Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Springing Leaks

The Hold Steady’s much-anticipated fourth album, Stay Positive, which is set for a July 15 release, leaked to the internet last week, sparking a lively and sometimes angry debate on this message board, and a more civil and philosophical discussion between Trip, Mary Z and me.

During our conversation, I recounted a talk I had over the weekend with a kid who works behind the meat counter at my local grocer. I don’t really know him at all, but I do know that he’s a huge fan of music in general and Animal Collective in particular. As he handed me a couple of steaks on Saturday, I casually asked if he had picked up the band’s new EP, which was released a couple of weeks ago. “I got it when it leaked,” he said. I replied, half joking, “but you paid full price when it was released, right?” “Absolutely,” he said, fully earnest. He confided that this is his music buying routine. “For me,” he said, “the leak date is the release date.” If ever I needed evidence that we’re living in a whole different time, that was it.

After I told the story, Trip responded with the most astoundingly astute observation I’ve heard on the new wave of music distribution. “The genius of Radiohead was not their new distribution model, or the pay what you want schtick, it was that they got folks to pony up for the leak. That was genius.”

That was genius. And it had never occurred to me.

In recent years, the record industry’s prevailing strategy has been to deny reality. Radiohead, on the other hand, not only accepted reality, they exploited it. The music is going to leak no matter what you do, so instead of letting it sit on a shelf while the artwork gets printed and the discs get pressed, just put it online the moment it is finished, and give people the option of putting money in your pocket. And then, after the initial hysteria has worn off, release it again, in hard form, maybe even with bonus tracks not available the first time around.

Shouldn’t this be the model we all move toward? Am I obsessive enough to toss two or three bucks at The Hold Steady for the right to listen to the new album for the next two months while I wait to get my hands on a physical copy? You bet I am, as are 99.9% of the folks in that message board thread.

I left the meat counter with another thought. It’s just so easy now. A kid can amass a huge collection by investing a little time and hardly any money. My natural inclination is to want to rip the ethics of a generation of kids who go on line and take what they want without paying a penny to the people who created it. But then I stop and consider that they don’t remember, and can't begin to understand, the music biz’s old culture of commodification. Music is in the air. You hear it on the radio, you hear it at the supermarket, you hear it coming out of cars on the street, you hear it at your friends’ houses, and you hear it on the internet. They don’t understand why they should be held accountable for listening to what’s out there, and it’s hard not to see their point.

Part of me thinks that they’re missing something, but that’s probably just romantic revisionism. I remember when acquiring music was a quest. At a minimum, it involved a trip to the record store. For harder to find stuff, it required several trips. For out-of-print discs, it required sifting through cut-out bins or sending away to a mail-order shop. I spent years of my life and a small fortune constructing a collection that represents to me far more than randomly grabbed bytes of information. I still remember the moment, many years ago, when I came across a copy of Let’s Active’s then out-of-print Big Plans For Everybody. My heart fluttered. I had been looking everywhere for it, and finally I held it in my hands. Luckily for me, the kid behind the counter didn’t know that I would have paid ten times the clearance price to own it.

In the famed “Yada Yada” episode of Seinfeld, Jerry’s dentist Tim Whatley converts from Catholicism to Judaism, and immediately begins telling Jewish jokes while continuing to tell ones lampooning his former faith. Incensed, Jerry visits Whatley’s priest, and complains. “I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism just for the jokes,” he says. “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” the priest asks. “No,” says Seinfeld, “it offends me as a comedian.”

Maybe the new age of illegal downloading doesn’t offend me as a law-abiding citizen. Maybe it offends me as a record collector.


Shuggie said...

I'm not sure it has to be the new reality. Elvis Costello managed to drop a surprise out of the blue without any leaks. Perhaps EC is the flip side of the Radiohead coin. Record fast and get it out the door.

I personally hate leaks because often the leaked version lacks the sound quality of the official version. That was certainly the case with Magic.

Regarding the Hold Steady, I a little surprised the band is caught off guard by the leak. These guys are internet saavy and they are well aware of the avid nature of their fan base. Hell, their fans are the 21st century version of Dead Heads. They travel great distances to see shows, wear the same shirt, and have a special name for themselves. I'd be shocked if the band actually believed they could wait five months from the end of production to release the album and not experience a leak.

Art said...

I thought that Let's Active's Big Plans for Everybody is still out of print. If it isn't, let me know, b/c I've been wanting a copy of that for years. It's a great record.