What Happens To An Album’s Pre-Release Cycle In An Era Of Leaks, Low Sales, And Dead Magazines?

Lucas Jensen | April 23, 2009 11:00 am

One of the main reasons for album leaks is the nature of the traditional press cycle. Press outlets–in particular, print outlets–have what’s called a “lead time,” a reasonable (but sometimes unreasonable) amount of time necessary for them to have the record in order to cover it around its release date. The industry standard is three months, but it can vary based on frequency of publication. And as print media tries to compete with online media for timeliness, some outlets have demanded even longer lead times–which, of course, means more time for a record to be out there, and more time for it to leak. Preventive measures like watermarking can help, but in a big office, it can only take one unscrupulous writer or an intern who didn’t know better to screw the whole thing up.

Indie labels (and budget-conscious divisions of majors) can’t always shell out for watermarking, though. And the indie music release schedule, with less releases per label, has a more “get it out there” mentality. (After all, what’s the penalty for a publication skipping out on indie band X or unknown rapper Y or experimental CD-R band Z? Usually nothing. There are so many artists out there that something will fill the editorial well.) For artists like Gnarls Barkley, who rush-released their post-“Crazy” album The Odd Couple last year, shorter lead times don’t mean they won’t get print press coverage; any savvy publication will usually find a way to cover bigger artists when the news cycle dictates. For smaller artists and labels, less lead time means less print coverage, and review-centric Web sites like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Dusted still need time to disseminate albums to their writers in a timely manner. The content delivery is different, but the process is actually quite in line with tradition. Whether leaks actually help or hurt is implicit in the question of long lead times mattering, but it’s so hard to judge what effect they have in an industry as volatile and complex as this one. We decided to go to some different folks in the music biz, and ask them what they thought about long lead times in the era of leaked records, a shifting media landscape, and declining sales. Are they an anachronism in an era where print magazines are dropping off each week? Should artists just get their material out there? How has the shortened press cycle affected them? People at print magazines are obviously in favor of long lead times, perhaps in partl because they feel the need to make an effort to keep up with the Joneses of online media. Matthew Fritch of Magnet:

Long lead times allow me to do my job. I can plan features and reviews so they’re still (somewhat) timely when the issue comes out. That’s the nature of print. It’s not 1-hr photo. This reminds me of the circa-2006 discussion about switching to digital servicing for press (as opposed to CD advances). While digital servicing does save money and postage for labels, ask any publicist or journalist about which method of delivery gets more response. Likewise, a record with a longer lead time gives editors a chance to reserve space in an issue for coverage or (gasp) actually think about how the release can be covered in an interesting way. Anyway, a release with a short lead time is more likely to end up covered on our website and not in the print mag. Print coverage is still – as of noon today – more coveted than online coverage. By the labels, I mean; that’s not a value judgment on my part.

While that last point can be debated, I will say that in my experience, a lot of labels–particularly old-guard indies–still adhere to the “print is better” philosophy. Mark Redfern from Under the Radar had similar opinions:

Long lead times still serve a valuable purpose for me as an editor of a print magazine. I imagine that websites/blogs don’t care as much, but long lead times are necessary for a print mag to stay remotely competitive with the online media. It takes us a couple of months to put an issue together and the ideal is to be covering records that are due out after our issue first hits stands. Once we go to press, it still takes another three weeks or so for the issue to be printed and distributed. So it’s essential for us to hear records around three months before their release dates. We generally only like to interview bands whose new records we really like, so we always try to hear a band’s new record before committing to an interview, whenever possible. For us, there is no con to long lead times. But I understand that for labels there is a security/leaking issue. I feel like our readers ideally want to read about an album before it’s released or at least close to the album’s release date. If we are sent albums as they are released, instead of three months prior, then we will be forced to review albums after their release date and won’t be able to compete with blogs/websites. We’ll be forced to review albums on our website before we review them in our print magazine and if all our big reviews have already appeared on our website for free then why would anyone buy the print magazine to read them. All of this could help spell the end of print music magazines, which are already having a tough enough time as it is these days. As it is, a bunch of indie music mags have stopped printing in the last few years. Some have just folded altogether, others have stuck around as websites or blogs. I’m talking Harp, DIW, No Depression, The Sentimentalist, Rockpile, Amplifier, and Resonance, all of which have stopped printing. Now who knows exactly why each mag ended. Some of them likely felt they couldn’t compete with websites and blogs, be it in terms of coverage or ads. Of course, the music industry has been in decline for a few years now, perhaps because of the Internet and leaks, so labels have less money to spend on ads. Shortening the lead time will only make it harder for print music mags to keep doing business. If the record is good, then a leak could help build some buzz about the album and the word of mouth buzz would be good. Obviously there are certain people who will just download leaked records for free and never actually buy them. Others never download leaked records. I never do, but then again, I get all my records sent to me for free by publicists and labels. I’m not involved in the business side of the music industry, so I don’t really know how much leaks affect sales. It seems that with new bands, if the record is good then a leak could help get the word out. But with bigger, more established artists, then a leak could be harmful I suppose, especially if the album is bad. But aren’t most records leaked these days, and yet the music industry still survives (just about)? I can see how some records are “over” before they are out, but it seems that way to me because I get to hear most albums early. For regular music fans, I’m not sure if most records are “over” before they come out, unless they’re actively searching for leaked records on a regular basis. It seems to me that music fans still care about release dates and still anticipate the date that a new album by their favorite artist comes out. But what do I know, I haven’t been a regular music fan for 7 or 8 years now. Shortening lead times would damage how we run our business and make it harder for us to compete with blogs/websites. When recent records by Radiohead, The Raconteurs, and Bloc Party were all released without any lead time, we weren’t able to review those notable albums in our print magazine until at least a month or two after their surprise release dates and by the time we were able to run an interview with Bloc Party in our print magazine the record was kind of old news. If a label doesn’t want a record to leak, then just send us a copy-protected and/or watermarked copy or send us a secure online stream. Not that I leak records anyway, but even if I wanted to I wouldn’t know how to leak records sent to me in those formats. Another factor is that some records take time to grow on you. If we are only sent records when they are released, or just before they are released, then we’ll feel the need to rush out a review. Some records that are growers will suffer and will receive lukewarm reviews when they might have received a better response if we’d been able to spend more time with the record. The question that labels and publicists have to ask themselves is this: Do they value the coverage that they receive from print magazines? If the answer is yes, then they need to continue to send us records around three months prior to their release date, otherwise we won’t be able to compete and will go out of business, especially when it comes to independent music mags like Under the Radar. Finally, it’s not like most indie music journalists are making a ton of money doing this job. One of our perks is to be sent a bunch of records for free and to get to hear them before everyone else. Labels, please don’t take that perk away from us!

Charles Aaron, music editor of Spin, is a little more pragmatic about the situation:

Magazines and artists and record labels all have different rooting interests. Obviously, it’d be easier for me, in putting together a relevant magazine reviews section, if I could get a copy of every album 2-3 months before release (a copy, of course, that wasn’t widely available to the public, so people would need to read the magazine to find out about the record). Obviously, that ain’t the case, so you adjust accordingly. We all know downloads and leaks hurt sales badly overall — poor Kid Rock will never sell 10 million copies of one of his opuses ever again! Tragic!! But in general, considering the current environment, if the record is really good (like, say, the new Animal Collective), then if it “leaks,” it doesn’t hurt that much; it just stokes interest. But if the record is only sorta interesting to mediocre to lame (like the majority of everything), then it definitely hurts. Do I really need the physical artwork for another Jim Jones or Razorlight or whomever album?

Steve Labate of Paste likes long lead times, too, and doesn’t think leaks are so bad. (And he doesn’t think it’s journalists who are necessarily releasing unreleased Yeah Yeah Yeahs tracks into the wild):

Without long lead times, we’d all probably be dead from sleep depravation and acute stress by now. With leaks, it’s pretty simple… almost without exception, they hurt huge, established mega artists (who can afford to take a hit) and non-performing artists (lazy bastards!), but they help up-and-comers who are making a living on touring and merch. Sure, a leak might cut into album sales, but if people want music for free they don’t need a leak to get it. They can just find it for free online when it comes out, or rip it from their friends. But a leak can generate buzz, make new fans and help sell tickets for an upcoming tour. And, if people are true fans, they’ll be excited about a leak and check it out, but they’ll buy the album anyway when it comes out, to support the band. That said, I don’t think it’s usually music journalists leaking material. It’s a lot more likely that it’s someone grabbing a copy during manufacturing. And as far as the feeling that records are “over” before they even come out… sure, I feel that way sometimes, but who cares? Let’s get our heads out of our asses and remember that 90 percent of music fans in the general public don’t even know an album’s out ’til a few weeks after it hits shelves. They’re too busy living their lives.

Freelancer Kurt Reighley has observed the landscape changing, and sees the shortening of lead times as a good thing:

In my personal universe, long lead times have virtually evaporated. My two biggest long-lead periodicals, No Depression and The Advocate, both underwent radical editorial changes in 2008 (the former ceased publication, the latter went monthly and cut all arts reviews), leaving me less concerned with long leads. Whew. Honestly, it was getting increasingly difficult to pull of assignments with long leads. I lost several plum gigs last year because I couldn’t get advance music on an artist — The Killers and Kelly Clarkson are just two examples — and since I don’t live in LA or NYC, couldn’t sit in a label office and listen under the watchful eye of a publicist. So I lost $$$ and they lost press. For reviews, long leads are thing of the past. One possible option is a return to the sort of criticism we used to see in the past, where fans knew it was going to be a few weeks between a record’s release and the flush of informed opinions in big periodicals. I do want to read what people who’ve devoted time & thought to a new record have to say about – I also accept that WHEN they will get that time is changing (again), and won’t be in advance of an album’s release. I can live with that. It might raise the bar for music writing in some circles again. Possibly. For features… well, “soft features” don’t seem to involve much music anyway regardless. And, again, the periodicals I really love – like MOJO – aren’t afraid to write about an artist a couple months after the record is released. Or tie a feature to something other than an album release.

Reighley sees leaks of unfinished music as the real problem:

Obviously leaks of unfinished material hurt artists. Until the music is ready for public consumption, they’re allowed to guard it closely. I’d feel just as freaked out if someone unauthorized read a rejected draft or early pass at a piece of writing I was working on. And leaks cut into potential profits, but how much do album sales account for an artist’s income these days anyway? It seems it’s the labels that are really freaked out by leaks of finished product – because they’re still trying to adapt to the quickly-changing landscape. As a music fan, sometimes it is really hard not to leak stuff. I can’t recall ever posting something on the net – that’s just not my style – but I have definitely previewed songs on my radio show long before they were widely available to the public, simply because I thought the music was so awesome I couldn’t stand to sit on it. Somehow, I find it hard to feel guilty about that.

Mike Fink helps run The Kora Records, an independent label out of DC with a small roster of artists like Meredith Bragg, the LK, and Gregor Samsa. He comes out in favor of long lead times [ed. note: many of these interviews were conducted a couple of months ago], though he is coming around to short lead times, with a caveat:

Long lead times are still helpful when you are a smaller label and/or working to break a new artist to allow for the biggest window to grab’s people’s attention. That said, we’ve been able to maintain/grow the buzz on our most recent release, Fredrik’s Na Na Ni, 2 months after its release date. Word of mouth is still a powerful way of creating a buzz. With the ability to service press with an album electronically, it helps make a bigger impact when you do have a short window, but it may take a lot of convincing to get someone to listen to an artist they’ve never heard of before, which is why you like to have more time…and why you need to send certain tastemakers a real copy of an album to get them to give it a spin. Leaks seem to be inevitable and more of an indicator of how well a project is doing. The more it leaks, the more kids are talking about it. That said, a shorter lead time will lead to less saturation and could help avoid chances of it being “over” before it’s properly released. We’re going to find out soon, I’ll let you know how it goes! If a band tours for their release the better their chances with a short lead time.

Adam Heathcott and Sara Padgett-Heathcott of Portland indie Hometapes employ the “Stars model” of combating leaks, though they still employ long lead times to garner print press:

I don’t know if [long lead times] really “serve a purpose” for us…but we’re told we have to do it for most print magazines. If the print folks are getting it that early, we go ahead and get it to the online folks as well. However, this inevitably means that copies end up in used bins and more importantly on download blogs. Our way to combat the leaks is to make it available from digital outlets on the same day the press gets it. From what I understand, writers are people, too. It’s not surprising they share things before a physical release date. For a fan, it’s totally natural to want to hear one of their favorite band’s new records as early as possible. We’ve also found that many of the fans, when given the opportunity to support bands and labels, will do just that. The last three albums we released this way (digital first, physical later) have been far more successful in both digital and physical sales than releases that were being passed around 3 months (or more) prior to either format of release. (I’m curious if other labels have experienced this).

Hometapes struggles with the usual indie complaint: having to sit on a record that’s ready to go:

I’d love to be able to put less stress on our artists when scheduling new music, shows, and tours. With 3+ month lead times, that means I need their final master a good bit before that. Have you ever had to tell an artist they are going to have to wait an additional 3 months before their record comes out because they missed the spring or fall release season? Bad times. The 3+ month lead time is a con for Hometapes because it pressures the creative process that we put every project through. We cherish the translation of the record into a physical object and we believe that our records are best-experienced when writers can hold that object, or some near-representation of it, in their hands. To coordinate this magical convergence of sound and vision, and to have everything printed and assembled with 3 months to spare, has proven an impossible task. We’ve found ways to compensate, like by sending the nicest promos we can muster with a generous lead-time and by following up with physical copies when we can. However, this doesn’t really seem to always do the trick.

Leaking hasn’t really hurt them like it hurts big releases. In fact, it presents opportunities and hype:

Sometimes, it seems like it helps. When one of our albums gets passed around a string of download blogs we almost always see a spike in digital sales and orders from our site. I just hope people remember that records cost a little bit of money to come into existence. We’ve had pretty decent luck with the longevity of our releases as most of our artists don’t generate the “OMG-I-HAVE-TO-HEAR-THIS-NOW” fever (yet). We lose out most of the time to larger labels’ releases when it comes to early hype and coverage on release day, but we’ve gotten used to our artists picking up steam over time while they’re out on the road.

Christina Rentz of Merge Records says that her label employs watermarking to combat leaks for big releases, but seems OK with them for their smaller artists:

We use watermarks for large, highly anticipated releases. They are very expensive, but actually do the job. [At the time of the interview] M. Ward hasn’t leaked yet, but check back on Wednesday and it’ll be everywhere, because unprotected copies are going out on Monday! Otherwise, we aren’t usually too worried about it. In my limited experience with these things, as long as an album isn’t highly anticipated, leaks are beneficial as a way of generating interest.

Publicists we talked to were probably the most hostile to long lead times. One online publicist for a large PR firm (who asked to remain anonymous) had this to say:

In terms of online promotion for an album release, long lead times are counter-productive, but ONLY if you look at it through the lens of what was formerly expected from an online promotion campaign (reviews, mp3 placements and blog mentions, perhaps a few live reviews and some interview opportunities). Sometime in 2007 – but certainly throughout 2008 – saw a moving of the goalposts which has changed the whole game. This is when radio, online and traditional publicity started to blur the lines, the landscape has gotten noisier and noisier with a lot more players on the field, more competition for clients and at the same time, labels/artist’s expectations and desires for more creativity and outreach to break through the clusterfuck reached critical mass. Oh, and we’re doing tour support now as well. Good times. Frankly, I am fucking exhausted. But to do a good campaign in 2009, it will be necessary for a longer “set up time” but not specifically involving the mailing of disks and distribution of advances. The concern over leaking seems so 2007 to me at this point. Maybe I’ve become too cynical. Glass half full = more substantive and contextual opportunities for music discovery than ever. Glass half empty = Until the monetization issues with the music business is resolved, we’re all totally fucked. As I mentioned, my whole job has changed. Now it’s lots of meetings about social networking strategies, merch bundling, crazy ideas about how to milk attention for months on end using a variety of online assets. So in the end, shorter lead time doesn’t give one enough space to think of anything clever enough to amuse the fans for more than a nanosecond.

Daniel Gill of Force Field PR works with big-name indie artists like Panda Bear, Beach House, and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. He sees a major problem with magazines extending their lead times to keep up with online outlets:

The problem I see with long lead times is that the labels I work with have a hard time getting a release together with five months lead time. Most of the magazines I would consider to be “long lead” now have four or five months lead time. People are asking me [in January] about May and June records and I don’t even know what’s coming out in May and June. I have one big May record and it’s not even done yet, so I don’t have music to send them. There are only a handful of magazines with the super-long lead times that are really worth it, so sometimes we just say “fuck it” and just work with the 2-3 month lead time and see what we can get. I just announced this record that comes out in [four months], and I’m already too late to get it reviewed in some magazines. That’s ridiculous. And then there is the other thing. The label didn’t have the budget to do watermarks, so next week the record will inevitably leak, as soon as the promos land, and because of the long lead requirements the record will be leaked four months early and there’s nothing to be done about it.

As far as the Stars model, Gill is skeptical:

Some writers feel like it’s old news if it’s been on iTunes on for a few months, which is the only problem I see with the Stars method (putting the record up on iTunes on the same day the record is announced and then doing a physical release 3 months later). I didn’t see a ton of press on the Stars record after that initial story. I like what Animal Collective is doing, releasing the vinyl first with the digital download, but that record still leaked even with watermarks and Web Sheriff.

In the end, Gill thinks lead times don’t matter in the face of intangible hype, like the kind that has greeted his clients Wavves and the Vivian Girls:

If I have a brand new, unknown band I’m trying to break, what’s the point of me sending it to these people five months in advance anyway. They’re not going to do anything with it unless they hear about it online first. Timing it is really tricky. You have to break a band online with the first record and go for print on the second. Sometimes something goes apeshit crazy like Vampire Weekend or the buzz continues on afterwards. If the buzz is there, like with the Vivian Girls, it has to happen organically. You can’t just make something like that happen – it really just has to come from the band.

We tried (and will continue to try) to talk to people in the hip-hop/R&B world as well as major labels for this story. If you have something to add, comment below or e-mail us at tipsATidolatorDOTcom. Disclaimer: I have promoted to and/or worked with pretty much everybody here in some capacity, which is probably why they returned my e-mails!