Watermarked CDs Cause “Paranoia” To Be Added To Long List Of Music Critics’ Problems

noah | September 10, 2007 1:34 am

The forthcoming album by former next-blog-things Beirut, The Flying Cub Cup, leaked at the end of last month, weeks ahead of its October release date. The sorta-culprit? Music writer Erik Davis, who sold his watermarked copy of the CD to his local record shop; whoever bought the promo copy apparently decided to share his pre-release bounty with his friends and fellow OiNK dwellers. Davis felt pretty bad about the whole debacle–especially since his name’s been sorta-sullied among the publicisterati as a result of all this–but his blog entry on the subject also gets into the idea of the watermarked release, and how said watermarking results in a curious spectre being hung over the already-beleaguered-enough profession of music writing:

I would like to close with a brief meditation on the spooky, SciFi aspect of all of this. By watermarking their advance CD, Ba Da Bing was hoping not only that they would make recipients too paranoid to upload, but that the object itself would do the threatening. The physical advance, not the publicist or the label head, is now attempting to renegotiate the time-honored and rather informal promotional contract between company and writer. Such renegotiations can be aggressive, and such aggression destroys the aura of chumminess that rules between publicist and writer. One of the reasons I fucked up is that the Beirut advance did not clearly announce itself as being watermarked–my name was printed on the CD, which I didn’t even notice, and there was no further warning.

This is in stark contrast to the data grenade I recently got from Warner Brothers: a CD advance of Mark Knopfler’s shitty new record, Kill to Get Crimson. This object is a pure, time capsule-worthy artifact of the copyright anxieties of the early twenty-first century. The cardboard sleeve is yellow and black and emblazoned with an enormous exclamation point, and features the following threat:

RESTRICTED RELEASE! WATERMARKED DISC! Do Not Copy – The Music on this CD Has Been Watermarked With a Unique Identifier that Allows Us to Identify the Intended Recipient (You) as the Source of Any Unauthorized Copies.

My favorite thing here is how the text creates an addressee through the bullying use of “us” and “you”. The media organization announces that it is now an “us” acting like a data police force, and it then throws in the paranthetical second person “you” the way a cop shines a flashlight in your eyes. This “contract” creates a you that is already guilty. And you didn’t even ask for this thing to show up at your door!

On the flip side of the CD, “you” also find the bullshit claim that by opening the package, you are agreeing to the fat paragraph of legalese plastered below. This language includes the hilarious proviso that the CD can only be listened to by the recipient–no girlfriends, no dogs, no neighbors. When you rip open the package, you discover that bad cop has been replaced with good cop by way of a final note: “Thank You for Agreeing to our Restricted Release Terms. Please Enjoy the Music!”

How is anyone supposed to enjoy music after such an Orwellian negotiation! It is as if, as the loss of the physical storage medium continues to undermine the economics of the record industry, the industry is using the object to fight back. It sends humble scribes packages that speak, that has powers of command, that can manipulate behavior and–if you dare to rip it open–even grant pleasure.

Moreover, the watermarked disc itself is, in some informational sense, alive, or at least virally infected with the digital ghost of my life. When I let that Beirut advance slip out of my hands, a little piece of me went with it, a chunk of virtual identity that I hadn’t agreed for it to appropriate and that I didn’t even know about. Instead of the old informal economy of circulating copies of music, I had become enmeshed in an emerging and far more claustrophobic world of endless virtual contracts and licenses, a world where objects command and the turn against you, where music has become data, and enjoyment little more than the processing thereof.

In a way, this whole “digital ghost” idea is pretty apt, if kind of spooky; I’ve seen CDs marked with familiar bylines in pretty much every used-CD emporium I’ve been to (some even in the shrink wrap, ouch!). Is watermarking CDs really an act of intimidation? Perhaps; I know that when I see my name printed on an advance that I get in the mail, it simultaneously makes me feel a little excited about the album (it’s important if it has to get protected, right?) and worried (OH NO HACKERS). But both leak culture and the lousy position that the music business is in are making writers and people who put out music more suspicious of each other, and not in the good “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” way. I still am pretty firm in my belief that the only way to solve this problem is to get rid of the idea of the long-lead advance–for bands like Beirut in particular, where so much of the demographic is Internet-savvy and more likely to pick up a band based on a Pitchfork review than a Blender writeup. But that’s an old habit that isn’t likely to be broken anytime soon, which means that we’ll probably have to hear about stories like this for at least another year or so.

My Data Crime [Techgnosis, via Boing Boing]