The result is that once an album hits stores, it is impossible to keep it from being uploaded into this system. But keeping an album under wraps when only a few hundred carefully guarded copies exist remains within the tantalizing realm of possibility. The record companies are convinced that the longer they keep the music offline, the more sales can be preserved. According to Ben Goldberg, owner of the independent label Ba Da Bing, “Every day that a record doesn’t leak is another day that benefits the sales of the record.” A source who works in the legal department of a major label describes the rationale for the war on leaks this way: “It’s a moment in time when the tidal wave hasn’t gotten so big that you can’t push it back. Eventually, it will swamp the dike. But it gives you a little bit of time.”
As the number of people downloading has increased exponentially over the past few years, however, so has the number of leaks. In the fall of 2006, Portland, Oregon–based mega–indie band the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away and Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City hit the Web a full three months early. Between May and August 2007, popular indie rockers Spoon saw Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga leak almost two months early, and the White Stripes’ Icky Thump leaked three weeks early. Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight hit the Web almost two weeks before it hit stores, as did Kanye West’s Graduation. Last January, Atlantic served Cocoamusic.blogspot.com with a cease-and-desist letter after material from A Weekend in the City appeared on the site. According to a former employee of Vice Records, Bloc Party’s label, the album was leaked by an employee at V2 in London who had grabbed a version from the garbage and shared it with friends.
Music-industry insiders say the leaks have a profound—even terrifying—impact not only on album sales but also on artists’ careers and livelihoods. “The problem with leaks is that people don’t necessarily know what they are hearing—if it’s the entire album, finished tracks, etc.,” says Vice label manager Adam Shore. “There’s incredible rush to judgment. People grab an album, listen to it one time, and they immediately want to post about it. That sets a tone for people who haven’t heard it yet.” In the case of the Bloc Party leak, Shore says, “the band saw the album as a concept—it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They recorded almost triple the amount of songs that made it on the record, and selected how they wanted to tell the story. When the rug got pulled out from under them, they just felt like they didn’t have control over what they were doing anymore.” A cottage industry of unpaid “MP3 bloggers” have sprung up samizdat style around these leaks, their sole purpose being to opine (and sometimes post tracks themselves) before anyone else, often months before an artist considers a song ready for release.
In an attempt to reduce their risk, major labels “watermark” advance CDs with digital codes specific to their recipient. They employ people and autonomous Web-crawling software to spot leaks, working with the RIAA and handing leakers to the FBI. The fighting has spilled onto listservs that simmer with anti-leak screeds and threats to destroy the livelihoods of anyone who dares share music before its appointed time. “Name and shame!” cried out a member on Mishpucha, a popular music listserv. “Post their name on Pitchfork in big bold letters!” said another, referring to the popular online music publication. And then, of course, someone pointed out the obvious: “What seems to get lost is that a majority of these leaks are coming from people who are supposed to be on our side.”
I know more than your average music fan about record labels and how leaks can hurt them. My ex-boyfriend is the aforementioned Ben Goldberg, the owner of Ba Da Bing. This fall, he planned to release The Flying Club Cup, the second album by Beirut, a well-received indie band. Goldberg began preparations for the album’s release in May. He hired two publicists to promote the record, something his tiny, two-person operation had never done before. They sent out 350 advance copies, each watermarked, to music journalists, tastemakers, distribution hubs, and friends. On August 26, a full six weeks before the record was to hit stores, it hit the Internet instead.
The girlfriend of Zach Condon, Beirut’s front man, broke the news to Goldberg after she saw it popping up on blogs. He told the watermarking company, and within an hour, they had traced it to Erik Davis, a prominent San Francisco–based freelance writer. When Goldberg found out, he sent Davis the following e-mail:
“Your copy of the Beirut record was the source of the leak yesterday. We will be sure to spread the good word to every publicist we know (and some we don’t) that your CD was the cause of this. Thanks!”