There’s a war being waged in the dark corners of the internet. On one side are kleptomaniac pirates hiding in secret communities. On the other side is the law.
For most people, piracy is a simple affair: Movie streaming sites, dubious music blogs — maybe a quick trip to The Pirate Bay if they’re feeling adventurous.
But beneath the surface lies a hidden network of “trackers”, invite-only sites with staggering libraries and stringent invite-only entry requirements. And they’re engaged in a constant game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement.
In November 2016, What.CD — a legendary music-sharing site — closed its doors after a raid by the French authorities. It came on the heels of a similar bust of Blackcat Games, a private tracker for games, and the closure of ScienceHD, another tracker that was dedicated to e-learning materials and documentaries.
In the wake of What.CD’s abrupt shutdown, multiple other sites have quietly disappeared — some temporarily, some permanently. “It hasn’t been a good year for private trackers, lots shutting down,” a veteran member of the community told me. “With what.cd gone, things are more uncertain than ever.”
The names of these sites mean nothing to ordinary people — but their collections are often mammoth, sometimes outstripping legal sites, and with rare content that can’t be found anywhere else on the web. What.CD was, a Reddit user lamented after its closure, “the Library of Alexandria for music. Between the list of music and formats, to the collages, the top tens, the community interaction … What.CD was the pinnacle of music collection.”
What.CD may now be gone, but these private sites — trackers — still exist for just about everything. Pick a hobby, an interest, and there’s probably a private tracker dedicated to it. “Rule 34” is an old internet adage that if something exists, there’s porn of it. Well, there’s probably also a private tracker for it.
But one website has a reputation — even among private trackers — for extreme secrecy and exclusivity. It’s called Art of Misdirection. Its focus? Magic.
It’s “possibly the most difficult tracker to join,” the veteran torrent user said. “Considering you have to be a magician to be a member.”
So naturally, I set out to try and get in — and uncovered a winding tale of angry magicians, warring rivals, FBI scares, and an incredibly loyal, decade-old internet community.
Many sources Business Insider spoke to were (understandably) reluctant to speak on the record. Some names have been changed.
‘The most closed site in the world’
Magic is famously secretive. Magicians jealously guard their tricks and secrets, working to maintain an aura of mystique around the pursuit. It’s part theatrics, and part commercial necessity: Their livelihood requires them to bamboozle and bedazzle their audiences with seemingly impossible feats.
Organisations like the Magic Circle exist in the real world where magicians can interact with their peers and enjoy the benefits of community — provided they pass rigorous tests and auditions to prove their magical skill, and swear not to reveal the secrets of magic. Art of Misdirection (AOM) is — arguably — a virtual version of these.
It has the secrecy, it has the fraternity, it has the gruelling entry tests to prove your magical abilities — but it’s also totally illegal.
From scans of rare old books on magic to videos demonstrating the inner workings of tricks, from PDFs to recordings of talks and panels by magicians that can’t be found anywhere else — if it’s digital and magical, it’s probably on there, and carefully guarded.
I’ve known about the site, by reputation alone, for years. In some piracy circles (even those with nothing to do with magic), it is infamous for its secrecy, and its incredibly high barriers to entry.
It is “the most closed site in the world” a user of torrent forum Torrent Invite said in 2011.
“The art of misdirection easily takes the crown as the hardest tracker to get in,” said one Reddit user.
Another user added: “They don’t like publicity, and the 600+ members there never step out of line.”
Earlier this year, my curiosity burning, I decided to try and find out more. My first port of call was a Medium post written by Tony Sakich, an employee at digital currency startup Augur.
His article — the only one on the internet that discusses AOM — is sparse on details. It included the barest of descriptions, a screenshot of uncertain origins, and a link to an old blog post criticising the site.
Sakich isn’t a member of Art of Misdirection, but he has first-hand experience of private trackers: He’s a member of one dedicated to American pro-wrestling.
“There’s decades of tapes of every territory and region having weekly TV, so the archives is ridiculous … if I was 10 years old and I knew this much out there existed I would have absolutely lost my mind,” he said.
“It has a lot of very old professional wrestling, Memphis stuff from the Eighties … things you’re never going to find on any other platform.”
‘Torrents’? ‘Trackers’? A brief introduction
Torrents, a format that debuted back in 2001, turned traditional downloading on its head. Rather than receiving a file from a single, central source, the sought-after data is sourced from a decentralised swarm of users.
You download an app or movie from a hundred different users at once — all of them sending different parts of it to you, even as you automatically send the parts you’ve already downloaded to other users in the swarm with an incomplete version of the file.
The format has plenty of legitimate uses — but its development also revolutionised piracy.
Public, easy-to-use search engines like The Pirate Bay sprung up. And alongside them, private trackers proliferated, catering for all manner of niche interests, from wrestling to magic. They will frequently get copyrighted content before it surfaces anywhere on the public web — often sourcing it from the ultra-exclusive “Scene.”
There’s a strange irony to the world of private trackers. The content is often stolen with no regard for the rights-holders — but users still fiercely guard it, only selectively admitting new members, forcing them to contribute, and even banning people who share the community’s files more widely.
Inside Art of Misdirection: Exclusive content and intense secrecy
One lead in my hunt was invaluable: An ancient membership list, leaked by a disgruntled member to an anti-piracy magician who once investigated the site and its founder.
I emailed the 700-odd members on it — and the responses, a mixture of confusion and caution, indicated just how closely the community guards itself.
“I’m sorry but AoM is a very exclusive site and I think we are like around 600 members with the ‘you do not talk about AoM’ (kinda like fight club) attitude,” one user said. “So I have to ask, how did you come over my information? It feels kinda fishy since you know, it’s really hard to get in there unless you are like David Copperfield.”
“The site in question is as exclusive as it is shrouded in secrecy. Or as some may say – security through obscurity,” said another.
So what’s actually on Art of Misdirection? Just about everything a magician could want.
“The selection was out of this world, you could literally find almost anything that you wanted, I got some stuff that I could realistically learn or wanted to learn and of course some cool things that blew my mind,” said a former member.
“I was at my brothers graduation at college and I started doing magic at the party,” another former member recalled. “This guy comes up to me and says ‘I’ve got the best trick for you … you can never find it, it’s so unique, it’s so rare.’ And it’s this trick dealing with aces, and I was like ‘No, I can find it.’ ‘No you can’t.’ And I’m like ‘as a matter of fact I can.’
“It turned into this really big argument and this dare. And I went home, I went online, I found it, I downloaded it from AOM, I learned it that night, and the next day I went and performed it.”
A great deal of magical performances are reliant on props, from cards and animals to chains and scarfs, from elaborate costumes and theatrical tools to unique, arcane devices. These, of course aren’t shareable digitally. But plenty is — books, videos, PDFs, book scans, — and it’s all available on Art of Misdirection.
Balloons, Bizarre, Cards, Coins, Juggling, Levitation, Mentalism, Money, Rope, History, Lecture Notes, and “Rare” are just some of the many categories available to download.
Not everything is pirated — and some of the content can’t be found anywhere else, either lost in the sands of time or created exclusively for AOM members.
“There are more recent video tutorials but also new and old books that are hard/impossible to find in print even if you wanted to buy them legitimately,” Lucy, a current member, said.
“Some videos are from conferences or talks where there is no video to buy,” they added.”There’s even ebooks that are written by members and only shared within AoM.”
On the community side, discussion — unsurprisingly — revolves around magic. “People talk about magic tricks, sleight of hand, stories/patter, gimmicks, rare finds, feedback for their own ideas etc.”
“It was pretty tightknit,” said Peter, a former member who spent time working on an original video to share with the community. “Not only did they have videos, they had contests all the time trying to invent new tricks, who did the best tricks” — with prizes including legitimate copies of books, DVDs, and downloads.
The site has aggressively kept its numbers small and community tight — a strategy it has pursued since the beginning. “We chose quality over quantity,” an admin said in an old email to users.
To get in you have to be invited by a member — and even then, site staff and members will vote on admitting you, and you have to pass a test to prove your skill as a magician. Some former members even recalled a video audition — creating video proof of your magical skills.
Back in 2008, the site accidentally made sign-ups open to everyone — a mistake it quickly rectified, banning anyone who signed up while it was open. At the time, it had around 900 members. In 2010, it was apparently 630.
In 2010, a user on a public forum identifying themselves as the admin “jacqueline” discussed the site’s strict criteria for admitting new members: “Only the most high ranked members (icons) can invite members in. Currently there are only 12 icons. And as their recommendations could effect their status, they hardly bring in new members. The current policy is to reduce the amount of members even more. AOM focuses on professionals only. Dont get fooled by invite offers on internet (there are none) or people that pretend to sell accounts. Trading or selling accounts is against the site policy so traded or sold accounts will be banned.”
Today, the site has under 500 members, according to Lucy. “I definitely shouldn’t be talking about it,” they said. “The nature of magic is secrets.”
Vigilante magicians once set out to kill Art of Misdirection
Magic, for all its secrecy and theatrics, is like any other interest: Alongside pirates, there are content creators furious at the illegal copying of their work — and some have set out to destroy Art of Misdirection.
“It’s something we, as magicians who love and respect our art, MUST take a stand against,” Australian magician Tim Ellis wrote in a blog entry attacking AOM in 2009. “Magicians might be professional liars, but they should not be thieves!”
Ellis, along with fellow magician James Clark, are not fond of magical piracy. They have worked hard to try and stomp it out — going after multiple sites alongside AOM for allegedly hosting copyrighted material, and even reporting them to the FBI. (It was Clark who provided me with the leaked member list.)
“James and I had been able to convince the owner of one site … that sharing DVDs illegally was not the best way to progress the art of magic (a visit to his home by the FBI helped — especially as he was a college kid still living with his parents) and [he] deleted that section of his site and continues to operate as a magic community forum for younger magicians,” Ellis said in a message. (The owner of that site did not respond to Business Insider’s emails.)
“In the magic community — the performers and creators and historians and archivists and lecturers and theorists’ (etc),” attitudes to Art of Misdirection “range from disgust to dismissal,” he continued.
Others are less quick to attack magical piracy than Ellis. “Now I have money it’s easy for me to say it’s bad and you shouldn’t do it,” said Edmund, a semi-professional magician and former AOM member. “I couldn’t have got my start without [piracy].”
A short history of Art of Misdirection
The earliest history of Art of Misdirection is murky.
“BEFORE there was an AOM, or an AOMK there was a magic torrent site called Filefight run by Zeron, and Lenaud, and before there was even a Filefight, Zeron, or Lenaud,” a user posted on a forum in 2010. “THERE was my magic hub, and the Bitme Tracker, and another magic torrent site i ran before all this AOM crap.”
Whatever the precise chronology and its predecessors, Art of Misdirection launched around 2007. A rival site — Art of Misdirection Killer (AOMK) — was subsequently established, and frequented largely by users who were unable to get into the main AOM.
Its founder, “Cheeky,” established it at least in part because of philosophical differences with AOM and its secretive nature — arguing that the content should be shared more widely, Edmund said.
“He was extremely public about making sure everyone knew he was an ex-member … and because he disagreed with their attempts at being so exclusive that he was making this AOMK site,” he said.
“He was weird. He even went to the extent of actually cloning the site so it looked the same, and all this kind of stuff. It was strange.”
“AOMK was infiltrating, stealing our stuff, releasing bad copies,” said Peter.
At times hackers targeted AOM, and its users’ accounts. And once the site went down unexpectedly — prompting fears that it had been raided by the FBI, which rival sites tried to use to persuade users to sign up elsewhere. (The culprit was a lack of communication over a planned change of hosting companies.)
It’s not clear who runs Art of Misdirection today. Clark says that when he began investigating the site, it was registered to a man from Maplewood, Minnesota. After being confronted, the man apparently admitted to creating the site but for someone else, and that “he has nothing to do with the site.”
The site’s WHOIS registration data is now anonymised, and the Minnesotan did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment. Messages sent to other email addresses associated with Art of Misdirection’s admins were also not replied to.
The ethics of magical piracy
Magic is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to piracy. The development of new tricks is intensely time-consuming and expensive — and the small community means creators are forced to sell at relatively high prices, and will acutely feel the effects of people opting to download their content illegally.
“Some hate [Art of Misdirection] and wish it would go away, others think it’s not worth even thinking about,” Ellis told me. “Universally negative. In the small section of people who THINK they are part of the magic community (secret collectors who don’t wish to pay the creators for their work and believe all IP should be free) — they love it.”
“There’s two reputations,” Edmund said. “There’s the reputation among magicians — as in, working magicians — and then there’s the reputation among the magic pirates. So there’s two separate communities there … I suspect the overlap of magicians who are also part of these communities is much higher than we like to admit. I think there’s a lot of working magicians who are on these sites as well.”
They added: “[Somebody] made a fake website and asked people to register, purely for the purpose of then publishing the email address of everybody who registered. And in that list there was quite a few professionals. And a lot of those professionals said ‘oh no, I only registered to make sure my stuff wasn’t being uploaded,’ and all that kind of stuff. But I don’t believe it.”
But some argue that Art of Misdirection is more than just a hub for copyright infringement. “I understand magic can hurt legitimate businesses, but this is more of a small online community,” Lucy, a current member, said. “Sharing magic and secrets amongst each other. It’s not a ‘pirate bay’ for magic.”
“If you’re in a magic community … a physical group, a magicians’ brotherhood or something like that, where you can get together with a bunch of people, share tricks, books, videos, it’s just a digital version of that,” said Peter. “Yeah it’s piracy, yeah they’re technically stealing from people … but it’s almost no different to a group of people getting together in a physical area.”
There’s now a new threat to magic: Counterfeiting
One problem facing Art of Misdirection is that magic isn’t as easy to pirate than it used to be.
“Modern magicians have found other ways to monetise their effects,” said Edmund. “They tend to do a lot more lectures that before.”
And tricks are increasingly being sold with physical apparatus — something which is impossible to share online. “Having the DVD without the gimmicks or tools or trick or anything that goes with it doesn’t do much, if that makes sense. More people are distributing smarter effects now, so when you buy it you get the DVD or booklet, plus you get the apparatus itself. You can’t pirate the apparatus.”
But this move to the physical has had an unintended effect: Making magic tricks vulnerable to counterfeiters.
“Not only have we been plagued by manufacturers reverse engineering magic tricks then having them mass produced cheaply in China — they didn’t even bother changing the name of the trick any more or making it look a bit different – they cloned it,” Ellis said. “So popular tricks that sell for $60 (because of years of research and development) are on sale online for $8 and it looks exactly like the real thing. Some manufacturers even use the same ad copy or video promo.”
Ellis launched a site, MagicFakers, to try and track the issue — but ultimately gave up. “It’s got so bad I no longer update MagicFakers because I was getting 10 to 20 new ‘copies’ each day.”
The internet has revolutionised magic — for both good and bad
Peter argued that piracy — for all the threat it poses to magicians’ livelihoods — has helped contribute to the huge developments in magic in the internet age.
“I think it’s spurred some of the huge interest in magic right now,” they said. “The rapid evolution it has caused, because suddenly everyone can see all the methods, all the different things. I seriously think cardistry as an artform is heavily influenced by the community, because suddenly people could share so so much.
They added: “The early nineties had the classic cup-and-balls, cards, handkerchiefs, parlour magic, and that kind of got boring. Then suddenly everyone had access to everything, and it made everyone just rapidly innovate, rapidly constantly change how magic works — you have the most beautiful stuff.”
But at the same time, that cannot excuse the harm it causes creators.
Ultimately, my hunt for Art of Misdirection was only partially successful. I didn’t manage to get an account, and the exact contents of AOM’s exclusive library will remain a mystery for now. But I did get a rare window into an intensely secretive community, and heard first-hand how people the world over, whether musicians or magicians, battle with exactly the same issues — piracy and exclusivity, morality and rivalry.
For Edmund, at least, the allure and mystery of magic — like Art of Misdirection itself — has outgrown the reality. “Honestly, there’s really not many secrets,” they said. With a bit of technical know-how, “you can work out practically anything else.”
“The secrets are an empty chest.”