Five easy steps to plug online music leaks

DENVER (Billboard) - When an album leaks online before it arrives in stores, it can be a real punch in the gut.

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich performs in Phoenix, Arizona October 21, 2008. REUTERS/Gelu Sulugiuc

Recent new releases from rock bands Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and AC/DC all found their way onto peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks before they reached the stores, proving that even the most closely guarded projects are vulnerable.

But it’s not the end of the world. After angrily beating your head against the wall, there are several measures you can implement to mitigate the damage. Here are five recommendations not intended for artists or managers who deliberately leak their own material.


Leaks infuriate managers and artists, because they usually occur after an album has been delivered to the label. The culprit is often someone in the production chain who’s gone rogue or a talent rep trusting the wrong person with an advance copy. So the label needs to take every step possible to determine where the leak occurred and take action against who is responsible. “You can’t unring the bell,” says Mike McGuire, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. “But if it is an internal leak, then somebody needs to be punished.”


Once the leak has sprung, it’s almost impossible to stop it from spreading. But targeting the top online sources of leaked material can pay dividends by at least stemming the flow long enough for the release to be distributed through legitimate channels. Make sure you’ve updated the audio fingerprinting of partners who use them to filter out unwanted content. Contact the MP3 bloggers with whom you have relationships. And send takedown notices or cease-and-desist letters when necessary. “The strategy is one of containment,” says Eric Garland, CEO of consulting firm BigChampagne. “Chase everybody everywhere with your legal eagles and have the Internet scrubbed clean. It’s got to be a coordinated, rapid response.”


In cases where the leaked album is not the final version, artists and labels should get the word out to fans that what’s available online is not the finished product. The goal is to convince them to wait for the final, official version by promising better sound quality or other bonuses. Be specific about how the official version of the album will be different from what’s been leaked and provide a firm date for the authorized release. “Make sure you’re clear on when it is going to be done and give people that,” Gartner’s McGuire says. “Managing the PR is about setting expectations.”


Skip all the marketing plans and just get the album into stores or make it available through authorized channels as soon as possible. This serves two purposes: it responds to the increased demand that a leaked album creates for the final product and takes advantage of the one positive aspect of a leak -- marketing. Many industry observers say that P2P is today’s radio, and the buzz that a leaked track creates can often supplant the best-laid marketing plans -- as long as the feedback is positive, of course.

“We live in a word-of-mouth world, and the unfettered Internet is a platform for evaluation, promotion and marketing,” BigChampagne’s Garland says. “It is hard for me to think of an instance where a marketing plan is more important than the immediate need to get out there with a legitimate offering.” For added measure, package the authorized release with such exclusive, previously unreleased material as a new track or other bonus content to help differentiate it from the leaked version.


One of the best ways to insulate yourself from an Internet leak is by taking action well in advance. Letting fans pre-order the album is one good solution, since it locks in sales before any potential leak. Another is building buzz by posting streaming-only singles when appropriate or taking advantage of programs like iTunes’ Complete My Album feature to sell songs from an album before its release. “Establishing a transaction and an implicit social contract is one of the ways you remove incentive to find leaked material,” McGuire says.