History lesson time, kiddies: in 1971 a covert White House Special Investigations Unit was established called The White House Plumbers. Their sole responsibility was to prevent information classified by the Nixon Administration from leaking to the news media, hence the name (get it? Plugging leaks? Plumbers…no wonder that corrupt fuck was nailed.) Now, before you think I’m just padding my column here (because I am), there IS a point to this vaguely educational side note, and that is the fact that currently there are very few record labels that employ plumbers of their own and the result of this short-staffed situation is something we’re all familiar with: album leaks.
The concept is not entirely new…as long as there has been a music industry there has always been a noticeable span of time between when an album is completed and when it is released, just as there have always been disgruntled studio technicians, untrustworthy hangers-on and mischievous journalists who are trusted to hear copies of the album within this time and invariably share their privilege with others (sometimes many others.) However, before the advent of the internet, this phenomenon was relatively compact and entirely limited to the leakers’ ability to physically copy the album and give it to other people. However, recording technology has changed and the internet has advanced to levels that still surprise those of generations past. With albums recorded, produced, manufactured and in some cases distributed digitally, widespread album leaks are just an upload away.
The real question though, is what do album leaks actually mean for the industry? Are they harmless, or do they ultimately inflict more harm than good? For the sake of neutrality, I’m going to present both sides, but the answer really lies somewhere in the middle. From an industry standpoint (AKA from the standpoint of those whose livelihood depends on selling music) it’s really hard to create any kind of satisfactory build-up for a record that someone can go download two weeks, sometimes more, before it’s supposed to come out (which is around the time most album promotion cycles kick into high gear.) Of course there have been many protective measures put in place over the last few years to curb leaking (everything from digital watermarks that can be traced directly back to the leaker or digital rights management protection placed on the files themselves) and those who are found out are always made examples of (like that fool of a journalist who leaked the new Dillinger Four…ADMITTED IT PUBLICALLY…and got his ass blacklisted), the phenomenon really hasn’t slowed down. Now, the flipside to this is the fact that if someone really likes a band enough, they will probably still buy the record once it comes out and those who don’t like the band enough probably would still only download it even IF they actually had the option to pay for it. A recent study reported that 95% of all music downloaded off the internet is downloaded illegally. With numbers like that, does it really matter WHEN an album is downloaded? The only people who are buying music these days are the people who actually care enough to do so (or aren’t smart enough to know better…or have a conscience…one of the two) and all leaking does for THEM is let them enjoy the music sooner than they would have otherwise.
Honestly though, the only reason there’s a gap at all between the end of production and release is for tours, press coverage and record release parties, among other things, to be planned and implemented around the release…in other words, very little to do with the actual music itself. During their well attended record release in Boston this summer, Gaslight Anthem (www.myspace.com/thegaslightanthem) singer/guitarist Brian Fallon addressed the leak of the band’s now VERY well liked sophomore release The ’59 Sound a month and a half prior (an inevitability their management had made them aware of beforehand) by saying that so many people singing along, word for word, to songs that hadn’t technically been released yet made the whole thing worth it in the end (they subsequently went on to sell out most of the copies of the record they brought to the show that night, including the copy that sits on my shelf.) If people want to hear an album badly enough to break an admittedly flimsy law to do it, isn’t that what really matters? The demand is there, and it’s that demand that ultimately dictates album sales FAR more than any promotional endeavor ever could. Does it piss off a few industry execs? Probably. Does that really matter in the long run? I know what my answer is, but for the sake of covering my ass I’ll let you decide on your own (but here’s a hint: no, no it doesn’t.)