffic of any given Internet service provider’s network, and most of that is music. With such a deluge of content to manage, and with so many users anxious at the slow growth of their music libraries, Napster’s replacement had to be quick and smart. Audio Galaxy quietly outdid its model on both counts.
Word got out quickly that a new door had been left ajar in the music industry, and users flooded to the new system. What they found was a well-thought-out model for processing the exponential growth of the file sharing community. Rather than Napster’s application that served as browser, download client, and file server, Audio Galaxy offered a two-pronged model: Satellite, which managed the outgoing music and the incoming queue; and a meticulously-crafted web site that served as the browsing interface. The beauty of the system was that the presentation of the library had been decoupled from the dirty work of file transfer, which meant that new features could be added to the browser at any time. Audio Galaxy allowed its users to browse by artist, title, MP3 quality, source Satellite, and album—the last of which resulted in a tenfold increase in my daily music downloads.
Where Audio Galaxy truly thrived was in its community-oriented approach to P2P. Before the flood of disenfranchised Napster users, Audio Galaxy had nurtured a small community of independent music fans trading an enlightened selection of songs in relative obscurity. The real value in the service was the “group” feature, in which users with similar tastes could pool their resources, siphoning off a manageable and kindred stream of music to browse, rather than floundering in the rapids of open filesharing water. Experienced Audio Galaxy users huddled into the groups, creating rich worlds of obscure music. Entire catalogs of small labels and under-appreciated musicians were enshrined on Audio Galaxy, distributed to a new generation of listeners whose encyclopedic knowledge of 1960’s African Funk could challenge Fela Kuti himself.
In forcing Audio Galaxy to block the downloading of music released on the five major labels, the RIAA effectively shut down the service. The loss of that interface and the associated peer-to-peer application forced me to abandon music downloads. Of the new breed of services, I’ve heard that SoulSeek shares much of Audio Galaxy’s focus on underground music, as well as a user-oriented approach; sadly it’s not available for Macs. Even that service suffers a flaw, in that the browser is coupled with the file server. Audio Galaxy’s user base gathered around the web site, whose quick results and elegant navigation were a joy to use and a brilliant tool (if largely unprofitable) for music marketing. If a means were in place of implementing micropayments to artists and labels for the downloading of their music from other clients on a peer-to-peer network, the resulting combination of library size, fair payment, and logical presentation could enliven the industry. It’s a pity that Audio Galaxy is gone; it was one half of the solution to a longstanding problem with commercial music.