“I care about my music. I can’t have the songs being heard the wrong way,” said a distraught Madonna to Interscope’s vice chairman, Steve Berman. It was December 2014, and her anticipated album, Rebel Heart, had just been leaked. A hacker from across the world had broken into her personal computer, copied the files, and sold his bounty to a third party pirate site. Berman managed to reach iTunes’ vice president of content, who was on holiday with his family, and within 48 hours organised a digital pre-order of Rebel Heart with six instant gratification tracks.
There is a lot of talk that music piracy isn’t as popular as it once was, thanks to the plentiful choices of legal streaming services. Content protection and market tracking company, MUSO, just released their 2017 Global Piracy Report, and beg to differ. Over the years, they’ve built a database of over 23,000 of the most frequented piracy sites on the web, and combined data directly from several ISPs, as well as traffic measurements from numerous websites.
The report shows that there were 34 billion visits to music piracy sites in 2016. While torrents are falling out of fashion (with a decrease of over 30 percent), stream rippers saw continued steady growth as the biggest threat to the music industry, especially in mobile usage. Stream rippers now make up 23 percent of the total pirated music content. But the most popular method by far is still streaming, which makes up just over 40 percent of all music piracy.
There is a crucial point in an album’s life cycle that cannot afford to have fans hear it except through controlled channels: the pre-release phase.
Now, if a pop diva’s year-old album is available for sale and stream everywhere, piracy is going to happen and arguably can’t be avoided. However, there is a crucial point in an album’s life cycle that cannot afford to have fans hear it except through controlled channels: the pre-release phase. When a much anticipated album is leaked before the release date and the only place to get one’s ears on it is a pirate site, results are often disastrous for the artist and their label. In Madonna-the-superstar’s case, she was extremely fortunate to have the people who run iTunes on speed-dial, which contributed to her topping their charts in the United States and more than 40 other countries. However, smaller labels very rarely have those connections, so it’s up to them to mitigate the situation.
“One tactic we’ve seen a lot is labels trying to bring the release date forward. For example, if the release date is two weeks away, they might try to officially release it the next day instead,” explains Alex Stacey, founder of FATdrop, a company that makes software to help labels and PR companies run safe and effective pre-release promo campaigns. “Obviously this requires a lot of work to coordinate, and is likely to throw off the whole promo and release marketing plan. Another tactic is to use a takedown service that will work to get links to the leaked copy removed.”
Do you drive a car? If you do, there might have been a time when you’ve considered adding a layer of anti-theft protection to your vehicle. A LoJack, for example, is a hidden GPS tracking device. An unsuspecting thief can easily be tracked down, and will be too paranoid to try it again. “What if this car I want to take also has a hidden GPS? I won’t know until I get caught.” FATdrop are essentially the LoJack of the music industry.
If, somehow, the album gets leaked to illegal download sites before the release day, FATdrop can trace the culprit.
Based out of England and Germany, FATdrop have been considered a pioneer in the digital age of music since 2007. Part of their product provides a watermark on unreleased songs. Every music industry professional (from inside the label, to outside music critics and radio DJs) who is given an advance copy of the release has theirs individually stamped in a way that’s undetectable to the ear. If, somehow, the album gets leaked to illegal download sites before the release day, FATdrop can trace the culprit. “When that happens, we inform our client who the source of the leak was, then they decide what to do,” says Stacey. “Sometimes it’s a case of educating them about being more careful, and sometimes they get removed from the promo mailing list. In rare cases they get called out publicly over it.”
“The temptation is to send to as many people as possible, but that’s not always the best tactic.”
When it comes to best practices for avoiding leaks in the first place, Stacey advises labels to “be careful in the pre-release stage. The temptation is to send to as many people as possible, but that’s not always the best tactic. Seek out the people you really want to review the release and build a relationship with them.”
The suspense and anticipation for a music release is a big contributing factor to popularity and, most importantly, sales. Very few records have sale charts in a “J” shaped curve. The pre-release promotional phase is crucial to the element of surprise. The modern music industry is losing enough money to streaming without having to fight piracy blindly as well. Services such as FATdrop help artists and labels regain control over their investment, and ultimately their art.