Days of the Leak

WRITTEN BY
Douglas Wolk

On the afternoon of May 30, Jack White called Chicago radio station Q101 in a very bad mood. The White Stripes' frontman was in Spain at the time, but he'd gotten word that the station's DJ Electra had played the band's Icky Thump in its entirety a couple of hours earlier. The album wasn't scheduled to be released for another three weeks, and now a murky copy that somebody recorded off the radio was racing around the Internet. So White called Electra to chew her out for "messing up the entire music business" and for leaking his record, even though it had obviously leaked already -- that's how Q101 got it.

The station's music director, Brett "Spike" Eskin, says that a fan from his DJ days in Philadelphia had sent him a link to a file of Icky Thump, which somebody -- no one's saying who -- had uploaded to the file-sharing transfer service YouSendIt. "We downloaded the record, I told Electra that we had it, and then I contacted [the White Stripes' label] Warner Bros. and told them that we had the record and were going to play it." Q101 often plays freshly leaked albums, and it had aired another Warner Bros. leak, Linkin Park's Minutes to Midnight, a few weeks earlier. This time, Spike says, the station's contact at the label "told me he'd never tell me not to do it, but that this was going to make his life hell."

"Our listeners want to hear new music as soon as it's available," says Electra. "We're just reacting to the way it's becoming available."

There used to be a sort of gentleman's agreement about new records: On the announced release date, they'd appear in stores, and magazines, newspapers, and radio stations would pretend that they'd suddenly sprung into existence on that particular Tuesday morning (or, in the case of a few big names, Monday at midnight). The only way to hear them earlier was to be in the music industry or a member of the press.

All that, of course, was before file-sharing became rampant -- not just through old-fashioned peer-to-peer services, but by virtue of new technologies that can spread recordings widely and quickly. Nowadays, there is no such thing as an album that can't be heard before its release date. Absolutely everything leaks. The question is when and how, and what that means for the future of music.

The headquarters of MediaDefender are in an upscale Santa Monica office park, just down the hall from Mantra Films Inc. (the corporate home of Girls Gone Wild). Near the entrance, there's a large room that belongs to the "leak team." On its walls are whiteboards with the airdates of popular TV shows written in erasable marker. The solemn-looking twentysomethings seated in front of their terminals, most wearing headphones, are scanning the Internet -- file-sharing services, BitTorrent indexes, chat channels, newsgroups, blogs, whatever -- to identify exactly when stuff leaks.

The bread and butter of MediaDefender's business is interfering with unauthorized file-sharing: disseminating fake files, clogging uploaders' queues, disrupting downloads. To advertise their services, they provide record labels and film and TV studios with information on exactly when and where releases have leaked. But since everything leaks, what good does it do to know when? "Honestly, sometimes I wonder myself," says the company's president, Octavio Herrera. "But the labels always want to be the ones to tell the management and artist that their music has leaked."

Other companies offer similar content-protection services, including Macrovision, MediaSentry, and Web Sheriff, whose specialty is sending polite please-take-this-down-thanks e-mails. But no matter how many download attempts they manage to foil, these operations still act as nothing more than a speed bump. Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, which monitors online media, says the company's research has determined that someone hell-bent on finding a record won't be discouraged by hassle. "Virtually one hundred percent of the time, somebody seeking a popular song will get a free copy of it," he says.

The technological advance that made new-album leaks universal was the rise of BitTorrent, a protocol that makes it very easy to download entire albums in high-quality audio. The hottest spots for pre-release leaks are public torrent-tracker sites such as the Pirate Bay, Torrentspy, and TorrentReactor, as well as the private, password-protected Demonoid, TorrentLeech, IndieTorrents, and the British site OiNK, which practically has a velvet rope around it. OiNK is accessible strictly by invitation, meticulous about the quality of the files its members offer, and quick to bounce patrons who don't abide by its stringent rules, which demand that members upload as much as they download. And for the anonymous and secretive founders of the site, the first rule of OiNK is: You do not talk about OiNK.

More recently, services like YouSendIt, Megaupload, and RapidShare have made it simple to upload an entire album as a single zipped file. Album blogs, or .rar blogs, mostly set up on anonymity-friendly services like Blogger, have been popping up like mushrooms; some write a little about the records they're posting, but others just stick up cover art, a track listing, and a download link for dozens of albums a day. And there are bulletin boards and LiveJournal groups devoted to posting download links to new albums as soon as they surface. "I love music; what I don't love is having an album hyped to be the best ever, then buying it to find out it's a dud," writes the anonymous curator of one album blog, the Leak Source, by way of justification.

Of course, the old-guard industry is freaking out about this; neither Capitol, Interscope, nor Warner Bros. would comment on the record for this story. Increasingly, advance copies of major artists' releases are few in number and carefully guarded, even if it's at the expense of long-lead press coverage. The new Linkin Park album, for instance, wasn't given to anyone at all -- reportedly, no one but the band members and their manager had copies before the album was sent off to the plant. Despite the extra security, Minutes to Midnight still leaked 11 days early (after a CD is manufactured in bulk and sent out to distributors two weeks or so before the official release date, there's no containing it) but sold a healthy 623,000 copies its first week. Would that number have been different if it had leaked even earlier? "I don't think anyone's come up with a direct correlation as far as how it affects numbers," says Martin Hall, publicist for Merge Records, whose big releases for the year, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, both leaked more than a month before their release dates.

Even though one industry source claims that 75 percent of leaks come from journalists, most artists rely on the boost they get from reviews, so they need to send out promotional copies. The major labels (and some well-heeled independents with a high-profile release to protect) now regularly resort to digitally "watermarking" advance copies, whose audio is encoded with a signal identifying each individual copy or rendering the album unplayable on a computer. That can get pricey -- according to Aaron Sperling, operations manager of the watermarking firm Sonic Arts, the process can run $4.60 a disc -- but it at least allows labels to trace where a leak originated by matching the encrypted code with the advance copy it was assigned to. "Leaks come from all over," Sperling says. "Sometimes songwriters, sometimes press. But if it happens five to seven days before the release, the album is a finished copy from the warehouse, and that won't have a watermark."

Even if the culprit is found, there isn't much a label can do about it. "It's not like we're gonna hunt that person down and give him 50 lashes," says Hall. "We just get an idea where the leak came from and send that person a sternly worded e-mail. If we find some legitimate outlet that's putting up a track from the record, we'll ask them to take it down, but we can't track down every blogger." However, when three songs from Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam leaked in June, nearly three months early, a terse press release was issued stating that the guilty party had been forced to write a letter of apology to the label, Domino Records, and "got in more trouble than you care to hear about." So maybe public shaming is the last viable deterrent?

Though they may have less at stake than the majors, indie labels are able to see the bright side of inevitable leakage, or are at least more accepting of the new reality. "It's only gonna hurt you if your record sucks," says Hall. "The way we look at this, and I think the majority of our bands agree, is: It's getting the record out there and getting people talking about the album. We don't have to add to that discussion, we don't have to advertise that it's available, but if you put out a good record, people are still going to buy it." As an insurance policy of sorts, the Spoon album will be sold with a bonus disc intended to encourage die-hard fans who downloaded the record prematurely to pony up for the official version. Hall also notes that the fact that the Shins' Wincing the Night Away, on Sub Pop, leaked more than three months before it was in stores "didn't seem to hurt them much -- it debuted at No. 2." (So, for that matter, did Neon Bible.)

Sub Pop A&R rep Stuart Meyer concurs. "The Shins album sold 118,000 copies its first week, which was beyond our expectations," he says. "Would it have sold more than that five or ten years ago? Probably -- but 118,000 for a band like that is pretty amazing."

Iron & Wine's new Sub Pop album, The Shepherd's Dog, isn't due out till September 25, but it had already leaked by mid-June, appearing, as the Shins album did, on the Radiohead fan site ateaseweb.com. The leak, says Meyer, came from a watermarked press copy -- he's not saying whose -- and the accused is claiming it must have been somebody in his office who had stolen and then uploaded the album. "It's a bummer for the artist and for us," Meyer says, "but the days when nobody could hear a record until the release date are over. You have to look beyond the blog world; you have to appeal to people who aren't paying attention to leaks." And he's happy to note that the feedback has been great. "I was reading a thread about Iron & Wine on AbsolutePunk.net and was surprised that a lot of people on there want to wait for the album until September -- they don't want to be sick of it by the time the onslaught starts. I was kind of heartened by that." However, for the new Postal Service record, due Christmas Day, the label will take no chances and will, as Linkin Park and many major artists do, simply withhold the product altogether. "I bet we only send it to, like, five people," Meyer says. "I bet that record gets nowhere and no one hears it until December 25."

In any case, according to Q101's Spike, not even major labels necessarily object to a little black-market buzz. "I have an e-mail from the head of promotion at Capitol Records," he says, "with a printout of songs that we played from a leak of the Beastie Boys album [The Mix-Up], saying, 'Thanks for all the airplay, bro. I will never cease-and-desist you or tell you not to play any of my records.' The sentiment out there is, it's so hard to get songs on the radio now that if you're going to get that kind of publicity, you should probably just be thankful."

If labels can't stop the tide of early leaks, they can at least use the technology to their advantage. ("If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," says Sub Pop's Meyer.) The Nine Inch Nails songs that turned up on flash drives hidden in bathrooms on their European tour early this year were part of the band's viral marketing campaign -- if fans feel like they've gotten an illicit copy of a new song by their favorite artist, that just builds buzz. (Not that one hand necessarily knows what the other is doing. Q101, in fact, aired one of those Nine Inch Nails songs, "My Violent Heart," and got slapped with a cease-and-desist order from NIN's label, Interscope.) And although the labels are loath to cop to this increasingly common practice, leaks are also a useful way to gauge the public's interest in songs without having to make the promotional investment an actual release requires. If a leaked MP3 doesn't stir up much interest on the Internet, it's probably smart for the artist to go back to the studio instead of shooting a video.

If there was ever really a battle over leaks, it's already been decided. Many hip-hop artists have gotten into the habit of releasing a steady trickle of material digitally, as soon as it's recorded. Radiohead have suggested they're thinking about doing the same, and the English band Ash recently announced that their new album will be their last recorded in a full-length format. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy told Spin earlier this year that he misses the "waiting for Christmas morning" anticipation that greeted old-fashioned release dates, "but at the same time, all the things people do to prevent [leaks] from happening just seem so counterproductive and just seem like so much wasted energy. I don't think bands should go out of their way to try and stop people from hearing their music."

There's a lyric from one of Tweedy's recent (and yes, leaked-months-before-release-and-no-they-didn't-mind) songs, "What Light," that puts it a different way:

If the whole world's singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone's from now on
And that's not wrong or right
But you can struggle with it all you like
You'll only get uptight.

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