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Battling online music leaks

Battling online music leaks — Gnarls Barkley’s label is one of many fighting back with surprise release dates

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Danger Mouse, the producer half of Gnarls Barkley, was having a senior moment. ”The record’s not even out yet,” he told EW on March 18, amid discussion about Gnarls’ sophomore album, The Odd Couple, being moved up to combat rampant leaks. Our reporter reminded him Atlantic Records had released it for sale on download sites earlier that day — three weeks before its scheduled due date and a week before CDs could be rushed into stores. He stood corrected…reluctantly. ”Oh, yeah. Well, it’s not out-out yet, you know? I didn’t want to put it on iTunes separate from the physical release. Personally, I would have had them all come out the same day. Some people don’t mind getting it online, but I’d always prefer somebody have it in their hands.”

If a forward-thinking guy like Danger Mouse can’t figure out what constitutes a release date now, what hope do the rest of us have? We’ve entered the age of the album launch as surprise party. The day before the Gnarls Barkley news, the Raconteurs made their own announcement, giving fans one week to prepare for a new platter that hadn’t even been scheduled. Although both involved Warner Music acts, the first incident suggested a label being reactive and running scared, while the second appeared to be Jack White trying to shrink the traditional six-month marketing setup down to a matter of days, out of control-freakiness or sheer whimsy. (Reportedly, White wanted Consolers of the Lonely to ”just appear” on the day of release, but he settled for a week’s notice so stores could actually order the thing.) If the new insta-albums have a common link, it’s jitters about getting them on John Doe’s doorstep — or laptop — now, before a single sale gets lost to piracy or weeks of damaging blogger buzz.

When a major album leaks more than a month early, as Gnarls’ did, ”there is no proper marketing strategy,” laughs Julie Greenwald, Atlantic’s president. ”Everything goes out the window.” The label geared up and got the album on sites like iTunes and Rhapsody ASAP. The physical CD release took another week still, meaning Atlantic settled for a lower opening SoundScan figure — but these days, better to nab extra sales now than claim chart-bragging rights later. ”I’ve been moving away from [emphasizing] week 1 anyway,” says Greenwald. ”When the music’s great, there’s no reason not to try renegade approaches.”

Lee Trink, the president of Capitol Music Group, bumped up the digital release of singer-songwriter Ferras’ debut by several months — in reaction not to a leak but to one of Ferras’ songs (”Hollywood’s Not America”) nabbing a spot as American Idol exit music. ”The decision was made on the fly,” says Trink. ”I didn’t want to lose any of the sales we could capture when people heard it on Idol. I said, ‘I don’t care if we can only sell digitally at first. Let’s not worry so much about the chart.’ The emphasis on [opening SoundScan figures] has hurt the industry.”

Get ready for more staggered releases. In the country market, Sony BMG Nashville is issuing a freshman effort by bluegrass rockers Jypsi as an April download, in advance of a yet-unscheduled CD. ”We’d seen good activity with social-networking sites,” says the company’s digital-business VP, Heather McBee. ”So if somebody liked one or two songs, we wanted to let them be able to invest in the whole album on the spot. It’s a good time to play right now — everything is an unwritten book.” Elvis Costello is embracing old and current technology, releasing his new Momofuku exclusively on vinyl this month — though the LP will come with codes to download the songs, too. Reps won’t even confirm whether it’ll eventually come out on CD. (Take that, lacquered compact dinosaur!)

The novelty of all these bumped, rushed, or weirdly configured releases may wear off. Even if you like surprise parties, you’d balk if your friends threw you one every year, right? While Radiohead and Trent Reznor won praise for releasing DIY projects in multiple formats — from cheap, instant downloads to expensive mail-order boxed sets — it’s possible that, in response, some less devoted fans just threw up their hands in confusion. Yet for music buffs, there’s a hint of a thrill to these quick, anything-goes launches. In the 1960s, the Beatles and others took their 45s, EPs, and long-players from mixing board to market with little or no advance fanfare — and a combination of business fears and a hunger for bakery freshness may be leading us back to that spontaneity.