The music industry might still be struggling to come to terms with the illegal downloading of just-released songs on file-sharing sites, but that's just the half of it.More unsettling for the biz has been the way the Internet has wreaked havoc with release schedules by making bootlegging of unreleased, in-progress music almost commonplace. The scale of the leaks of freshly recorded music onto the Web is mind-boggling, even to those of us now accustomed to the Internet's file-trading culture.
In the past few months, records have appeared online literally months before they were scheduled to be unveiled, often turning up just weeks after they'd been finished.
Radiohead's wildly anticipated Hail To The Thief disc, out Tuesday, made its debut online more than four months ago, appearing for a few precious hours one weekend on file-sharing sites and message boards. By the time the band and the record label got wind of the leak, the record had already been passed around hundreds of thousands of times.
More astonishing was the fact that this wasn't even the finished product, but just rough mixes. Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood compared the unfinished (though, it has to be said, largely similar) version to a half-renovated house. A few weeks later, as if for comparison purposes, the "finished" versions of the tracks themselves popped up onto the Web.
The band was furious at the leaks, their label even more so, and both promised an investigation to find out how unfinished songs travelled from the studio to your computer. With a band as Web-literate as Radiohead, though, the suggestion that they themselves leaked the songs has to be considered.
Next up for a breach were Welsh hams the Super Furry Animals, whose forthcoming Phantom Power disc appeared online months before its release date and before label representatives had even heard it.
The latest high-profile leak currently making the rounds online is Spiritualized's gritty Amazing Grace, an album that appeared online before hardcore fans knew the band was recording and before a release date was even set. All of this has labels, and bands, even more desperate to keep their music offline. Copy-protected CDs might be a fine idea for when the discs are actually released, but how do you prevent the ripping of music that isn't even officially available or not even completed?
Countermeasures like Radiohead's lavish packaging and the Super Furries' DVD should ensure that fans buy the real deal and don't just stick with the free bootleg. In the meantime, as labels are no doubt realizing, this is great press.
You couldn't beg for the media to talk incessantly about a record three or four months before its release otherwise. Now, virtually anyone with a computer knows Radiohead has a new record coming out, and many of them have already heard it.
Hype is hype no matter how - or when - it comes.