What will those crazy record labels do next? From sealed Walkmen to persnickity artists' relatives -- Chris Willman reports on the wacky ways the industry is using to deter piracy

By Chris Willman
Updated October 17, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Tori Amos: Lynn Goldsmith/ZUMA Press/Newscom

What will those crazy record labels do next?

Despite the neutering of Napster, online piracy of music continues unabated. And we all know who the culprit is: rock critics.

At least that’s the assumption behind a series of moves that makes it more difficult for reviewers to hear new music in advance without jumping through increasingly unwieldy hoops. The latest tactic: Epic Records has taken to sending selected members of the press advance CDs of Tori Amos and Pearl Jam glued into Walkmen. That’s right: Even as we speak, record company interns are getting Superglue all over their collegiate hands making sure personal CD players stay shut.

And there are other methods being employed to keep critics from leaking new albums to the thriving bootleg markets in the streets of Asia and the dorms of UCLA. One is to compel privileged reviewers to turn their computers to a secret website to hear an album “streamed” — perfect for those of us who think that hearing “You’ve got mail!” or a disembodied voice reading an error message actually improves the experience of listening to the new Papa Roach.

Then there’s this super-low-tech solution: having George Harrison’s sister-in-law hand-deliver and pick up the advance CD. I don’t know that she’s necessarily available for this service for, say, the upcoming Shania Twain or J.Lo albums, but when I went to a listening session in a Beverly Hills hotel suite the other week to hear George’s “new” posthumous album, even the set of xeroxed lyrics I was given to read during the listening session had to be turned over at the end to the mysterious woman in the corner. Only later did I learn she was a Harrison relative and the estate’s designated CD courier.

And if that’s not bad enough, it seems that record companies will soon be forced to go to greater and greater lengths to ensure the listening experience is as brief and awkward as possible for critics. I thought I’d beat the labels to the punch and come up with some truly pirate-proof ways for them to let journalists experience the music:

THE SKYDIVING LISTENING SESSION You’re pushed out of a plane with a Walkman and an advance CD. There’s no chance of you copying the disc or uploading it to the Internet on the way down to earth — at least not until MP3-equipped cell phones become more versatile — and there’s no pesky publicist or relative of the artist peering over your shoulder. The downside: You get so enraptured by Celine that you forget to pull the cord. But whatta way to go!

THE ISOLATION TANK LISTENING SESSION It’s just you, the CD, and a lot of salt water for as many hours as you can stand. Of course, after putting Korn on repeat mode, you might be growing extra body hair and extraneous arms like William Hurt in ”Altered States,” but what’s a little mutation among music journos.

THE FERRIS WHEEL LISTENING SESSION You get to listen to Michael Jackson’s next album — assuming someone is foolish enough to give him money to make a next album — by going to his Neverland compound and being seat-belted into one of his amusement park rides. The chief danger is that his money might run out and you’d be stuck at the top, but what a view of California’s wine country as you get to listen to his latest collaboration with the hottest R&B producers of two years ago over and over.

And just in case you think the plight of music critics doesn’t affect you, think again. From what I understand, the labels are now working on ways that EVERYONE can experience new tuneage without the threat of piracy. By the time Dr. Dre’s next album comes out, I hear it’s possible that the only way to listen to it, ever, will be to book a label-hosted ocean cruise. The good part is, to really allay bootlegging fears, you’ll gonna have to leave your clothes at home.

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