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Blame It on Rio: Labels Fear Leaks Via MP3

June 18, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

Hey, Napster and Gnutella users!

Want to do more with these online sharing programs than just grab the latest songs by your favorite artists for free and make Metallica mad?

Try this: Instead of doing your search by logging in the name of an act or title of a song, try typing in the words "demo" or "advance."

With an increasing number of people in the music business now routinely storing music as digital MP3 files in their computer hard drives, and with some of them also signed on to Napster, you might get lucky and find some buried treasures.

Early demo versions of the new Deftones album (which arrives in stores Tuesday) have turned up there, as did a song from Madonna's sessions for an album not due until fall. And a new Shaggy song was copied via Napster and aired on a North Carolina radio station.

We're not talking about willful or anarchic acts here--like someone auctioning a pre-release advance CD on EBay or even purposely placing the controversial new Bruce Springsteen song "American Skin (41 Shots)" online for public consumption (which it is). We're talking about completely accidental leaks.

An executive at an East Coast independent label, who asked not to be identified, says he realized how easily something could get out when he stored a copy of one of the label's prize band's unreleased tracks in an MP3 file and signed on to Napster.

"I'd gone on and realized it was there and went, 'Oops,' and quickly signed off," he says.

Mark DiDia, general manager of Disney-owned Hollywood Records, cited the upcoming album by Fastball as a security concern.

"We're sending the first single now around to potential video directors, and we have to trust the people we send it to," he says. "But who knows? Someone passes on the song and gives it to an assistant, and the next thing you know it's on Napster. Or if I was a person like a video director or music director at a radio station who needs to listen to 30 or 40 new singles a week, I'd probably transfer them to a Rio player and listen to them at the gym, but to do that I'd have to first put them on my hard drive."

Consequently, the fear of leaks is intensifying. One major-label president reports that an artist recently made verbal threats to a company employee that she would be blamed if the act's album turned up on Napster before release. Other artists, meanwhile, are demanding that no advance copies of albums be sent to journalists or others in the promotional food chain. Reportedly, no advances will be sent out of Radiohead's upcoming album.

"Mistakes can always happen," says Tom Corson, senior vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Arista Records. "Life is like that. [Music] can be instantly available to millions of people if you don't store it properly."

However, a survey of major labels revealed that few if any official precautions have been taken to prevent such leaks. Some simple measures can be taken, such as labeling a file in a way that would not identify it to a Napster user (such as eliminating references to the artist) or storing files only in computer directories that are not accessible via Napster.

But many average computer users would not necessarily know how to do these things, and no major label representative reported any instructions being given to employees on how to do them.

"There hasn't been a memo or anything here," says Arista's Corson. "Should there be? Maybe."

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DESERT STORM: October's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival was not a financial success, but the two-day desert rock 'n' rave featuring Beck, Rage Against the Machine and the Chemical Brothers, among many others, was a hit on other levels. It garnered strong reviews in the press and from concert-goers, and industry recognition in the form of Pollstar magazine's festival of the year award, which it won over such name-brand nominees as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Memphis' Beale Street Festival and Woodstock '99.

Now organizers have decided not to hold Coachella II this fall but instead move it to next spring.

"This year there's just too much concert traffic," says Paul Tollette, president of Goldenvoice, the concert promotion firm that put the Indio event together. "There are a lot of festivals in Southern California, with the Weenie Roast, the Smoke Out and others. And because of how many artists we use and the type of artists, I don't know if we can do this kind of thing every year anyway."

Spring also holds another potential advantage: the weather. The October fest was caught in a sweltering heat wave.

"Spring is really beautiful out there with the flowers and grass at their peak," Tollette says.

No artists have been lined up yet, but Tollette says to expect a similar mix of alternative-rock and electronica stars and underground buzz acts.

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FEAR OF A ROCK PLANET: Public Enemy leader Chuck D. has one simple goal for his side project, Confrontation Camp.

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