Label Fat Cats Setting Out the Rat Traps? (3.1.08)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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The Promo CD Watermark Controversy

The record industry has spent the last few years slowly waking up from a haze to find themselves in a position like that of the prep school castaways in Lord of the Flies. Their ride gone and their old rules receding into the shadows of their memory, blind social Darwinism is taking hold and they’re turning their spears inwards. The latest target is the music critic.

While not card-carrying members of record labels’ machine, music critics have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the industry. They help to shape the minds of the public, reinvent the meaning and context of music and serve as sort of reverse cultural anthropologist, digging through dirt for clues about what’s to come. Their generally meager careers have come to depend, for better or worse, on industry hand-outs and generous publicists who hope for a little ink to be spilled on their behalf.

But the industry’s patience for reviewers is wearing thin. In a much publicized case last summer, Ba Da Bing Records tracked down the culprit of a six-week-early leak of Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup within an hour of the discovering the leak on a file-sharing service. Ba Da Bing had stamped every one of its 350 promo copies of the album with a digital watermark — an embedded device that identifies the intended recipient of each CD that stays with the files once they’ve been ripped and begin floating freely across the internet. In this case, the original recipient — Erik Davis, who it turns out had gotten rid of the CD and was actually frolicking about unwittingly at Burning Man at the time it was uploaded — was immediately sent a pissed-off note from Ba Da Bing’s president Ben Goldberg, who also fired off emails to all his publicist and label friends to warn them about Davis’ apparent criminality.

Davis wasn’t the only one. Aaron Banhart of TV Barn was erroneously tracked down recently by Universal for supposedly leaking Ken Burns’ The War soundtrack (the copy in his possession had been marked for The Wall Street Journal, though). Another writer was tracked down for leaking the last Animal Collective album, got perp-walked across the internet and forced to write an apology letter to the entire staff of Domino Records.

Let’s face it — it’s hard times for both record labels and rock journalists. Every music magazine under the sun has been stuffing their free space with sky-is-falling stories and it’s no news that CD sales are sunk. But why throw away the conch shell, guys? CMJ VP of Content Rev. Moose says the labels are jumping at shadows. “There have always been fears of leaks,” he says. “At major labels, it’s always been the case that the music will probably have passed through the hands of a hundred people before it even goes to the record plant.”

“I think what’s wrong about these actions is the idea that anyone’s putting this stuff online maliciously,” says Moose. “A lot of times it’s a matter of utility and mobility. I have this CD here that is completely unrippable, so that means that I have to sit at my desk and listen to it with the phone ringing and the construction noise and all kinds distractions.” Moose differentiates current file-sharing practices, which offer no monetary gain, with older criminal offenses that writers could really profit from, like selling advances to bootlegging plants and, to a lesser extent, dropping off stacks of CDs at used record stores.

From musicians, though, the internet is playing the great leveler. Many have pushed their own releases onto the web earlier than ever for all kinds of reasons. “Bands are doing this for a variety of short-term gains at the expense of the traditional long-lead kind of publicity and album sales goals.” Leaks can help with publicity before tours, artistic freedom (not being married to material throughout a lengthy PR campaign) or just to express their independence. In Animal Collective’s response to their label’s aggressive pursuit of the rat in their PR machine, the group’s Panda Bear said this after their album leaked: “The only thing we’re really upset about with the leak is that it’s only parts of it. So if you’re listening, leakers, put up those other three songs, man. Pronto.”

[Originally published in Performer Magazine, March 2008]

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