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Ripped to Shreds

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Goldberg waited a day but heard nothing back. So he e-mailed again, threatening to “kill a few birds at once tomorrow” by posting on PR lists. Which, on August 30, he did, blasting Mishpucha and PR Listserv with this message:

“I’ve been wondering why people aren’t more vocal about who actually leak CDs early … the way I see it, the following information is quite useful for people on this list who send out advances on records that they are hoping does not get uploaded to the BT sites. Last Sunday, the watermarked CD of the upcoming Beirut album which belonged to Erik Davis—ahem, that would be ERIK DAVIS … E-R-I-K (space) D-A-V-I-S— … who writes for Arthur, Blender and Spin, amongst others, was leaked onto the Internet and is now easy to find and download six weeks before release date. Attempts to reach him for comment have proven futile. Just the facts.”

The response was immediate, and confused. One publicist outed a writer who had purportedly leaked a new album by the band Pinback, only to admit in another post that the watermarking system “has a large margin for error on all sides. Each CD,” she explained, “is personalized and sheets of stickers with corresponding names are printed out, then manually adhered to seal the CD shut. Mailing labels are then printed and the CDs (hopefully) get matched up with the correct label. Add unpaid interns to any part of this system and you are almost guaranteed a fuckup somewhere along the line.”

“If you were a studio guy making $10.50 an hour, and you had the new Eminem album, and someone was offering you money for it, what would you do?”

A producer at MTV News piped up in defense of Davis. “It’s not that clear-cut. I regularly receive watermarked copies from labels that aren’t even in my name.” And then one person asked the obvious question: “Surely if Mr. Davis … had not actually leaked the album about which [he is] being outed, [he] would have responded with the explanation?”

Where was Erik Davis while his reputation as a respected music critic and journalist was being trashed? Offline, it turns out, rambling around the Black Rock Desert in a fire truck, celebrating that autumnal rite-of-passage known as Burning Man. Davis returned home a week later to find his e-mail box jammed with Goldberg’s condemnations and messages from reporters. “I had no idea what was going on,” he says. “I [went] through my piles of CDs and was like, Shit, shit, I can’t find it! Then I remembered that I had taken a big load of media, mags, books, crap, to a local thrift store about two weeks before Burning Man.”

Two months before the Beirut uproar, three tracks from the Brooklyn-based experimental-folk band Animal Collective’s new album, Strawberry Jam, leaked. The tracks were encoded with the name of a 28-year-old man I’ll call Drew, who I approached in the hope he might help me understand how The Flying Club Cup met the same fate. When I asked about Strawberry Jam, Drew vehemently denied leaking it, though he confessed to being a regular user of the BitTorrent sites. “I’m music-obsessed. I go record shopping weekly and probably spend $200 on vinyl alone,” he said, like a junkie justifying a habit. He’s been downloading music since 1997, the pre-Napster era. “We’re the first generation to have access to this huge catalogue. It makes you a bigger fan.”

When he worked at a college radio station, Drew was part of a so-called ripping crew—secretive, organized groups who put prereleased material on parts of the Internet called “darknets.” Crew members, he told me, are not just gangs of teenagers and self-styled renegades. In fact, many rippers are music-industry professionals who know where to get the goods. Some work in recording studios, others in CD- and record-pressing plants. Others are college-radio kids and music journalists who get free advance music in the mail. Like graffiti artists staking their urban turf, these crews “tag” the music they upload with their initials, getting props from fellow crews and credit to trade for pirated digital goods. For ripping crews, the most critical factor, beyond uploading a CD-quality release, is being the first to do so. Once a “scene approved” release is out on the Web, the game is over, and it’s on to the next album.

Drew claimed he’s no longer an active member of any ripping crews. So to understand how these crews work now, he referred me to Spitler (not his real name), a man who founded his own ripping crew nearly a decade ago. To find him, Drew said, I had to go to Toronto. The day before I left, Drew called me. “Be careful,” he said of his friend Spitler. “I’ve never actually met the guy.”


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