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An Expensive month. Adventures in an Ad-Free Internet

Posted by [email protected] on October 5th, 2016

Nat 20! or..is it?

Nat 20! or..is it?

As the operator of any small website or blog will tell you, when you first publish your work online, your number one concern is that someone, anyone out there in Internet-land, notices what you’re doing.

Two and half years ago, when tabletopaudio.com first went live, I did what most new webmasters do. I obsessively checked Google analytics to see if anyone had visited. Luckily a few people did visit. The site clicked with a handful of people who told a few more people and within a month I was experiencing some fairly nice organic growth.

And then, my first Redditing happened. Reddit is a massive collection of public forums on every topic imaginable. A link on a popular sub-reddit is like Internet Hercules, redirecting a roiling river of eyeballs to flood your puny site clean. When you get Reddited, you get a massive traffic spike and you clench your teeth and hope that everything holds together.

In August 2014, Tabletop Audio had been listed on some subreddit called “The Internet is Beautiful” which I hadn’t heard of. I usually only lurk in a few subreddits (/r/rpg, and /r/boardgames ) so I was pleased that a new one had picked up on the site. I was on vacation with my family at the time, the website was 7 months old and I was checking the analytics app that morning which said there were – I was sure I wasn’t seeing it correctly – 2000 people on my site? Right now? It went on like that all day and finally died down a couple of days later. In the greater Internet scheme of metrics these weren’t huge numbers, or even particularly big ones, but it did represent a significant step up in terms of profile and traffic for me. I got emails from people about using sounds on various projects, a few donations, a few new Patreon patrons, everything seemed rosy. But then there were the ramifications.

On the plus side, the site didn’t crash. I’d made the pre-launch decision to let Amazon S3 do all the heavy lifting in terms of serving the audio files (each 10 minute ambience is ~16MB). So I was feeling pretty good about that until I realized that I only got a limited amount of bandwidth free per month and after that it was on my nickel.  That month’s bill was over $600, which stung, to be honest, but I figured that it introduced a bunch of new people to the site who might eventually become financial supporters. So, I treated it like it had been an advertising campaign budget and moved on.

This type of thing would happen every few months over the next year and continues to the present. A different corner of the Internet would “discover” Tabletop Audio and I’d get a traffic boost from a new site and a larger bill at the end of it. In the meantime, my Patreon campaign was growing slowly and there was a small but steady stream of one-off PayPal donations.  About a year and a half post-launch the site was basically supporting itself. Donations and Patreon pledges were covering hosting and bandwidth and I had even managed to put a little aside to replace some ailing hard drives and buy a new field recording microphone.

ask_reddit

click to embiggen

Last week I got my second Redditing. And I have to tell you, this one was kind of bitter sweet. It was on a subreddit called ‘AskReddit’ where someone had posted the question: “What small websites should more people be aware of?” It was one of the more popular posts of the week and eventually racked up over 8,000 comments. The top comment/answer – can you see where this is going? – was, you guessed it, Tabletop Audio, with 6877 points, or, upvotes in Reddit speak.

The previous month, August,  The 10 minute ambiences passed the 1 million play/download mark for the year. In one day this Reddit post added another half a million. Another 250,000 would get added over the next three days. My bandwidth bill was over $2000 and I was going to have to cover over half of that myself. Ouch.

On the – ugh, I’m saying this again but with slightly less feeling – plus side, I got about a dozen more Patreon supporters (between $1 and $10 per month) and about 10 more PayPal donations but I was still about $1200 short. For the first time I had to ask myself if it was possible for a site to be so successful that it couldn’t afford to exist? Must I put ads on my site to even stay alive? Is there another way?

Why am I mentioning all this? Because the Internet as we know it is slowly disappearing. It used to be that you slapped ads all over a site and when traffic increased, so did your profit. This worked really well for a dozen or so years. But then some advertisers got greedy, and, frankly, these guys ruined it for everyone. Ads could now contain malware or spyware, ads started to get larger and began to eat up bandwidth – especially annoying on mobile devices. What’s more, the websites and ad networks either didn’t care, or worse, were complicit. So Ad blockers came into being. Our white knights to save us from a diseased, slow and cost incurring internet! I, along with many others who had had computers hobbled by unwanted intrusions of code installed these ad quashing helpers and life was good. For a few years ad blockers where the domain of the internet cognoscenti, for those of us who weren’t afraid to find out what ‘browser extensions’ were and how to install them. Slowly, however, the ad blocking numbers grew. It occurred to me that by blocking ads I was quite literally taking money away from sites I visited and making it hard for them to do business. I began to white list various sites, but I also had to un-white list a few along the way.

Maybe this destruction of the ad-based internet isn’t all bad. The number of me-too click-bait sites, adver-tainment sites, ad-formation and aggregator sites will all slowly fade as the advertising dollars fizzle into nothing. The downside though is the by-catch. Those upstanding, useful sites (newspapers anyone?) will also begin to fade.

So what’s a site operator to do now? As much as I love the users of my site, I really can’t keep buying all of them lunch. I’m not even talking about compensation for man-hours creating the content, just operating costs. I’ve had offers of donated server space but so far these have been either slightly sketchy (guy in corporate IT department who thinks he can stash the files on a server somewhere..), or self-serving (company X also gets to offer my content and monetize it), or someplace where I don’t have full control. I’m still open to it, but it would really have to be so perfect I can’t imagine it existing.

AWS bandwidth bill for partial month of Sept. 2016

AWS bandwidth bill for partial month of Sept. 2016

Tabletop Audio started as my tiny rebellion. My desire to show the Internet that there is another way. That when you treat site visitors and content consumers with respect, they will respect you in return. That when you offer something of value, that value is appreciated and acknowledged. Working on Tabletop Audio is the most fun thing I do. Patreon is a wonderful tool for creators. If you haven’t checked out their site I guarantee you there’s some person or project on there that would benefit from a few dollars a month.

It’s 2016. Is it really possible that a website would have to close it’s doors because it was too successful?

————–

Support sites you frequent online. Spread the word, evangelize them. Invite the writers/artists/musicians or whomever to participate in conventions or discussions, write articles and blog posts – and, wait for it,  pay them!

20 thoughts on “An Expensive month. Adventures in an Ad-Free Internet”

  1. Tortuga says:

    You sir, are a Saint. If I wasn’t a poor, barely employed, live audio engineer I would try and help more. But I do plan to give when I can, especially after reading this. I appreciate your work and I know the players of my D&D campaign appreciate it as well. Keep up the good work and I hope it will eventually pay off for you.

    Also, have you considered a payed subscription for some of the extra content such as the ‘sound pad?’ It’s just a thought, but it may help reduce bandwidth while also increasing income. I’m not Internet savvy so I honestly have no clue how any of that would work.

    Thank you again!

  2. Sophie says:

    I also really enjoy your content! I discovered it after roll20’s soundcloud stopped functioning (very recently) so now I play your tracks in the background and that works well. I also use it for writing inspiration 🙂 but I had no idea that running a website like this could be so expensive though.

    Have you considered a monetised youtube account to offset some of that bandwidth (and possibly recoup some of the cost of running this site)? I really enjoy what you’re doing here and would hate to see you stop!

  3. Robotguy says:

    I run a weekly game in D20Pro with players all over the country, so this is exactly what I need to set the mood (the broadcasts, that is). I am planning to test it with the group tomorrow night, and if it works, I’ll certainly support it.

    As far as monetization of the site, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’d much rather see the site go to a freemium model rather than disappearing completely. Provide a smaller (both in number and size) set of sounds for free, then allow supporters to access the rest of the site. The free version would be useful and less costly to support, but the supported version would be better for repeat users.

    Just my $0.02. BTW I am really impressed with the quality and selection of the audio.

  4. TheWizardThatDidn'tDoIt says:

    Honestly man kudos to you for trying to host a website with no ads. But I’d rather see you add a few bottom/side banners from servers like projectwonderful (I’ve never personally seen an intrusive ad served by them) than have to shut down the site.

  5. Marshall says:

    I have a suggestion: What if you delayed access to new files based on Patreon levels? When people log into your site, their current Patreon level is checked. If they are at the highest tier, they get everything. If they are at the lowest tier, they get everything that was released up until a month ago. The tiers in between get up to appropriate dates in between. Non-supporters get everything up until two months ago.

    But everybody can see the full list of everything and see what they don’t have access to. Maybe even play the first 60 seconds of it.

    Now everybody still gets access to everything and yet everybody has a motivation to contribute. Plus, current contributors have a motivation to upgrade their contribution. On top of that, every time you release something new, if it particularly excites somebody then they have a motivation to at least temporarily move themselves into one of the top tiers.

    I just discovered your site today, thanks to Reddit, and also happened upon this post. Being one of those Reddit folk who just cost you more money without realizing it due to me playing around with lots of the tracks, I decided I’d better become a contributor. So you’ll see me added over on Patreon shortly. Your model of keeping the site free is awesome, and you shouldn’t do away with it, but I think you’d get a LOT more supporters if there was SOME kind of motivation other than doing the right thing.

  6. Patrick Kniesler says:

    One thing I have seen is site operators creating relationships with reputable companies and offering bespoke ad placement in discreet and honest ways that do not trip adblocker criteria. Permies.com is one. The operator recently started including links in forum pages and his famous daily-ish emails.

    Another option is project-oriented funding.

    I enjoy the service, it just helped write out a family email.

  7. Devon Jones says:

    Have you looked at the static sites you can create on github? No cost at all. Host the project and code in a github repo, and then set up a static redirect and you are gtg.

  8. Devon Jones says:

    Another thought: Many people will be using this on phones/tablets.

    Rolling a small app that caches the audio locally on the device would be fairly simple. Then you can cut the bandwidth, and maybe even charge a buck for the app.

  9. Devon Jones says:

    Final idea here, if you are open to making the code open source, you could create a download option, store all the files for that in github and let people run a local copy of the site off their own drive.

    You can still keep control over it by having the local version still need to sync with the main site to cache new audio locally.

  10. Devon Jones says:

    Ok, I lied, one more idea. HTML5 local storage lets you actually store up to 5 meg chunks in local storage in a browser. Rather then stream, store in that local storage (you may need to break bigger files up, but you could try this for the sound pads) and only play from that local storage.

  11. Wes says:

    Can you tell if the bandwidth use is more one-off or recurring listeners? Since you don’t currently have ads, there is no incentive to drive people to the website, so you could make it more obvious that listeners can download the files. I download each file as they come out specifically so that I don’t use your bandwidth (and also so that I can play them on my Sonos). Other recurring listeners might be willing to do the same.

  12. Ext3h says:

    Are you kidding us?

    Amazon is IMHO a horrible choice for serving static content. You are paying an horrific upcharge for the availability guarantees. And yet you don’t need these guarantees at all, since even the traffic you receive during peak loads shouldn’t stress a single dedicated server with a solid Gigabit uplink at all.

    Just for comparison: The price for 1TB of traffic at one of the more reasonably priced hosters is currently around $1.50 – $2. Yes, that’s the price per TB of traffic for consumers. Not the $85 Amazon is charging you.

    That is around a factor of 50x compared to what Amazon charged you. Amazons pricing is just a ripoff when it comes to traffic. (The pricing is slightly more reasonable for hardware resources, it’s “only” a 3x upcharge for that.)

    Do yourself a favor, get the cheapest dedicated root server at OVH, and be ensured that you can serve 99.5% of your bandwidth needs at a fixed $80 per month. That’s a guaranteed 250Mbit uplink, with 1Gbs burst, no traffic quota.

    With the file sizes you are dealing with, you don’t have to care much about geographic targeting either. These files are all big enough, that the additional delay doesn’t effect the effective transfer speed much.

    Another alternative? Host your static content on your own server as it is, but place a CDN network like Cloudflare in between. Even their free plan covers a traffic amplification of up to ~100TB/month, of which only a fraction will hit your own server. The file size limit for caching is at 512Mb, which is more than enough for your application.

    1. Firstly, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the time you spent writing them. However, I think comparing Amazon S3 to cheap hosting providers, even a dedicated server, is unrealistic.

      I already use cheap hosting for the HTML. If I tried also serving audio files on the same cheap host, I would never survive months like this. Your suggestion to use Cloudflare’s free CDN service would be wonderful – if they cached audio files, but they do not. But, to be clear, we’re not talking about storage or hosting, that’s cheap. It’s cheap everywhere. During my expensive month my cost for storage alone on Amazon was $2.40 – two dollars and forty cents. We’re talking about data transfer – the outgoing bytes that leave the server and go to the internet. It was the 22 Terabytes of data that was the expensive part. Unfortunately the myth that there is some silver bullet, cheap data transfer plan that is also fast and also reliable is just that – a myth. I’ve had lots of people tell me that they’ve violated their servers unlimited bandwidth policy with high volume periods – funny right? Or they have a month like mine and the hosting company tells them that they need to move them up a tier or two to a more ‘business’ class of hosting, and then the savings start to vanish. Amazon S3’s prices are actually highly competitive for data transfer and they get cheaper all the time thanks to increased competition. Yes, during mega traffic months it can get expensive, but I don’t pay for it if people aren’t using it. Most months aren’t like this one and are within my budget. You can be sure that I’ve done plenty of research on this front and have concluded that some months are just going to be expensive. This is why I am so appreciative of the people who support the site.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, I’m always open to new options and ideas and who knows?

      1. Ext3h says:

        As for Cloudflare, the limitation to images, webfonts and text content is just the default. You can add caching to music files by adding a simple page rule for that purpose. Creating a “Page Rule” with “Cache everything” overrides the default list. And I wasn’t exaggerating either, when I said that they will allow up to a 100TB/month for free accounts, even though their cheapest plan is more than just fair, considering that it then also includes SSL and other perks.

        As for being suspended for overusage, that’s really nothing to worry about with OVH, Hetzner or alike. I’m not talking about their cheap web hosting offers, but their dedicated servers, where the mixed calculation for a $50-100 server also includes either a reasonably sized quota (at Hetzner that’s e.g. 30TB per server for the sub $100 category), or a guaranteed 250Mbit uplink at OVH. There is no “fair use” clause in these offers.

  13. Joe says:

    I love this site now that I’ve found it. I think you can improve the bandwidth issues a bit by implementing some localStorage on the SoundPads. I was wondering why they seemed to need to load up every time, even though I only use the same ones over and over again. localStorage isn’t huge (5MB default) but I use the same SoundPads and ambiance over and over again and would bet that most people do the same.

    Also, a small sponsorship ad from a CDN would probably go a long way in helping you out. Another thought that may or may not be any good.

  14. F. Andrés says:

    I think an app would allow recurrent users to store the files in their phones/tablets/computers and easily launch them from there instead of consuming bandwith.

  15. James says:

    I agree with an above poster that some sort of freemium model would be acceptable. You have quality content, and reducing what people “take” would probably benefit you in the long run. I agree that perhaps a smaller selection of shortened versions for free, with the full library available to premium users might be nice.

    However, I can understand why you’ve done what you have. You want people to see all you’ve done and how awesome it is in its pure form. I think a lot of DMs would be happy to have an app where you could play the things from, and in that case, Apple or Google (or Microsoft, cough) would be paying for the bandwidth. But only if each sound file is an update.

    I have a few games on the Play Store, and I’m certain that they allow the main app to be up to 100MB, and then you can have two expansions that are up to 2GB each. I’m not sure if this is enough for what you are doing, but either way, you could allow people to download from you to their mobile device and play it through the phone, not requiring constant bandwidth usage.

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