April 3, 2003

End the Trend

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A month or so ago, upon waking up one weekend morning, I heard the strikingly familiar garage blues blend of pounding drum lines and lashing guitar rattling my roommate’s door at its hinges. It was a rather usual occurrence to hear much of The White Stripes catalog blasting from either of my roommates’ stereos, but this time, there was something different. I stopped in my tracks to listen; why couldn’t I make out the song? Once the guitar and drum ruckus gave way to a single bass lick, I thought I had to be hearing things or maybe it was just that I was still dreaming. Then it hit me, could this be the unreleased White Stripes album? I jumped over to the door and before I could even ask, my friend turned to me with a devilishly content grin, “new White Stripes!” he exclaimed as he pumped his fist in the air.

It was unbelievable. I didn’t know whether to run back into my room to protect my ears from experiencing an album I wasn’t sure I was ready for or to satisfy the curiosity tearing me apart by delving into the pirated release. But before I acted out either extreme, I couldn’t resist asking “how’d you get it?” My roommate’s obvious reply: “Soul Seek.”

With the prevalence of peer-to-peer file sharing, an increasing number of new albums are leaked months before their scheduled release dates to the delight of some and contempt of others. While some fans eagerly scour P2P networks for leaked albums often ripped with poor MP3 quality, others insistently prefer to hold off for the original artifact complete with art work and liner notes. Unlike downloaders, artists seem to be more united in their opposition to leaked albums, as they feel betrayed when their work, possibly unfinished, suffers from a premature release. To complicate the situation, there is no easy way to plug the holes through which new releases are leaked, especially when tapes are often swiped from the recording studio or media promotional copies are ripped onto a hard drive. Yet for all of this mess, there is no conclusive evidence that a leaked album actually hurts the artist in the long run.

Artists and record companies alike generally stomp their feet and whine when an album becomes widely circulated before its actual release, even moving up its street date in response. For instance, Eminem’s latest hit the internet weeks before its release, and it became a matter of pride for Slim Shady aficcionados to blast the album’s single, “Without Me” from their collective sub woofers before anyone else could. Despite Interscope’s effort to tinker with new “copy-proof” technology on the The Eminem Show CD, MP3s flooded P2P networks. Even as Eminem and Interscope made public announcements denouncing the leak and MP3 trading at large, The Eminem Show achieved overwhelming commercial success, selling 2.4 million in the first two weeks after its release and winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album of 2003. For all of the supposed “leak” controversy, the album sold none too shabbily.

In fact, most albums nowadays reach many listeners before they actually hit the stores. Fueled by the insatiable curiosity of music fans to hear the latest work from their favorite artists, the demand for pre-released bootlegs only increases with time. In contrast to the negative light record companies and artists tend to shine on such pirating, these very “leaked albums” stoke the desire to hear the new music and initiate a storm of publicity for the upcoming release. After all, there are many who will still wait to purchase the album in stores for their first listen, and moreover, if the album is that good, many others who already have downloaded it, might very well jaunt over to their local record shop for the real deal. The publicity and attention given to leaked albums in the end seems to benefit artists and listeners alike. Though it remains to be seen in The White Stripes’ case how well their album released this past Tuesday will sell in spite of its early availability online.

This is not to say, however, that artists are content with their albums making their way onto the Internet weeks before the actual release. Most recently, the forthcoming and much-anticipated Radiohead album Hail to the Theif leaked online early this week, as reported on the band’s web site and a number of music magazines. Due out June 10, Hail to Thief is reportedly neither in CD format yet nor have any advance copies of tapes been sent out, which points to a leak within the recording studio itself. Much to the chagrin of Radiohead and