The Internet has created a boon for the music business in many ways, allowing fans to track their favorite acts with unprecedented fervor. But as Pearl Jam's Epic Records recently discovered, the World Wide Web has become a spoke in the wheel for one of the music industry's oldest and cagiest traditions: the leak.
That's when a handful of radio stations mysteriously receive advance copies of a superstar record before its official release date, the way Madonna's "Erotica" arrived at radio days ahead of schedule back in '92. The embargoed songs are immediately put on the air; record companies express shock over the breach of security and issue stern cease and desist orders to the stations; and competing programmers scream about not getting their copies.
Turns out, though, that cease and desist orders are issued by the very same people who slip leaks to radio in the first place – leaks are almost always orchestrated from within record companies. They're a way to build some buzz and dole out favors to prominent programmers.
The catch is that now tech-savvy fans who tape leaked songs off the radio are downloading them onto the Web and making the not-yet-released music much more accessible to listeners. That's what happened last December, when a Syracuse University student taped Pearl Jam music off the radio three months before the February release of the band's Yield. The student's Web site, as well as the local rock station that leaked songs from Yield, received and complied with a cease and desist order from the band's label. But it remains to be seen how many other music Web sites downloaded the pirated Pearl Jam songs. (Oasis' management, concerned that songs from last year's Be Here Now would end up on the Web early, threatened legal action against sites posting anything – photos, lyrics, bios – without the band's permission.)
And whereas radio-station programmers – who can't afford to upset label execs, because access to their acts is essential to business – usually play along with the cease and desist game, Web sites operate outside the industry loop and could cause labels real headaches. "The Internet is a whole new twist," says one record company source who slips music to programmers on the sly. "Once something gets on the Web, it's anything goes."
This story is from the February 19th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.