Ripped to Shreds

Prop styling by Jared Lawton.Photo: Mitchell Feinberg

One day last fall, several hundred thousand music fans were confronted with a harsh new reality. OiNK, an exclusive, members-only file-sharing community, had been shut down, its servers confiscated; Alan Ellis, the 24-year-old mastermind behind the operation, had been arrested. Once a premier outlet for free music, OiNK—with its iconic, headphones-wearing pink pig—had been active for over three years. But that day, OiNK users who went to the site to get their daily music fix were greeted with this message:

“This site has been closed as a result of a criminal investigation by the [International Federation of the Phonographic Industry], the [British Phonographic Industry], Cleveland Police and the Fiscal Investigation Unit of the Dutch Police (FIOD ECD) into suspected illegal music distribution.”

And, more chillingly:

“A criminal investigation continues into the identities and activities of the site’s users.”

You had to be invited to join OiNK, but once a member, you could, at the click of a button, access an incredible array of free music. It was the greatest record store of all time, filled with not-yet-released albums, obscure live performances, the rarest of B-sides, and a fabulous bonus—everything was free.

Getting cut off from these riches was more than some OiNK members could bear. Anger, tears, and recriminations poured out. “OiNK is Gone, oh God! Please, Please Please, Please, Please Come Back!” posted one devastated user on a bulletin board. Another wrote, “I miss OiNK more than anything in the world now.” Former OiNKers organized an online fund-raiser for Ellis’s legal fees.

The OiNK bust was the flashy culmination of a two-year investigation by Interpol, the BPI, and the IFPI, no doubt inspired by the increasingly harsh battle being waged by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against music piracy in the States. OiNK had over 180,000 members, but as one file-sharer points out, it’s “just the surface. It might be 0.001 percent of the file-sharing community.” Indeed, public music-sharing sites like the Pirate Bay and Soulseek are open to anyone with the slightest bit of technical know-how. Others sites such as Waffles, OiNK’s heir apparent, are invite-only, with much stricter rules regarding what types of files get traded and who gets to trade them.

What made OiNK such a rich target? According to IFPI, the site helped facilitate the spread of new music that record companies had not yet officially released—tunes that had been pirated from recording studios or, more commonly, distributed as advance material to retailers, radio stations, and journalists. Record labels consider the spread of unreleased music to be the most damaging of all file-sharing because it effectively renders every new record out of date and cuts into one of their most significant streams of revenue—sales in the first few days after an album comes out. By attacking OiNK, the music industry has indicated where it will dig its trenches and fight for its life. The strategy makes a certain amount of sense, until you consider the ramifications. A war on leaks forces the industry to investigate the relatively few people who have access to a recording before it’s released—pressing-plant employees, label interns, publicists, music journalists, even record executives. The industry, in other words, has to investigate itself. And what it will discover is that some of the major culprits in this crime are the very same people the crime threatens most—those who work in or profit from the music industry. File swapping is, to a remarkable degree, self-sabotage.

Words can hardly convey the dread that has overtaken the record business as it watches the number of file-sharers skyrocket. Nielsen SoundScan has tracked a 45.8 percent increase in legal download sales in the U.S. over the past year—and according to BPI, for every digital track that is paid for, twenty are downloaded illegally for free. Domestic sales of physical CDs, meanwhile, plummeted 18.9 percent over this past year alone.

Figures like these have set off a wave of layoffs and consolidation throughout the music industry. As the record companies buckle under an avalanche of new sites, their counterattacks against these sites can sometimes seem arbitrary, if not clueless. Consider, for example, Capitol Records’ efforts in the fall to help convince a federal jury to fine Jammie Thomas, a 30-year-old Minnesota woman, $222,000 for sharing 24 songs.

File-sharing technology changes so rapidly that the record industry all but acknowledges that it has little hope of controlling it. Although MP3-downloading sites have been around for at least a decade, OiNK had used a newer technology called BitTorrent to move files around the Web much faster than Napster ever did. The way BitTorrent works is also what makes it so difficult to track: Instead of individual files being shared from one user to another, bits of information spread out over a large network are pulled from many users simultaneously. Copyright cops can temporarily interrupt the flow of communication, but as one network dies, others spring up.

Bloc Party (top) and Animal Collective (bottom) both watched as their new albums leaked online weeks, and sometimes months, before their official release.Photo: Jennifer Maler/Retna (Bloc Party); Jim Cooper/AP (Animal Collective)

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 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!”

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.”

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.”

Ripped to Shreds