From the deep, deliberate voice from our few phone calls, I anticipated someone older, heavier … weirder. But when Spitler opened the door, I was surprised to see a normal-looking man in his late-twenties, some youthful chub still filling out the corners of his face, wearing a Blue Jays baseball jersey and khakis. He bid me inside.
Spitler’s abode was hardly the high-tech beehive I expected. It’s an average cookie-cutter apartment: beige walls, an empty kitchen, and crates of records and CDs scattered randomly on the dusty floor. Two books—one by Heidegger, the other Martin Buber—were held upright on a bookshelf by what looked like a real human skull. An FHM calendar, dated October 2006, hung on the wall. Spitler sat on a couch and lit a cigarette, eyeing me closely. “People said don’t talk to her, don’t snitch.” He paused. “I’ve seen people’s families ruined over this. In Canada, it’s a lot different. But in the U.S., one second they’re talking to you, the next the Feds are showing up at your door. If I was extradited to the States, I could probably go to jail for the things I’ve done.”
After I assured him I’m not a Fed, Spitler gave me a virtual tour of how leaks work in the scene. “These are very, very, very organized groups,” he said. “We’re talking about a worldwide organization.” The organization is hierarchical but decentralized; members don’t know the other members except by their online handles. And they’ve infiltrated the industry at all levels. Spitler described a mainstream hip-hop artist he insists remain nameless. “His new album was ripped by a guy who was working on the label’s Website,” he said. Another example: “I heard a member of one ripping crew was dating the daughter of the president of some label—that’s how he was scoring advances.” It didn’t sound like he had had trouble finding crew members. “If you were a studio guy making $10.50 an hour,” he asked me, “and you had the new Eminem album, and someone was offering you money for it, what would you do?”
Spitler didn’t start in the music business. “We were a core group of music lovers who took the time to seek out great music,” he explained. But the more his crew grew in size and influence, the more Spitler became indistinguishable from the industry he was feeding off of. He even went so far as to launch his own online music magazine, and labels sent him promos—which his crew immediately disseminated over the Web. To Spitler, ripping crews help bands as well as fans. “We promoted great artists, helped get them signed,” he claimed. At the time, record companies believed “they could push out crap music by a crap artist, based off a hit single.” In other words, he was like Robin Hood, taking music from the rich and sharing it with the world.
Last winter, before OiNK was shut down, I chatted with its leader Alan Ellis, who also argued that file-sharing is a net positive for the music industry. “I can see that a site like this doesn’t do much for sales for the massive artists,” he conceded. “But, really, they don’t need the money anyway. Whereas the smaller artists who are getting no exposure—I can’t even find music from artists I listen to online, let alone shops—get so much more on the Internet.” In an interview with the Telegraph after his arrest, he maintained his innocence. “I don’t sell music to people,” he pointed out. “I just direct them to it.”
Record labels would certainly disagree with Spitler and Ellis, who see little moral difference between those who sell music for a living and those who share it online. But it’s clear that even those whose careers depend on plugging leaks participate in spreading them. They just can’t help themselves. One label employee estimated that 90 percent of his friends in the industry download unauthorized music (which, it should be stated, is less controversial than uploading, but collaboration nonetheless). I spoke to a label owner who has liquidated almost half his CD collection. “I’ve downloaded music, yes,” he says. “It’s like masturbation—technology is at a point where you can’t prevent people from doing something they can easily do. That’s demanding too much of human nature.”
Ben Lebovitz, another OiNK enthusiast and former record-label partner, concurs. “The music industry has to change,” he says. “I might spend a dollar on a used copy of R.E.M.’s Murmur,” he said before OiNK’s demise, “but then again, why do that when I can get it off OiNK for free?”
Following the trail of the Beirut leak, I contacted an OiNK member called “Eggsby,” asking where he—or she—got the album. “From a music-journalist friend,” Eggsby replied before refusing to answer more questions. I also asked Spitler to trace it. After nabbing the album from one of the many private FTP sites he can access, he e-mailed back. “The name of the crew is [redacted], and they released a [CD-quality version] on October 1. Beyond that, I really have never heard of these guys before, so I wouldn’t be able to give you a lot of data on them.” Given that this leak was posted to the Web more than a month after an inferior-quality release was spotted by Goldberg, it’s clear that more than one party was responsible for spreading Beirut’s music.
Erik Davis insists that he is innocent. Is he telling the truth? Does it even matter? It is increasingly difficult for the music industry to wage its war against leaks without risking a lot of collateral damage, if not self-destruction. Leakers are everywhere. Rooting them out is difficult and costly and can divert energy from finding more creative solutions to the problem. Like, for example, the model Radiohead pursued this year: After a failed attempt by front man Thom Yorke’s record label to strong-arm OiNK into removing his solo album from the site, the band changed strategies, inviting fans to pay whatever they wished to download their new record, In Rainbows, or drop $80 for a lushly packaged, high-fidelity physical album. One estimate puts their first-month online sales as high as $2.74 million.
Other bands, such as Oasis and Jamiroquai, are rumored to be considering similar models. But on the whole, musicians with upcoming releases are steeling themselves for the likely possibility that their albums will be leaked, no matter how aggressively their record labels crack down on file-sharing. The music industry’s panic is understandable, but the outcry seems especially absurd when one considers how deeply its members are implicated. Most of the people interviewed for this article downloaded unauthorized music—even Ben Goldberg, who feels that having immediate access to new albums helps him do his job better. “There’s definitely some hypocrisy. I think everyone can come up with their own justification,” he says, of unauthorized downloads. “Mine is, I’m in the music industry.”