Miércoles 4 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nº 107

Song, Interrupted
Por Matthew McKinnon

Could this be the future of music? A world-famous band is creating a new opus. They labour for months, building toward the masterwork of their career. When recording ends each night, all copies of the new music are stored inside a safe protected by fingerprint locks, laser beams and a dog named Chompsky.

One fateful day, some shady security guard, label flack or studio rat “loses” — i.e., steals — a rare but spare copy of the band’s unfinished album. Only a few songs are finished to anyone’s satisfaction, none has been mastered. The copy slinks out the building’s back exit, as valuable things can do, and into the clutches of what Wired magazine calls the Shadow Internet, the great cabal of computer networks where contraband music, movies and videogames are traded. The band’s bootlegged, unfinished album is converted to MP3s and uploaded to a “topsite” — one of about 30 hidden, secure computer servers that form the starting point for most of the Shadow Net’s pirate material.

From there, the music spreads like a virus. Within days, desktop machines in every part of the planet find and download it. One copy multiplies to hundreds, thousands — maybe even millions. The band is discouraged; their label is apoplectic over the potential for thousands, possibly millions, of units in lost sales. Meanwhile, online message boards swell with speculation that the leak is deliberate, a sly promo move intended to energize the band’s fanbase.

Now the kicker: remove the overblown security, and this fiction is fact. And rather than the future, the scenario comes from the past: an unmastered copy of an unfinished version of Radiohead’s most recent record, Hail to the Thief, was stolen at least 10 weeks prior to its scheduled release in June 2003. The music leaked to the internet late that March, and quickly experienced high-digit downloads. (A familiar story for the band: their earlier albums Kid A and Amnesiac also leaked online before their street dates, despite strong efforts to control pre-release radio and media distribution.) Cease-and-desist orders from EMI (the parent company of Radiohead’s label, Parlophone Records) to the owners of several websites that hosted the stolen music did little to staunch the bleeding.

Thief’s online bootleg sounds muddy and uneven; some songs feel miles from completion. The Gloaming, for one, is 50 seconds longer than the laser-beam version that appears on the official release. Album producer Nigel Lawson reviewed the tracks and guessed they came from Thief’s first day of mixing. “We're all unhappy with the wrong mixes from the wrong songs being stuck up on the net,” bassist Colin Greenwood wrote on the band’s official online messageboard days after the leak. “All the attention is gratifying, but we want it when all our hard work's done and the best it can be. Until then, this is all just unhelpful noise. Wait until you see the final, real, finished album!!!!!”

Parlophone and EMI allowed Radiohead to continue working as planned. Given the band’s legions of rabid fans, their handlers decided that even if some downloaders liked the leak enough to skip purchasing the real thing, the breach was not a mortal wound to the project’s bottom line. Better to wait for Radiohead to do their best work than rush an undone record into stores.

The real Thief was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and released as scheduled - in spite of a second, later leak of a version that is closer to the final copy. The album sold 300,000 units during its first week on shelves, the biggest opening of the band’s career. (File-sharing’s overall impact on the music industry remains hotly contested. For every study that “proves” downloading is, or will be, the death of music sales, there is another that argues the opposite. Acts with dedicated followings — i.e, bands like Radiohead — seem to have no trouble maintaining sales expectations in the internet age.) A subsequent label investigation into the leak’s source reached no conclusion, or at least none revealed to the public. Radiohead is currently recording new music, presumably guarded by a whole pack of Chompskys.

During this young century, internet leaks have become a way of the walk for musicians and their labels. A diverse array of artists from rap kingpin 50 Cent to riot-grrl icons Sleater-Kinney have already experienced leaks in 2005; an unmixed version of Beck’s just-released Guero album has been available online for weeks. As you read this, most of next week’s new releases are already lurking in the net’s deepest corners, free for the taking by downloaders who know the right places to hunt.

The majority of leaks happen to completed works in the days or weeks before their scheduled street dates, for the obvious reason that it is harder to steal one of a few copies from a recording studio than one of a million CDs from a pressing plant. (The latter is thought to be how Eminem’s The Eminem Show and Jay-Z’s The Black Album were leaked in 2002 and 2003, respectively.) Other leaks spring from advance CDs given to critics, radio stations and other outlets (U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb leaked after a promo CD went AWOL from a French photo shoot), though labels often try to discourage that practice by inserting repetitive overdubs that become more noticeable and annoying with every listening — “This is a promotional copy of the new album by...”

“[Because of internet leaks,] artists don’t have control of their own music anymore,” says Eric Alper, director of media relations for the Canadian division of Koch Entertainment, a music and video distributor that works with a robust stable of independent labels. “There is a lot of material to be honed and worked on — and some of it is very, very bad. There is a reason why artists don’t want people to hear it.”

An early leak of Thief’s kind happened in 2000, when fragments of the unfinished title track from Madonna’s Music appeared on the original, nasty Napster. (The reborn, current Napster is above-board and label-affiliated.) “This music was stolen and was not intended for release for several months. It is still a work in progress. Ultimately those sites that offered a download of Madonna’s music are violating her rights as an artist,” Madge’s American manager said at the time.

The situation has snowballed since. Musicians now take extreme security measures to protect their rough drafts: while making last year’s Encore, Eminem insisted that each day’s work be copied to a single disc, to be kept exclusively in his care. Once finished, the album leaked anyway; the rapper’s label, Interscope, advanced its release three days ahead of schedule to counter online demand for the leaked version.

Some thefts are more dramatic than others. Last spring, someone calling himself ImRickJamesB---- posted links to an unfinished version of rapper Talib Kweli’s album The Beautiful Struggle on the message boards at Okayplayer.com, a heavily trafficked hip-hop site. Kweli, incensed, typed a response: “You know what, I’m a fan of hip-hop too. If I had a chance to get a hold of one of my favourite artists CDs early, I would jump at it. So if some a------ from a recording studio leaks my unfinished, unmixed and uneven album, consider it a personal triumph. Play it for your friends, and if you like it, buy the version I want you to have....

“But once you put [my music] on a website and encourage people to download it, you become the bigger a------. You are not respecting my artistic process and worse, you are taking food out of my children’s mouth[s].”

The episode might have ended there, but ImRickJamesB---- chose to post back. “I appreciate your announcement and definitely see some of your points,” he wrote. “But I think your anger should be directed toward the n---- who stole your s--- out the studio.” His callous response kicked off months of debate involving dozens of Okayplayer users: “Fans who download are not stealing money from Talib’s children... they are keeping him relevant;” “BE REAL. If you’re a true Talib Kweli fan you will take your ass to the store on the release date and purchase.”

Kweli revisited the topic with Vibe after Struggle debuted to disappointing sales. “Once I present [my music], you steal what you want to steal, the karma’s on you, it’s not for me to decide,” he told the magazine, before admitting he’d felt forced to approach freelancers to purchase new backing beats to avoid repeating the music heard on the leak.

But as leak attempts become more common and/or aggressive — and really, there is no sign of a letdown on any horizon — expect them to encourage a fundamental change in the way artists make music, and how labels promote it. With constant worry of studio piracy, there will be fewer stories about tortured artists locked inside studios for weeks on end, repeating a single vocal or guitar lick until their music feels exactly perfect. Time is at a premium because studio sessions are costly, but future projects will have the added motivation of getting the music made before it goes missing.

Labels, already accustomed to having their expensive, well-choreographed marketing campaigns compromised by leaks, have begun “watermarking” advance album copies, giving each CD a unique digital signature that (theoretically) allows them to trace leaks to their sources. They are also paying companies like California’s Macrovision tens of thousands of dollars to flood the Shadow Net with bogus versions of their artists’ songs if and when breaches are detected, thus making stolen copies harder to find.

“Promotional campaigns are set up months in advance,” Koch’s Alper says. “To have a song or an album leaked completely throws everything out of the loop. We have to play catch-up very quickly.”

If we can get back to daydreaming about Radiohead, let’s imagine the following scenario: later this year or next, the album the band is recording now is stolen and leaked online just like Thief. The new bootleg sounds better than the last, to the point that EMI develops real concern that not enough fans will buy the final version. Label brass shut down recording; Radiohead’s works in progress are quickly mastered and judged ready for release, to the band’s dismay.

Later, after the sub-par album has been dissed by the press and questioned by fans, Radiohead re-enters the studio — possibly at their personal expense — to pick up where they left off. Weeks or months later, a second version of their album reaches stores. This is the record that the band hoped to make, packaged as music’s version of the Hollywood director’s cut. Radiohead’s base welcomes the “remix” with open, grateful ears.

Now re-imagine the same set-up with any act less successful (i.e., wealthy) than Radiohead. Ask yourself where the money for re-recording will come from — and how you will feel about living in a world filled with unfinished symphonies.

  12/04/2005. CBC.ca.