The Shins’ new album, Wincing the Night Away, leaked last week, and this weekend was all about the Internet going nuts about it. Wincing, which comes out in late January, is a huge release for Sub Pop–with the Postal Service going dormant, the Shins are the label’s biggest active band. So review copies were kept to a minimum, and for the first time, Sub Pop watermarked the promotional CDs it did sent out.
Yet despite Sub Pop’s efforts, the album–in the form of low-bitrate MP3s–made its way around peer-to-peer sites and MP3 blogs.
The leak puts Sub Pop in an admittedly awkward position–how can it stoke the hype for Wincing while still clamping down on MP3-swapping? First, they put the Web Sheriff, a UK-based company that touts itself as “Europe’s leading Internet policing specialist,” on the case. Web Sheriff serves as an intermediary between copyright holders and copyright-busters, and it also cracks down on paparazzi shots and nasty rumors. (Thepunkguy posted the pre-emptive missive sent to bloggers by Web Sheriff, and it looks like pretty standard stuff, if a little laden with thanks and regards.)
The watermarked advances also help explain the leak’s subpar audio quality. The files are likely transcodes–the digital equivalent of recording a file, then recording that recording, in an attempt to strip any identifying details, like a watermark. So the MP3s that did get out were grainy–and we suspect that most Shins fans are rabid enough that they’ll hold out for higher-bitrate versions of the tracks. This could be, in a way, a case for watermarking records–although betting that all fans of every band are FLAC devotees seems like a bit of a large bet to make, and watermarking-gone-wrong can result in a reviewer’s CD only being playable on a boom box from 1991.
The most obvious way that Sub Pop can minimize the leak’s effect is also the least practical one, at least from a financial standpoint–closing the window between promo-dissemination and retail availability by moving up the album’s release date. Since Wincing is coming out in the first quarter of 2007, and that begins in January, rearranging the label’s schedule to release it earlier would be a pain in the ass. But as we watch more and more pre-releases make their way into the BitTorrent netherworld, we’re starting to wonder if the whole promo-release cycle shouldn’t be shortened considerably–even if it means that magazines, which have much longer lead times than, say, Pitchfork, get the shorter end of the stick. Whether or not 150 words and a few stars from Blender are too much of a sacrifice for labels to make, though, may prove to be the sticking point that keeps leaks like this sprouting for a while.