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Lack of harmony

When it comes to file sharing, members of the music industry don't exactly sing the same tune.

August 11, 2008

When the Los Angeles band Buckcherry announced that its next album of party-till-you-puke rock would arrive Sept. 16, it noted that a track from the album was already being swapped online. The band bemoaned the leak, saying, "Honestly, we hate it when this [expletive] happens, because we want our FANS to have any new songs first." But it was surprisingly well-prepared for the breach, offering a video for the track, "Too Drunk ...," supposedly made after it appeared online.

Not long thereafter, a website dedicated to news about file sharing, TorrentFreak, found persuasive evidence that the leak came from a computer belonging to -- drumroll, please -- the band's manager. Busted!

It's conceivable that someone else grabbed the manager's laptop and uploaded "Too Drunk ...," or that he did it himself without telling the band. Yet right after complaining about the track being bootlegged, Buckcherry encouraged fans to share it far and wide by plugging the video into their blogs and social-network profiles. Evidently, Buckcherry is more concerned about people hearing its single than about them paying for it.

The band's mixed message is an apt metaphor for an industry still confounded by the Internet. Almost a decade after the debut of the original Napster, the industry's approach to peer-to-peer file-sharing technology remains deeply conflicted. Music promoters love being able to spread the word about new material or unknown bands on the cheap, and some artists rely on file sharing to help them build and maintain a following. Other artists resent the idea of free downloads, and label executives hate the loss of control it represents. In their view, file sharing is fine when a label or artist uses it to publicize a new release or a tour but not when consumers unilaterally decide to make whole albums available for free downloading.

That split isn't likely to be resolved any time soon. The major labels still cling to the hope that Internet service providers will find a way to make online piracy magically disappear. And although some entrepreneurs are trying to distribute music legally through file-sharing networks, they're having trouble getting the licenses they need to offer a compelling alternative to free downloading. In the meantime, whether bands embrace or reject file sharing will depend on how far along they are in their careers, how much they rely on music sales and how much credibility they have with fans. As credibility-rich artists such as Nine Inch Nails have demonstrated, offering music for free can be very smart business. Perhaps Buckcherry was just too drunk to think about that.

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