Thursday, November 10, 2011

Apparently There's a Leak: Piracy, Publicity and the Press

We extort and pilfer, we filch and sack...
Back in 2007 when Britney Spears' superb album Blackout was released, I had not yet committed myself to a life of honorable obtainment of digital music, nor had I started my first paying job post-graduate school. Needless yet shameful to say, I didn't pay for my copy at that time. I got most of it from Kazaa or Limewire, I imagine, and until recently I never bothered even to obtain an official copy to check mine against, which was why I remained for many years confused as to why the copy of "Break the Ice" I had at one point sounded different from my memory of the version I had years earlier, and unsure from whence the deviation might have come.
When I finally purchased a legal copy of Blackout, just a few months ago, I played it from start to finish, as is my custom, on the high definition computer speakers I'd been given for Christmas by a friend. I was blown away - not just by how amazing it sounded, but by how much better it was than a great deal of what I'd thought of as Blackout up to that point. I was soon informed that Blackout had fallen victim in a big way to a blitzkrieg of leaks, premature and (usually) unauthorized dispensation of unfinished or at least unreleased material, and a number of tracks underwent emergency reworking. In some cases, like the brilliant "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)," this turned out for the best; others, like "Break the Ice," were arguably better off before being tinkered with. This cost the label a lot of money and had a major impact on the marketing and release strategy, as if dropping a new Britney Spears album while Britney Spears is going increasingly nuts wasn't going to be enough of a challenge.

A few years later, I remember watching many of my fellow bloggers go bananas over nearly fifty unauthorized leaks purported to be from Kelly Clarkson's upcoming album Stronger (many turned out to be demos from recording sessions for earlier albums) and feeling a little gross about it. When Clarkson heard of the massive hemorrhage of unauthorized material, she responded, as she often does, with refreshing honesty. "Oh my God, have you ever been robbed? I have. I’ve been physically robbed a couple of times, but this is much worse. Those songs came out and people are like, Oh my God, what direction is Kelly going? I think what made me mad was that: People stole from me, everybody had no idea what my next album was going to sound like. That really caused a lot of confusion."

Nowadays, leaks prior to an album's official release are all but expected, and a major artist's album leaking one or two weeks before the official date can be considered a victory for the label's security efforts. Kanye West and Jay-Z made front-page headlines when their collaboration album Watch the Throne reached its release date without a single leak, but the effort that feat required was enormous. Some artists, like Ke$ha and Lady Gaga, have seemed to embrace the phenomenon and play it to their advantage (one can reasonably doubt the illicitness of any so-called "leak" when Lady Gaga is involved).

There is a difference, though, between the final cuts off Britney Spears' Femme Fatale making their way online a week or two before the official release and unfinished, in-progress tracks from Blackout appearing on Perez Hilton months before the album is to drop. In one case the issue is mainly a financial one, whereas in the other the damage done is financial as well as artistic. If rough drafts of my writing (or worse, evidence of the writing process itself) were to become public I would be exponentially beyond mortified. If an artist is comfortable letting the public in on the process of creating the final published product, that is his prerogative, and there will be plenty of interest (myself included).

But this isn't government; this isn't a public health issue; this isn't financial maneuvering that affects the global economy: this is art. Yes, it's business too, but it's a luxury business, so there is very little if anything that a consumer can presume to demand as owed to him from the industry or those within it. I strongly believe that a pop music artist has the right to withhold a track or album from the public entirely until he has had the opportunity to mold it as close as possible to the way he wishes it to be, then makes the conscious and public decision to release it as an official, finished product. The thing about leaks is one can never be sure if prematurely available material represents the artist's finalized creation or an unfinished work in progress, and I not only respect the aforementioned right of the artist, but I frankly want to hear the polished result and not the rough in-between. I mean, this is pop music we're talking about here.

Worse by far is when bloggers or other journalists use unauthorized leaks as sources for premature evaluation of an artist's upcoming work. Early opinions can have enormous effect on the general critical consensus of new music, especially since most reviews of new music are written by over-saturated critics (who only occasionally appreciate or even care for pop music in the first place) who have heard the work once through at a label-arranged critic's listening session - ever notice how often major critics say uncannily similar things about the same works? I dislike the arrogance in the first place of reviews published before the public has access to the product being reviewed, but when these are based upon unauthorized material which may or may not be fully representative of the final product, no one benefits except the false-starting blogger, and that's hardly the ethical way to obtain readership.

I guess basically this is all a big explanation why there is not now, nor shall there ever be, any leaked Madonna demos posted on these cyber walls, no matter how my fellow bloggers, fellow pop fans or even beloved readers proceed to utterly lose their shit about it. There will be no freshly surfaced 30-second clips of what may or may not be a song from Rihanna's next album, nor will you read a review or any critical discussion of a new work until it is officially available to consumers or has been endorsed by the artists behind it. There will be many many more unreleased Ke$ha tracks, but those are a different story altogether.

So if it is piracy you're after, I'm afraid you'll need to look elsewhere.

...and really bad eggs...
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