Protection Racket

Call it the “noise annoys” theory: In an effort to avoid the Napster-ized fate of new albums by Madonna, the Wallflowers, and Radiohead, music stars and their record companies are adding irritating sounds, lapses in volume, or outright statements of ownership to advance CDs sent out to industry insiders, radio programmers, and rock critics.

The labels argue that such low-tech means of keeping bootleggers at bay – Prince Paul used the sound of braying goats, De La Soul had the names and affiliations of journalists spoken aloud, Fatboy Slim utilized precisely timed drops in volume – yields music that is less appetizing to the millions who could download it from the dreaded San Mateo, California-based file-sharing service.

“You’ve got to create a deterrent so you don’t have an early version of an artist’s work ending up on Napster,” says Errol Kolosine, general manager of Astralwerks, home to Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, and Air. Kolosine hopes that journalists won’t be too peeved by the numerous drops in volume on each advance copy of Fatboy Slim’s upcoming album, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars – which, by the way, are noted by the minute and second at the Astralwerks office should they end up on Napster. “For the most part, we have a healthy relationship with journalists,” Kolosine muses, “but a few people think they’re smarter than everybody else.” He allows himself a crafty cackle. “We’ll show them that we can be just as devious as anyone else.”

For its recent release Art Official Intelligence on Tommy Boy, De La Soul devised an even more insidious plan aimed at smarty-pants scribes: personalized advance CDs with the repeated message “This is the property of …” The Orwellian measure was devised by the group after the bootlegging of both label-mate Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and their own Buhloone Mindstate – even though advance copies were marked with barnyard noises. “A lot less material ended up on the Net because of it,” says Tommy Boy marketing rep Ian Steaman. Critics’ reactions to hearing their own names repeated mantralike on a hip-hop CD were mixed. “Some people thought it was kind of funny, some were honored to have their name on the album, and some really bitched about it,” Steaman admits, adding that even Tommy Boy staff members received personalized copies: “A lot of times in the music industry you’ll have a situation where people are saying, ‘I’ll trade you the new De La Soul for the new Dr. Dre.’ “

Blak Shawn, an A&R rep at hip-hop label Rawkus, concurs with Steaman about the “inside” nature of leaks. “It could come from someone at the studio, or an assistant at a label might ‘lose’ a copy and it could end up in the wrong hands.” After music from rapper Big L’s posthumous debut appeared on Napster before its late-August release date, Blak Shawn had a long, phenomenally irritating message – “This is the property of Rawkus, Talib Kweli, D.J. Hi-Tek, and Reflection Eternal” – recorded on advance copies of rapper Talib Kweli’s upcoming album. He took further measures in a recent studio session with hip-hoppers Mos Def, Nate Dogg, and Pharoahe Monche: “I stood over the engineer and watched him dump the file into the trash on the computer.”

At least one act appears to be conceding the inevitability of bootlegging. The arty British rockers Radiohead scored lots of press for refusing to send out advance copies of their upcoming Kid A, out October 3 on Capitol Records. Instead, Capitol scheduled listening sessions at the IMAX theater and allowed journalists to hear the album on the Sony-developed Music Clip, a small, penlike device that is supposed to securely hold up to 120 minutes of music. Yet early last week, several tracks from Kid A were available for download on Napster, according to Radiohead spokesperson Steve Martin. “Someone I know compared it to Survivor,” he says ruefully. “So between us, Madonna, and the Wallflowers, I guess we won.”

Protection Racket