Rant: Recording Industry “Album Leaks”

bilal2.jpgWithin the past three years or so, I’ve heard about increasingly more cases of top recording industry artists (and these days, even not-so popular artists) having their albums released before they are actually scheduled to go on sale to the public — so called “album leaks.” For awhile I felt a sense of sadness for artists because it seemed to be a trend where the people impacted most were artists of color. I can’t say that this is definitively the case because I haven’t fully researched every album leak and plotted those that are of recording artists who happen to be of color versus artists of different nationalities. Somehow it feels as if that’s the case. Yet after some soul searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a recording industry problem — whether it be the artists carelessness, recording studio corruption or possibly even recording industry corruption. The buying public and certainly the Internet community (many of whom have the option of going to LimeWire or Acquire or many other Peer-to-Peer networks and getting full 192K or higher encoded versions of the songs, but buy the songs legally anyway) should not be held accountable — at least not for the leaks.

Bootlegging isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. As far back as the fifties and sixties, there were copies of unreleased material floating around amongst “people in the know”. This increased in the 70s and 80s with the prominence of the 8-track recorder and the cassette recorder, both of which made it easy to make analog copies of songs. The release of the compact disc allowed for higher quality recordings of cassette tapes, which could be recorded from a “master CD” — only one hop away from the original recording. This meant less “hiss” and an overall higher quality copy. Of course fast forwarding to today with recordable CDs and even more so with with digital files (mp3, wmv, aac, flac, etc), recordings can be made that are virtually flawless (depending on the compression algorithm the encoder is using.)

So is the popularity of digital media and recordable CDs to blame for the increasing trend of “album leaks”? Well, it certainly has made the process easier. No longer do you need to do a “reel to reel” copy or a “press play and record and wait for the album to finish” copy. You could copy a whole album digitally in seconds. But in my opinion, this has absolutely nothing to do with the increase of “album leaks”.

It has been said by many that the music industry (actually the entertainment industry in general) is a “shady business”. While I can’t say that I have proof that there are less than ethical happenings going on in the industry, I will say that the industry appears to be awfully careless, at best.

For the life of me I can’t understand how the industry or the artists would allow these leaks to take place if they really cared. Who is responsible? Let’s investigate.

Could it be the artists, who during their recording sessions filled with Cristal and “trees” (and things far stranger than the average person would believe) are letting “friends” into the session who attach recording devices to the equipment? Or perhaps it’s the artists themselves, who, in an effort to get their friends to hear their new “hot joints” end up leaking their own material.

Could it be the magazines and news publications who have access to pre-release copies of music? Perhaps as soon as they a receive a pre-release CD from the record company, they distribute it to close friends and then multiplication takes over? This seems to be the least likely scenario. If recording industry reps are releasing pre-release copies, and in high amounts so early before an album’s release, they are foolish. I personally don’t feel as if reviews are a big determining factor in album sales. It’s street buzz and music videos, mostly. And if it was pre-release reviews at fault for leaks, there are countless ways this can be defeated. I recall De La Soul sending pre-release copies of “Stakes is High” to The Source and Vibe magazines with farm animal sounds in the background of each song. Every now and then you’d hear a “moo” or a “quack-quack” in the middle of a track. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Could it be the recording studios themselves? This is a possibility that I don’t hear discussed very often, but it may very well be part of the issue. I have friends who pay a significant amount of money for “studio time” at local recording facilities. It is very easy to use software and large hard drives to do a continuous recording of anything that is recorded in the actual studio. If this is the case, I feel badly for smaller artists who have no choice but to use these facilities. But as for more profitable artists, many of whom build their own studios, this has to be an avoidable option — either by using their own studio or another more secure location.

And so that leaves the only other possible option — the record companies themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re leaking the material intentionally. There could be carelessness within the companies. How? Possibly through lower-earning employees, who are paid by outside moles to provide copies of albums before release. Actually, high-earning employees could be doing the same thing. Basically any form of transfer of music which involves several passes through human hands could be a risk.

And then we come to the “other option” related to the record companies. The one that has been on the minds of many for awhile now. Could it be the recording company “honchos” themselves who are leaking albums? They are, after all, paying artists based on how many albums they sell. If I leak Kanye West’s album, then I could affect his sales, but not by a significant amount. (Mainstream folks don’t seem to be as resourceful. I don’t envision many forty and fifty-something moms who liked “Golddigger” last year going on Bit-Torrent to get Kanye’s album. They’ll probably buy it from Wal-Mart.)

But what about Bilal and The Roots? Who is at fault for their leaks? Certainly they won’t sell as much as Kanye. So perhaps “Mr. Recording Executive” will order the leak of their album to the public after it’s been mastered? So where Kanye sells 10 million where he would have sold 12 million (let’s say), Bilal sells 400,000 where he would have sold 700,000. (These aren’t real numbers — I’m just speculating here.) And perhaps the point at which he recoups on album sales is 850,000? Bilal is suddenly “in the hole.” And the record company has one less bonus check to cut. Even if Bilal sells more records, he has more expenses that the record sales need to cover. (Including the money paid for expensive music videos that only get limited viewing on BET Soul Sessions at 2AM or VH1 Soul (which many people don’t get.)

So who’s really to blame? I’m certainly not close enough to the recording industry to say for certain — only to speculate. But it does seem a bit suspicious that we don’t hear more about album leaks as a “problem that MUST be stopped” by the RIAA, yet we hear cries weekly about peer-to-peer thiefs hurting sales.

One thing I do know is this: that whatever the cause, it can be avoided. I recall last year being fascinated by the rising popularity of Mike Jones. (You know? MIKE JONES!) Upon releasing his debut album, it was virtually impossible to find a copy anywhere on LimeWire or other popular peer-to-peer applications… or so I’m told. Why was this? Could it be that Mike Jones is more discreet about his recording process? Could it be that he owns his own record label (Ice Age Records – distributed by Warner Music)? Or could it be something else. Perhaps artists like Bilal and The Roots need to seek out the advice of one of their own.

Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark” — or in this case, the music industry — and the smell appears to be coming from inside.


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