Has free music become a listener's birthright?
A sub Pop Records employee casually surfing various Internet music blogs last June came across it on a Radiohead fan site notorious for...
Seattle Times staff reporter
A Sub Pop Records employee casually surfing various Internet music blogs last June came across it on a Radiohead fan site notorious for this kind of thing — an unauthorized free download of the entire Iron & Wine record "The Shepherd's Dog," which the label had scheduled for official release three months later.
For the Seattle-based label, the question never was whether the album would leak — anticipated releases pretty much all do these days. It was a matter of when.
Sub Pop execs figured maybe a month or month-and-a-half prior to the release date, which was last Tuesday.
"Already?" Iron & Wine's manager reacted when told of the leak. "This soon?"
In early summer, advance CDs of "The Shepherd's Dog" had been sent to the music press for review. Sub Pop traced the leak to a reputable Nashville music magazine. Its CD had been uploaded to a common server in the office and somebody grabbed the digital file, which eventually found its way onto the Internet, said Stuart Meyer, Sub Pop's manager of A&R (artists and repertoire).
The recording industry is in a funk, dealing with sorely lagging sales and a generation of young consumers who consider free music their birthright. Now, it also must deal with the economics of new records getting leaked prematurely on the Internet.
Labels can fight the unauthorized release of their music as they have in the past with nasty court battles that tarnished the industry's reputation. Or they can go with the flow, staying one step ahead of the leakers. Common sense suggests that album leaks can benefit both the label and the artist by providing exposure to the music, building good buzz for an upcoming release (assuming it doesn't suck).
Hipster labels, such as Sub Pop, must tread cautiously. If they come down too forcefully against illegal downloading — and the music fans who do it — they could be seen as corporate money grubbers and lose the "indie cred" they depend on for their sustenance.
Album piracy dates back to the days of Napster, a file-sharing service where users uploaded their favorite music so that others could enjoy it, too. The recording industry sued Napster and some of its users for copyright infringement, prevailing in a settlement that led Napster to reorganize.
While Napster no longer is part of the album leak underground, it spawned other sites where users can download digital music files. Internet music blogs and forums — such as the Radiohead Web board where "The Shepherd's Dog" was leaked — serve as clearinghouses for leaks by either posting pirated mp3 files or links to file-sharing sites where they can be snagged.
When Sub Pop got wind of the Iron & Wine leak, it contacted the offending blogs and Web sites to remove the link, which they did.
But had damage to the future sales of "The Shepherd's Dog" already been done?
Meyer doesn't think so.
The Shins' "Wincing the Night Away" also leaked online three months before Sub Pop officially released it in January 2007. Yet it sold 120,000 units in the first week — a huge number for an indie release.
Trying to stop leaks
The industry has spent a lot of time and money coming up with ways to plug leaks, such as:
• Encrypting advance CDs with watermarks so sources of leaks can be traced.
• Limiting drastically the distribution of advance CDs to the most trusted of sources.
• Making new records available in advance only as digital streams (the equivalent of listening to a song on the radio), which are nearly impossible to download.
• Shortening the time between the distribution of advance music and record release dates. Sub Pop sent out a limited number of advance CDs for Band of Horses' Oct. 9 release "Cease to Begin," all of them watermarked. Most of the music press has received a link to a password-protected Web site, where Sub Pop is streaming the new record.
When the new Iron & Wine leaked in June, Seattle's KEXP-FM played tracks off the illegally downloaded digital file until Sub Pop told them to quit.
"When a record like that is out there, there is a certain demand that we should be playing it, particularly a station like ours," said Don Yates, KEXP music director. "Listener expectation is just getting stronger and stronger."
Some labels are responding to leaks by adding trimmings to a CD when it ultimately is released, such as special packaging or a bonus disc, in hopes of boosting sales.
Labels also are making free downloads of unreleased music available to fans.
On its Web site, Sub Pop routinely posts a free mp3 track for every one of its releases prior to the record coming out. It also authorizes distribution of that unreleased track through podcasts, such as KEXP's "Song of the Day."
In a few cases, Sub Pop has streamed an entire album on its Web site — "kind of beating people to the leak," Meyer said.
"I think that's really a good thing to do. The way people think now is: 'If a journalist can hear the whole record before it's released, why can't I as a fan hear it?' "
Justifying their ethics
Music fans who download unauthorized album leaks defend their actions, even when the music they are downloading is of an artist they like and want to support.
"I have justified it by going to live shows when the band is in town," said Dan Murphy, a 30-year-old student from Seattle. "More money goes directly to the artist that way, where they maybe get $1 for any record sale. But it's still wrong. It's still stealing."
Throw something that's free in front of people, and it's like obsessive-compulsive disorder — they have to download it, said James Kirchmer, a 37-year-old Seattleite with a professional background in the local music scene.
"They don't even know what they're downloading half the time," he said.
Kirchmer said he has no ethical problem downloading album leaks because he believes the sound quality of the mp3 format is poor and a digital file has negligible value. He said his motivation is based on curiosity.
He recently downloaded a poor-quality mp3 leak of an upcoming Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album but had not yet found time to listen to it.
"Downloading really is a hassle," he said. "It takes up space on my computer. I'm downloading music just to check it out. If given the option to listen to a stream, I'd do that.
"So what does that tell you? Am I stealing stuff? No. I just want to listen to the music, basically."
Reactions vary among musicians whose music is leaked.
When The Shins' James Mercer heard that his band's album leaked months in advance, his first question was whether those who illegally downloaded it liked it, Meyer said.
Chris Martin, guitarist for the Seattle-based instrumental avant-rock band Kinski, said a bandmate discovered a leak of their new album, "Down Below It's Chaos," about a month before Sub Pop officially released it Aug. 21.
"As far as our band is concerned, we don't really care that much," Martin said. "I think if you're really into the band and into the record, you're still going to want to buy the CD or vinyl for the sound quality."
The records likely to be hurt by leaks are those getting negative buzz, he said.
"If the record stinks, people are going to hear it and say, 'I'm not going to buy that,' " Martin said. "For good records, though, they could get a higher profile."
Matt Herrebout, a photographer and Web designer who edits the Northwest Music Blog, said bands often contact him asking to be featured on his site.
"I say to them, 'Give me good content and put it in the form of an mp3,' " he said. "Streams just don't cut it. Bands starting out often don't want to give up the goods but they should because nothing is better to promote a band than its music.
"You're not going to get noticed if you hold back and are paranoid about your work."
Will remove it
Elbows (www.elbo.ws), a compiler of music blog posts and a popular repository to search for leaked music, has a breathless yet tortured justification on its FAQ for artists and labels that don't want their songs linked to or from the site:
"Although Elbows is only meant to give our users a taste of something different so that they can discover new artists, buy their albums, tell their friends, go to their shows and make them pretty darn popular with little or no effort or budget on the part of the artist or label, we understand that there may be some legal issues with the tracks listed on the site. E-mail us ... and we will have it removed as soon as possible."
Scott Lapatine, who founded the music blog Stereogum.com in 2003, recalls the carefree days when bloggers didn't bother obtaining permission for the digital music files they posted. Now that Stereogum is viewed as legitimately as Rolling Stone or Spin in influencing musical tastes, it has ceased posting album leaks and other unauthorized music files.
Instead of hiding from the labels, Lapatine spends time negotiating with them to post exclusive, unreleased tracks on Stereogum before any other press gets them.
"Once the promo [advance CD] goes out to everyone, it's going to leak, and once it leaks, in my readers' minds, it's old news," said Lapatine, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
In effect, Lapatine is persuading the labels to beat unauthorized leakers to the punch by leaking with Stereogum first.
Getting exclusive content is key for Stereogum because competition is intense, especially against music blogs that disregard copyrights and insist on posting illegal downloads.
Stereogum does acknowledge unauthorized album leaks, however. A new feature on the site, "Premature Evaluation," reviews leaked records without posting the pirated files or links to the music.
"It's out there," Lapatine said. "So we have to discuss it."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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