One Haverford student’s fight against the Apple iTunes oligarchy
By Mike Troup
The Recording Industry Association of America has been fighting a battle against online music piracy since the creation of illegal music download websites, starting with Napster in 1999. The RIAA has begun to enjoy success lately in catching people pirating music thanks to technology that allows monitoring services to search the database of music download programs and find people who are illegally sharing music.
Leave it to a Haverford College student to find a way around illegal file sharing — as well as a loophole in the music downloading system.
Introducing the hero: Joe Huttner. Huttner, 21, is a senior at Haverford. The New Jersey native is the creator of SadSteve.com, a music download website launched from his dorm room in January, 2008. He is determined to show that music can still be distributed over the internet without any hassle from the RIAA and major music labels.
“My inspiration for the site came in August, 2007, following a discussion with a friend regarding the current, weakened state of the music industry,” said Huttner, leaning back in his chair as if he was Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Apple Inc.’s takeover and near monopolization of legal digital music distribution through iTunes is what made Huttner feel like he had to take action. While the 6’3″ baseball player turned internet wiz appears to be a gentle giant, he is hardly soft-spoken.
“The industry’s major problem, in our minds at least, was its newfound allegiance with Apple Computer, Inc.,” he said. ” Labels had relinquished control of the fastest growing distribution channel, the digital one, to Apple, a company devoted to technology, not music production.”
Huttner set out to create Sad Steve to connect with music fans directly. It has a library of songs available for download that is increasing in size every day.
“Sad Steve is first and foremost an audio search engine,” said Huttner. “The search engine finds music, podcasts, comedy tracks, and even speeches.”
The way that music is made available on Sad Steve is simple. The site indexes mp3 files (the file type of most audio files) that are available all over the internet. Users can then download the file directly from the site to their computers.
“For example,” said Huttner, “If the website for John’s California Surf Club hosts a Beach Boys song, that file is indexed and made available to you, the user.”
Also, unlike with iTunes, a user can transfer a song to as many mp3 players as they wish, or burn it to as many CDs as they would like after downloading it. iTunes limits the number of transfers per song, even after a user has paid for it.
Sad Steve makes mp3 files available for download directly from the site. It is different from other peer-to-peer programs such as Lime Wire and Kazaa because the files are not being downloaded from other users. This means that the site does not log users’ IP addresses, physical addresses, or e-mail addresses.
An IP address is like a virtual street address. Every connection to the internet has a unique IP address. The IP address allows the RIAA to go to the internet service providers and find the location of any individual that is downloading music.
Music pirates leave their IP address “fingerprints” all over the internet because most of them are using “Peer-to-Peer” programs to get their music. This means that you are downloading a song from another online user’s computer. Any music that is downloaded from a peer-to-peer program is then available for other users to download from you. By hosting these downloads, the IP address is then made available. SadSteve sidesteps this by having users go through the SadSteve website. In effect, this maks their IP addresses.
“In fact,” added Huttner, “There is no record anywhere in our system of what files are downloaded, how many times, or by who. So whether you download zero, ten, or a thousand songs, nobody knows.”
Since the website can’t track how many files have been downloaded, Huttner doesn’t know the exact amount of traffic on his site. He is working on an application that will at least track how many visitors the site gets per day.
According to Huttner, the music industry had essentially given up on promoting records after a sharp decline in overall sales. When Apple came along with iTunes, label executives saw it as a last chance to find a means of profiting from music sales. Huttner is not convinced that a third party like Apple should be the main source for music distribution. He says that music labels should be working harder to get the music to fans directly.
Huttner is chopping away at iTunes, the base of the Apple tree, and Sad Steve is his axe.
“Sure, Apple has the iPod, but without labels providing distribution rights to Apple, the iPod is just a little, metal, piece of s— with a scroll wheel and lousy battery life,” he said.
The fact that Apple is benefitting so greatly from iTunes sales is a clear source of frustration for Huttner. He says that Apple does not seem to be concerned with the spread of new, lesser known artists as much as it is with making money. Rather, the company got into music distribution to promote the iPod.
Granted, making money is typically the goal of a company that wants to have any chance at succeeding. Apple is obviously going to lean towards marketing music that it knows for sure is going to be popular and make the most money, especially during the country’s current financial crisis.
“Building a website was not a top priority,” Huttner admitted. “Still, when your friends in the music business tell you that producers are making marketing decisions based on an artist’s iTunes ranking, you get pissed off.”
His frustration with Apple turned into the story behind the name for the site.
“Steve Jobs is the CEO of Apple, so I figured the name works because my site takes him down a notch,” said Huttner.
Alex Schwada, another Haverford College senior, designed the logo for Sad Steve. It is a sketch of a sad, bearded face with a striking resemblance to Jobs.
The process that Sad Steve uses to index the music files is also not illegal, an added bonus. It simply works like a search engine.
“You could make the case that if Sad Steve were illegal, then Google would be illegal too because indexing other people’s material that is on the internet hasn’t proven to be an illegal process,” said Huttner.
The site operates on the premise that the files it is indexing are being put on the internet legally. If Huttner is told that a specific site is not legally using a file, he immediately blocks that website from the search engine.
Other sites similar to Sad Steve are starting to show up on the internet. However, Huttner feels that his model is still superior.
“There are some other mp3 search engines out there that almost do the exact same thing. I think the difference is that mine is simpler,” Huttner said confidently of his site’s performance. “You can literally play a song, almost any song you want, in seven or eight seconds, and you can download it too.”
Just because Sad Steve is simple to use doesn’t mean that it’s as easy to maintain. Huttner balances a full load and is on the college’s baseball team in addition to running his site. He operates the site on his own and puts multiple hours in every week to keep it running. Still, he wishes that he could spend more time with his creation.
“I’d like to work more on the site, but I have to work on graduating in next six months and getting that degree,” said Huttner with a smile.
Though he puts a lot of time and effort into the site, Huttner says he doesn’t make any money from Sad Steve. When asked if he sees any money from Sad Steve, Huttner grinned and replied: “No profit. Not a dime.” It’s not about the money for Huttner though, as he added, “I think there’s value in the audience, so as that number keeps growing, it offsets what I have to put into the site.”
In fact, not only does Huttner not profit from Sad Steve, he’s actually losing money. He has to pay to rent out space on the server that hosts the site. Most college students shudder to think about a business where they are guaranteed to be spending more money than they make.
The rental fee is a small price to pay for someone without money-making intentions. He’s a college student with a point to make, and a living example of “sticking it to the man”.
“I have a viewpoint and stance on digital music and distribution,” said Huttner. “By having more people use my site, my opinion becomes more valid. If I try to make more of a push in the industry to have my strategy really looked hard at by music artists, having more users would give me a better base to start with.”
Sad Steve has made Huttner somewhat of a celebrity on the Haverford campus. Despite the popularity, he doesn’t really make a big deal about the influence that he’s having at the college and nationwide. He enjoys what he’s doing and added that one of his favorite benefits from running the site is knowing that he’s keeping new music coming to people all over the country.
“I provide a service that makes people happy,” Huttner added.
Not only does Huttner help people out that are looking for new music, he helps new bands that are looking for people to hear some of their songs. The site has a section dedicated to “Featured Artists” in which Huttner interviews new bands and makes some of their music available for download. All it takes is a simple e-mail and a band can be featured.
“If a band contacts me, I’m likely to listen to any of their stuff,” said Huttner. “If they’re any good, I’ll put them on the front page.”
Huttner does his best to update the site with at least one new featured artist per month. He likes to keep new artists on the Sad Steve home page because it’s something that his nemesis, Apple, doesn’t do with iTunes.
“For an up-and-coming band, just a day on this homepage could help them get discovered by new fans, resulting in a popularity surge,” Huttner said of the iTunes main page. “Sadly, what could be used as new discovery outlet is often filled with singles from top-20 artists that most fans have already heard.”
Huttner has vowed not to stoop to the level of only keeping popular artists featured on his website as a means of keeping people coming to Sad Steve for music. He thinks that this is a better way to stay honest with his fans and actually do them a favor by exposing them to new things. In fact, he feels that it’s the best way to keep making Sad Steve a more frequently visited site.
There are a few plans for upgrading Sad Steve for the future. They include a more refined search, and a section of the site with pre-made playlists with themes such as “study music” and “dance party mix”. However, it will be a few months before these changes are seen.
“The main goal right now is to keep growing the user base, so as long as I keep pumping money into the server, I think that’ll happen,” said Huttner.
He doesn’t have any plans to switch the site over to a model that costs his users money either. He’s willing to continue spending money to have Sad Steve hosted because he values the ability to share his point of view. It’s a breath of fresh air for people that are still looking to download free music.
As for now, Huttner will continue to maintain the site until next summer when he graduates and can dedicate more time to making Sad Steve an even bigger success. Until then, he only asks that his fans keep spreading the word about his site and sending him any artists that they think should be featured on Sad Steve.
“Keep sending me requests for what you’d like to see on the site and new artists to feature,” he asked. “That keeps the site going.”