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Bursting BigChampagne's Bubble

Online Tonight editorial column, as aired 5/19/2003, and excerpted with permission in RAIN, 5/20/2003

Update: [11:13AM PT 5/20/03]: Within moments of this article being published, I received a call from a record executive at one of the big 5 labels, who said, "You are dead on target with this article...[Big Champagne] came to us and presented their wares and it didn't go well. We questioned it from a technical standpoint...you're absolutely right about how you're portraying this...excellent work."
It is troubling that BigChampagne, the file swapping monitoring site, continues to get almost unvarying positive support from the media, when their claims, activities, data and final product are suspect at least, and at worst deceptive. People really want to know what BigChampagne claims to know. And a lot of it centers around the word "download."

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We'd all like to know what the most downloaded songs are, right? BigChampagne seems to know. At least that's what everyone is saying, and Big Champagne does nothing that I can see to correct their impressions. In fact, they don't even seem to correct that impression on their website. Right now, pop over to BigChampagne's site (it's www.bigchampagne.com), read all that you can, and then come back here. Ask yourself if you think that BigChampagne measures downloading of music on the Internet. Chances are you'll answer "yes" to that question. And it appears that that's exactly what BigChampagne wants you to think.

Right off the bat, BigChampagne's website uses a fairly prominent quote from an article in an Atlanta newspaper, right in the middle of their front page, that uses the word "downloading" as if that's what BigChampagne measures. This couldn't be further from the truth, and when pressed, BigChampagne admits it. Their CEO, Eric Garland, while refusing to come on my radio show to discuss what BigChampagne really is claiming to their customers, said about the quote, "Those aren't our words, those are the Atlanta-Constitution's words. We can't help what they say." Maybe not, but they can help what's placed front and center on their website.

Well, here are BigChampagne's words, in the press release touting their new relationship with Premiere:

"BigChampagne has been measuring and analyzing music downloading since the height of Napster's popularity."

http://www.bigchampagne.com/For_Immediate_Release.pdf (page 2)

The use of the phrase "downloading" over and over and over on their website, in press releases, and when talking to the media is, in my opinion, a calculated effort to create an image that BigChampagne knows something that you and I don't about downloading and music. It may, unfortunately, mislead potential customers into thinking that BigChampagne measures the most downloaded songs. In fact, that's not possible. And when asked repeatedly for an indication as to how they were accomplishing that feat, BigChampagne finally sent an email saying, in part,:

"...BigChampagne does not now, nor have we ever measured "most downloaded" songs online..."

[email to author from BigChampagne representative, 4/2/03]

In fact, I'm pretty sure that they do measure something. But what they measure is hardly what people are downloading. They measure what is being OFFERED online, and the statistical and social difference is enormous.

Up and Down, Up and Down

First, there's quantity. Downloaders outnumber "uploaders", or more accurately, those who offer music files on open shares on their hard drives, by more than 10 to 1. Ashlee Vance, writing for IDG News Service, said:

"More takers than givers dominate the free music landscape, which may turn peer-to-peer sites into mini-Napsters subject to the same legal liability, says a pair of scientists who studied online music-swapping behavior...researchers Eytan Adar and Bernardo Huberman of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center watched the action on Gnutella for a single 24-hour weekend period in August...the study claims the top 1 percent (314 hosts) contribute about 40 percent of the total files shared. The number of files shared skyrockets to 98 percent for the top 20 percent of users (6250 hosts)."

http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,18166,00.asp

The universe of downloaders is enormous, and their behavior is interesting to almost everyone, for legal, ethical, social, financial and musical reasons. But that's not what's being measured here. What's being measured is, apparently, what a group of people, a group on average a tiny fraction of the larger downloading community, are offering up to the world. So the question becomes: does it really matter what people are offering? If so, fine, but that's hardly what people are looking for, a world apart from what they are actually downloading, and completely separate from what BigChampagne would have you think they they know that you don't. Another question: does the number of offers of a song have any connection with the number of people who want it? Not at all. As more people acquire a song, there's no indication that they will turn around and offer it to the universe, especially if they're not offering anything else to begin with.

By the way...anyone can find out what other people are offering. It's the very basis of using KaZaa Desktop.

More importantly to our community, if I'm a major media syndicator, or a music magazine, or a television network, and I'm offering this data up as an indication of "the most downloaded music on the Internet," am I being accurate? No, I'm not. Guess what? It's happening right now.

It appears that BigChampagne has managed to fool Clear Channel/Premiere, Blender Magazine, E! Entertainment and others into thinking that their data represents the most downloaded music on the Internet, not by saying so outright, but by exception, obfuscation, use of other's implicit endorsements, and by leaving out important statements, caveats and warnings on their website. And their partners are, unfortunately, parroting back the incorrect positioning of the data. As an example, watch E! News Live tonight (check your local listings) and watch how BigChampagne's data is described.


Give 'em What They Want. Or Not.

If I were a program director in Springfield, MA and wanted to know what downloaders were looking for online in Southern Massachusetts, the last place I'd look is BigChampagne. PDs need accurate, relevant information - and are used to getting data that can be reverse engineered. As an example: if you look at MediaBase' spin count on a song, if you really doubt the veracity of the data, you could go back to the logger tape of the station and manually count the songs to prove or disprove MediaBase's numbers. If you want to deconstruct our eTracks charts, we've got the submissions from every one of our reporters to back up our methodology and results.

No such luck with BigChampagne. They won't discuss their methods, online or off, they won't discuss their technology, and they won't discuss the veracity of their geolocation services, the analysis that tells them what's big in Chicago and not so big in Cleveland. BigChampagne doesn't offer universe numbers, market numbers, actual download or upload numbers, estimated or otherwise, and certainly no demographic breakout verification. They do offer charts and graphs that rank various artists based on their "results."

This is nothing new. A review of the press clippings on their website chronicle a pattern of leaving the befuddled but well meaning journalist with the impression that they are doing something that they are not. As far back as their inception, they were allowing journalists like Charles Mann and Warren Cohen, of the now defunct Inside, to jump to the conclusion that they had a secret back door to Napster's data:

"BigChampagne's plans go far beyond simply instant-messaging file-sharers," Garland says. Instead, the company hopes to make its focus the harvesting of data from Napster about overall patterns of music trading and possession. "You can track queries (by users to Napster and other file-sharing services) as an expression of initial interest," Garland says. "If people are looking for tracks 1 through 12 of the new Paul Simon album a month before it's released, that tells you something. If they're only looking for track 5, that tells you something. If most of the people who are looking for the song don't already have Paul Simon MP3s in their collection, that tells you something - maybe he's breaking to a new audience. This is basic information that the music business has never had before.'"

mirrored at http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,22092,00.html?nl=dnh

Aside from the fact that performing such a feat was impossible, and that Napster said in that same article that they'd never heard of BigChampagne and their crack programmers, that very claim continues to be the backbone of BigChampagne's marketing today, invoking (but not claiming to have relationships with) "clients like Limewire, Bearshare, KaZaA, Morpheus...":

http://www.bigchampagne.com/bc_about.html

I wanted to talk to Eric Garland about this on Online Tonight. I wanted him to describe how cool the software is, and how it actually works - to get to the bottom of my concerns and clear up any misconceptions. Instead, he engaged me in nasty banter as he hung up, claiming that I was upset because I provide similar data to the industry, and that I look at BigChampagne as a competitor.

Again, that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Net Music Countdown's data flow and methodology, as well as their reporter list, is public knowledge.

Our Chart Methodology [link, third column, front page of the Net Music Countdown site]

Our calculations are based on a formula that is published with every weekly chart on AllAccess.com.

All Access.com [click on the NMC eTracks link on the left nav bar; free registration required]

And we purposely do not include the very universe of data that BigChampagne claims to measure: illegal download sites and the behavior of pirates. We only look at streaming sites and sales outlets like Radio@AOL, Amazon and Gracenote.

BigChampagne's competitor, WebSpins.com, had no such reservations about coming on my other show, Online Tonight, and discussing their services:

http://online-today.com/001362.html (hour 1 and hour 2)

In fact, they called us to get on the show, in response to the investigations I was conducting, and those that Mark Thompson was conducting, the results of which we put on the air:

http://online-today.com/archives/001275.html (hour 3) http://online-today.com/001288.html (hour 3)

WebSpins.com ended up revamping their site when they finished up with us, to make it clearer to their customers what they were offering, and to be less likely to mislead them into thinking that they were offering charts of the most downloaded music.


Piracy and its Speedometer

There is not a single artist on the BigChampagne TopSwaps charts that is in the public domain. They do not, based on reading every accessible page on their website and the white papers sent to me by their publicists, count the activity on legitimate and licensed download sites. The NMC is not interested in promoting or measuring illegal activity as a part of the eTracks charts. So, we are in no way a competitor to BigChampagne.

This pattern continues today. Not a single representative of Kazaa, Morpheus or Grokster claimed to have any knowledge of BigChampagne's activities. That's not surprising when you consider that ignorance of their customer's actions is the centerpiece of their "we're the technology, not the problem" argument. But Kelly Larrabee, who represents Kazaa here in the US, went further. In an interview with me, she not only denied having any relationship with BigChampagne, but found it puzzling that they claimed to be able to measure anything about her users.

"You and I and BigChampagne have the same view [of any data on the system]...through the Kazaa client...we're not providing any data to BigChampagne, and there is no way that they could know anything about the numbers of what the end user is downloading...we also don't provide any API to allow anyone to do any special queries or have access to our backend."

telephone interview with Larabee, 3/17/03 [hear the audio in MP3, 4:21]

In fact, I wish that BigChampagne had a real path to accurate tracking of the piracy problem through real numbers of downloads. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have anything of the sort. What they have are "marketers who have worked with such companies as Coca Cola, GM and Procter and Gamble."

But in the end, the lack of candor continues. Big Champagne's latest coverage on TechTV is an example:

"Eric Garland, CEO of Big Champagne, compares what his company does online to what the Nielsen rating system does for television.

The company analyzes billions of search requests and song downloads with proprietary software that lives on public P2P networks such as KaZaA and Morpheus. Clients then get categorized lists of online music trends, right down to the city in which downloaders live.

"What our technology does is take advantage of the fact that in particular, the exchange of media is dependent on information published by each person connected to the Net," Garland said.

That data is proving to be priceless. In the weeks before rapper 50 Cent's new album "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'" hit stores, Big Champagne saw his songs were queried and swapped like crazy, prompting Interscope Records to release the album five days sooner.

The album is now a huge hit. Translation? Your searches and your song swaps count. Literally. "We have a demand curve that precedes the introduction of new content," Garland said.

http://www.techtv.com/news/culture/story/0,24195,3427825,00.html

Again, this is a classic example of the effect being mistaken for the cause. The data is no more priceless than any other, after-the-fact examination of what goes on in the daily rape of copyrighted material via the Internet.

The mention of "right down to the city where downloaders live," is troublesome. Not because the journalist used the word "download," but because geolocation by IP address is hardly foolproof. In the world of radio, a station serves a city. On the Internet, your ISP may not be in the city in which you live. And if your ISP is AOL, which it is for 36 million people, by far the largest ISP in the world, your "city" is Dulles, Virginia. I spoke with Sanjay Parekh, the CEO of Digital Envoy, the geolocation service that BigChampagne uses. he confirmed, via email, that it is not possible to track where people are coming in from or where users are located when they download from AOL:

"Obviously because of their proxy network, for online businesses it, is impossible to identify the [AOL] end user's IP address. Because of this, we can [only] identify the fact that they are an AOL user and what country they are in."

[email to author from Parekh, 4/2/03]

Pay No Mind To That Man Behind the Curtain!

No, BigChampagne may be offering TopSwaps charts, but they don't appear to be what their cult of personality would tell you they are. And to pass them off overtly or covertly as something other than what they are is disingenuous and misleading.

I would hope that potential clients, as well as their current clients, would look a little deeper behind BigChampagne's processes and methodology to find the real story behind their output. And I would hope that BigChampagne would be more forthcoming about what substance there is behind their data.



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