SXSW09, Day 2: Taking the piss out of the leak [Paul Thompson] | Music
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Friday, March 20, 2009

SXSW09, Day 2: Taking the piss out of the leak [Paul Thompson]

Posted by on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 12:25 PM

Singing for the thieves: Grizzly Bear (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • Singing for the thieves: Grizzly Bear (Photo: Paul Thompson)

I was sitting in a fourth row pew in a packed Central Presbyterian Church, two songs deep into Grizzly Bear's gorgeous early evening set, and I was confused. I'd been told by a fairly reliable source earlier in the day that at this show they'd be playing their forthcoming third LP, GesundheitVeckatimest, straight through before rolling over some familiar faves from 2006's Yellow House. I couldn't quite place the second tune, but I didn't think it was from the new one, so without thinking I pulled my jambox out of my pocket and flicked through to Veckatimest, bumped my in-the-know neighbor and asked if I was wrong to think they'd veered from the supposed plan. They had. Iif memory serves it was Yellow House's "Central and Remote", but it sure wasn't Veckatimest's stunning second track "Two Weeks", which came a few songs later. But that's hardly the point: There I was, in a church, staring at some real talented dudes who I was, in a very real way, stealing from.

Ditto: The Thermals (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • Ditto: The Thermals (Photo: Paul Thompson)

It wasn't the first time it happened yesterday, either; I caught the Thermals out at the heavenly French Legation Museum grounds earlier in the afternoon, their as-yet-unreleased but readily available Now We Can See on both the PA and in the little black box nestled next to my keys. Both shows were typically excellent, though I haven't spent enough time with either record to offer much of an opinion; I'm worried my Thermals have faltered a touch in the hook department on this one, while the Grizz disc is, in its fine and mellow way, practically nothing but. I'm not, to my knowledge, reviewing either one of 'em for anybody, though I'll probably buy both those records—I do that from time to time, even in this late era—when they finally see proper release. But, you see, I'm a journalist, so it's through no great stretch of the imagination that I would've been sent a promo copy of either without even asking for it. Maybe that's how I got the records onto my iPod, and maybe it isn't, but the point is, that's how records leak; and, for all the money being spent in service of music over these next few days in this one city, that right there is the reason the music industry in general and independent music in particular are having a hell of a time keeping the lights on.

I realize there's other ways records get leaked, but most of the time, it's exactly like that: The label or the promo house sends out a million padded envelopes fulla goodies to anybody who ever had a letter published in Tiger Beat, and if they haven't gone to the trouble of copy-protecting the disc in some way, there's nothing keeping JoeyLawrenceMakesMeGoWhoa88 from ripping it onto the computer and slipping it onto Rapidshare. Even the copy protection's not too hard to get around, really, and time and again, no matter the precaution, these records get out there. It's not a matter of if it'll leak anymore, but just when, and how damaging it'll be to sales and critical reception and the like. What boggles my mind is how little is being done once the inevitable happens to stop the bleeding. I mean, you pop on your Twitter feed or whatever, you see that the fairly exhaustive efforts of DidItLeak have coughed up another one you were kinda looking forward to, and three minutes later, it's yours, for the low low price of free.

The labels and the bands and the publicists have the same access to this information as anybody else, but when it happens, not much is done by the people in a position to do something that might actually help. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' new one leaked well in advance of its release date recently, for instance, they stuck it up on your digital music emporiums pronto and pushed the physical release forward as well; a start, to be sure (and they are, of course, not the first to go that way), but that thing leaked in roughly the same quality you'd get from iTunes without having to shell out the dough. I suppose we must invoke Radiohead now to suggest that some people do value digital music files enough to shell out a little cash for 'em, but the Radiohead model isn't especially instructive precisely because they are Radiohead, and other bands are not. You take a kid like Wavves, who's somehow found himself the toast of this particular town at the moment. For all the hype, though, that dude can't have sold 2,000 of either of his records. And you take a kid like Kelly Clarkson, who's done OK sales-wise with her rather enjoyable new one. Even Ms. Independent's major label backing isn't exactly translating into big sales when the thing is still just a Google search away.

Like everybody down here, I don't have the answer, but while I'm standing on this here soapbox, I don't mind shouting a suggestion or three. First, labels? STOP SENDING YOUR STUFF TO EVERYBODY. I don't need the Balmorhea album, and I don't know why you think you need to send it to me (I mean, uh, thanks for the free CD, dudes!), but when you shoot it off to me and every Livejournaler who lists "music" as an interest, it's gonna slip out. I can't believe y'all keep acting like you don't get that.

Also: If you're going to insist that this keep happening, when it does, do something about it that might actually work. If it leaks, don't just stick it up on iTunes all-but unannounced for $10. Put it on the band's Web site for $3 for a week, and you'll get a story in Pitchfork, and, if nothing else, force the hand of a few conscientious types instead of just allowing the free-for-all. If you can, get that vinyl printed up before the CDs go out to press (hell, before you let the CDs get made up) so people who give a damn can actually go out and support the thing. And, if this recent resurgence in vinyl sales—however totally overblown it is as a "savior of the music industry" trend piece once you start looking at the numbers—is indicative of anything, it's that people will pay for something if it is worth owning. Throw some Kelly Clarkson-scented confetti in with her next one and watch; I suspect three cents of paper would translate into 100,000 sales, though that may just be 'cuz it's early and I haven't been sleeping and I want some Kelly confetti of my own right now.

Nary a one of these is gonna plug the hole completely, but it'd be nice if there were a few more fingers holding back the floodgates. It's gotta be weird being Grizzly Bear or the Thermals or basically every band down here and watching kids singing back words to songs they by all rights shouldn't know yet; and weirder still to try to be appreciative of an audience they know is ripping them off. For the sake of all the people in this crazy town right now—the bands especially, but the labels and the publicists and the journalists, too—we've not only gotta find some new ways to make money, but figure out how to stop losing so goddamned much of it by our own hand.

Oh snap, new Slim Thug? Anybody got a link?

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