Critical Backlash: Illuminating the Incredible Leaking Record Industry

Photo by David Greenwald

Interpol has one of the best-selling albums in the country right now. In its first week, Our Love to Admire cracked the Billboard top 10. Just like Spoon. Just like the Shins. Just like the Arcade Fire, and just like any number of Garden State-approved indie-ish rock bands did this year. If that doesn’t smell like a trend to you yet, wait until Iron & Wine’s next one outsells 50 Cent and Kanye West at the end of September. For indie rock fans, depending on how messy your haircut is and how tight you like your skinny jeans, this is great news: Our favorite bands are making money, getting exposure and slowly but surely making the mainstream world safe for decent rock music again.

But why now? And what does this mean for the record industry? [Continue reading…]

Interpol, like the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie before them, do have the advantage of a major label push, and also like the Decembs and Death Cab, they’ve spent years on tour earning their fans. The Shins need look no farther than Natalie Portman, and the Arcade Fire is a phenomenon unto itself. Even so, it’s impressive to me that bands like these have broken through in such a large number this year. It’s a different scene than the millennial Strokes/White Stripes “Rock music is back, dudes!” era, when labels started funding every garage rock act they could get their hands on. All of these bands have earned their success with strong catalogs and years of effort; none of them are flashes in the pan.

Still, as American Idol has proven, exposure and record sales aren’t always related. Garden State was back in 2004 – goodwill doesn’t last three years, but the Shins still managed to land ridiculously high on the charts. What the band had to offer was a good album to market – an album that leaked some three months before its release date. Much like every other album we’re talking about.

Fascinatingly, a look at the charts on OiNK – which, for the uninitiated, is a very, very popular invite-only bit torrent hub and the usual place your favorite bloggers get the new albums before you (and before the promos arrive in the mail, sometimes) – reflects an equal interest in Modest Mouse and T.I. It’s the same every week: a big-name indie release carries as much cred as Justin Timberlake, and even no-name records somehow shoot up the charts as more people see a popular torrent and hop on. We live in an era where, more than ever before, sampling music and hearing all types of artists and genres regardless of airplay, MTV video-readiness or print publicity is the easiest thing in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people are downloading than ever. The fact that the Billboard charts are starting to look like the OiNK charts is certainly a causal relationship, but it’s hard to say if people download Spoon because Spoon has a lot of fans and will thus sell a lot of albums regardless (making downloading potentially damaging) or the other way around – Spoon has a lot of fans but thanks to passing around the album for a month before the release date, they have even more fans, who went out on the first week and bought it. As entrenched as we are in the downloading era, where OiNK is an open secret and services like Mediafire, Yousendit and MP3 blogs make it unbelievably easy for an album to spread like wildfire, I think it’s safe to argue that the proliferation of easy downloading has assisted bands like these. It’s hard to look at the numbers this year and say otherwise.

So if this is true and downloading is actually helping great records from bands with serious fanbases get the extra push they need in a time where the chart numbers are deflated anyway, why is the music industry – from Universal to Beggars Group – still so terrified of the Internet? And how does this affect you, dear reader, who presumably just wants to support the bands when you can afford to?

This isn’t meant to be a pro-downloading rant. This is a complex issue with too many legal ramifications and grey areas to be addressed in a single essay; I would, however, like to discuss some of those grey areas with you right now to explain in part why the industry is behaving the way it does, and why it might be about to change.

First: The whole concept of “release dates” is rapidly becoming a outdated one in the OiNK era. However, the release date is still the most important number in the music industry, and here’s why. The career of an album starts 2-3 months before its release – uncoincidentally, this is when it leaks because the promos are serviced to long-lead publications (read: magazines and newspapers), which need time to plan their review and feature story schedules. Having worked at several of these publications, I can tell you that the more time we have to plan, the better. A magazine needs to know that on September 25, Iron & Wine is coming out and so the CD can be reviewed that week and a 2-page feature can be written. Then: radio promotion. Putting out a single in advance of the album builds buzz and gets people excited – you listen to a song on the radio for a month and can’t wait to buy the album. Finally, the album is released, and hopefully hundreds of thousands of people who have been reading about the album and listening to the single go out and buy it. You can then get an accurate gauge of how popular the album is in relation to other recent albums and get a lot of your money upfront. That’s basically the end of the promotion cycle. From there, the band goes on tour and presumably reaps the benefits of a successful album by profiting handsomely and maybe they’ll release another single or two and prolong the album’s shelf life a bit. Touring is also a promotion engine unto itself, but not one that’s typically going to move another 100,000 units.

The release date model makes a lot of sense – it gives fans something to look forward to and makes things easy on retail and journalists. There is still something to the magic of waiting in line for something on the first day, as 12 million Harry Potter fans will be happy to tell you. So obviously, having your album leak two months early undercuts things considerably. (At least this is your opinion if you work for a record label – as I’ve noted above, leaks haven’t seemed to affect a lot of bands in any kind of negative way.) “But wait,” you say, “Isn’t having the album leak enough press unto itself? Pitchfork doesn’t need long lead times like the New York Times does, does it? Why should I have to wait three months to buy an album when I can download it now?” Well, no, it’s not, and while they probably don’t, Pitchfork can’t single-handedly break a record. It’s a numbers game. The bigger MP3 blogs (outside of Stereogum) reach a paltry 3-4 thousand people a day, which sure seems like a lot when you’re a blogger but not so much when you’re Spoon and you’re trying to sell 40,000 copies. 100+ write-ups in newspapers and magazines is a huge, huge thing and it’s not something the labels can just throw away. It’s the gap between the haves and the have-nots – the ever-expanding OiNK generation and the still-too-big-to-ignore record-buying public.

Basically, the labels are at a crossroads best exemplified by the tactic Arts & Crafts has taken with the new Stars album. Rather than send out the promos and wait for the leak, they’re already selling the album digitally on their website, DRM-free. The album’s still coming out on CD in a couple months, and ideally, the band’s stature is such that they’ll be able to bridge the gap: web-savvy fans, when given the opportunity, will support the band rather than just download the leak; and print publications and traditional publicity will still use the release date to reach out to everybody else, which
for now is a larger group of wallets. But what happens when the album sells 50k online and nobody buys the CD the first week? You’re going to have a bunch of very unhappy retail outlets and a magazine rack full of editors who are pissed they wrote up an album everybody’s already had for weeks. Stars are popular enough for this to be a legitimate experiment, and it’ll be interesting to see how things pan out on that first week because it’s going to be an indicator of how big the digital world is getting – and if we’re ready to take responsibility and put our money where our mouse is.

The fundamental problem is this: While digital downloads are better than ever, the numbers at retail are still too big to give up on it entirely and move to an all-digital, non-release date-based system. Labels need retail, radio and print media. At least for now. The beginnings of a new system are in place: What’s going to seperate the labels and artists that survive from the dinosaurs caught staring up at the ball of flame in the sky is going to be not just who makes that leap of faith, but when they decide to finally roll the dice.

Interpol – “Obstacle 1”: mp3
The Shins – “Fighting In a Sack”: mp3
Stars – “The Night Starts Here”: mp3


Critical Backlash is a column where Dave Rawkblog complains about things. Click below for more.