Imagine being able to open a website (or your custom-built front-end to RSS feeds from multiple sites) each day and browse through all the 2007-released albums, EPs and singles posted by other members since you last visited, while being able to see which ones were already becoming popular. These were albums that had been posted by people who appreciated them, and had gone to the trouble of ripping a CD to MP3 or FLAC with a good quality encoder (LAME V0, sometimes higher, lower or occasionally lossless, but always at least 192 ABR). Being able to see the genre - indie/emo/hip-hop/electronic/psychedelic rock/metal/garage/noise/etc/etc, the artist name, album title, track titles, the record label*, year, bitrate, size, number of files, a review - chosen from those available on the web or written by the uploader - and comments from other people, saying thanks or giving their opinion on the album**.
Imagine reading your favourite magazines filled with hundreds of reviews of records released that month, then being able to go online and, with a couple of clicks and a couple of minutes, listen to them. Does that sound like a bad thing?
You could reach OiNK from within your music player - Amarok's context pane, for example - because OiNK was part of the web. You could run Greasemonkey scripts to add links between OiNK and other sites like Last.fm, eMusic or Google. Music discovery became a 3-click process: listen to a track in Amarok or last.fm; follow the link to search OiNK for an artist (often the search results would show every album released by that artist, sometimes in different bitrates but most importantly with the number of total overall downloads, current uploaders and current downloaders for each album - this way you could tell which releases were the most important); follow the link to the individual item page to read the full information (and in the background a Greasemonkey script would check your local music library to see which albums by that artist you already had); then click to download the torrent file. From then on everything was automatic: your BitTorrent client picked up the torrent file and downloaded the music from all the uploaders (pausable and resumable at any time, even if any of the peers go offline), placing it in a folder when it's complete, from where your music player noticed the music files and imported them to your library ready for listening. On a good day the whole process could take just a couple of minutes. That's the way music discovery should work.
There was an incentive to contribute - this was were everybody got their music, and they wanted to return that favour and to see it succeed. Occasionally you might upload a CD you picked up at a show, or on the cover of a magazine, because you knew people would appreciate it. Even if you didn't provide any source files, you would keep uploading data, just like everybody else uploaded, leaving your computer running all day***. This built up a huge catalogue - the kind of thing that takes years to fill up. You didn't have to register with anything other than an email address to get an account, and no-one ever sent you spam, or special offers, or marketing. You didn't have to give your name, or address, or credit card details. There was nothing commercial about it****.
I'd meant to write about this months ago, when torrent sites were on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream; unfortunately there's still a frame of mind where the publishers and big corporations think they can satisy the market by selling individual tracks and making profits by enforcing false scarcity. Like others who have written on this subject recently, I would have liked to have been able to pay a subscription for access to OiNK - it was more valuable than an eMusic subscription, certainly - to support those who ran the site as well as the artists. I'd like to be able to pay other filters too - podcasts in particular - but there's still no decent licensing solution there either.
There isn't anywhere else with the breadth of catalogue and quality of files and metadata that OiNK had. Where else can you get an RSS feed of all the important new music releases, at a choice of bitrates, and see which ones people (a community of people who like good music, importantly) are downloading?
And yes, the price was right. But it's always going to be difficult, if not impossible, to charge for music upfront.
If there's one thing we're guilty of it's not pushing enough for this to be made available to everyone, all of the time. This kind of thing shouldn't be "underground" any more. OiNK had a community of music enthusiasts, and it seemed inevitable that this would eventually be how everyone discovered/listened to music. There are sites like this for independent (non-RIAA) music, for cinema and for TV, and people who have access to those sites have a huge catalogue at their instant disposal. I wish that was available to everyone.
* Missing from OiNK, sadly, but available on other sites
** Generally positive: there was rarely a need for negative responses in a community of this size, except for the most over-hyped or over-anticipated of new releases.
*** There's room for improvement here: BitTorrent encourages energy inefficiency, as contributors have to leave their computers and routers running all day. A central (or rather globally distributed, like EC2) download server would be most efficient. Unfortunately it would also be controllable and so not ideal: people have to be able to upload whatever they want.
**** Some people may have used it as a source of music for commercial resale, but you could probably say the same about any music store.