If the internet is the Wild West of the digital age, then musicians need new-fangled gunslingers to protect them. DAVID SINCLAIR reports on a self-styled Web Sheriff
Prince can afford to give his new album, Planet Earth, away thanks to the largesse of The Mail on Sunday. But the great majority of musicians cannot, and stars and their record companies are supporting increasingly tough action to curb the illegal downloading and bootlegging which has become rife in the wake of the digital and online revolution.
One of the biggest concerns is to prevent new albums being illegally circulated before they are available to be purchased. Nick Bracegirdle, the songwriter, producer and keyboard player better known as Chicane, knows how devastating this can be.
Bracegirdle found himself sucked into a piracy nightmare when 50 copies of Chicane’s album, Easy to Assemble, were sent out, in advance of the release date, to the media, just before ownership of the major record company to which he was signed unexpectedly changed hands.
In the corporate shake-up that ensued, the album’s release was put on hold. But, thanks to the review copies, the album was effectively released whether Bracegirdle or the record company liked it or not.
“Somebody uploaded it onto a peer-to-peer site,” Bracegirdle says. “Next thing we discovered there was a guy in Russia selling it, all illegally downloaded and copied. Suddenly it was everywhere worldwide, available to anyone who wanted it.” By the time Bracegirdle had resolved his position within the record company there was no one left to buy the album. “It was two years’ work down the drain.”
With Chicane’s new album, Somersault, he has taken precautions. Like other acts, including Bloc Party, George Michael, the White Stripes and Travis, he has hired the services of a company called Web Sheriff, which specialises in monitoring and, where necessary, closing down sites that are engaged in the illegal distribution of copyrighted material.
“These days, any new album by a major artist tends to break on the internet anything between two and four months before its official release,” says John Giacobbi, the managing director of Web Sheriff. “So if you do nothing about it, by the time the record hits the stores, you’ve lost half your sales.”
To combat this, Web Sheriff has a team of 20 operatives, working in shifts, which monitors online activity round the clock. In recent campaigns on behalf of major-label acts they claim a 98 per cent “takedown rate” of websites offering unau-thorised access to pre-release material. They also monitor the more specialist BitTorrent community – a couple of hundred sites utilising high-powered technology which enables users to download a whole album in a matter of minutes. The peer-to-peer networks such as Limewire – “vast and viral” – are also monitored and policed, as are online retail sites, the most prominent being eBay. The company charges anything from £1,000 to £7,000 a month to provide the service.
The days when Robbie Williams could blithely proclaim that internet piracy was a great idea and that “there is nothing anybody can do about it” are long gone. More typical nowadays are the comments of Jack White, who says: “I think it’s a shame for generations coming up... that they’re getting everything from a mouse click. I think everyone is like: ‘Big deal, it’s not my fault. Everyone’s doing it. Everyone’s downloading.’ But it’s about the rules and who chooses to follow them.” Or, as the British rapper Sway puts it rather more succinctly in his song “Download”: “How’m I gonna make my Gs/ If you’ve got my album before the release?”
“There’s little doubt that attitudes within the industry are beginning to change,” says Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, which represents the British recorded-music industry. “There is now greater consensus... about the effects of file-sharing. The internet became a vehicle for mass copying rather than creativity. The vast majority of music downloaded from peer-to-peer networks has been commercially produced music, downloaded illegally without any payment to the people that collaborated in making and releasing it in the first place.”
The BPI, along with the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been waging its own campaign against illegal music on the internet, and has been somewhat stung by the acclaim that Web Sheriff is garnering. The suggestion that Web Sheriff may have been writing “weighty reports” and taking credit for shutting down websites when the BPI may, in fact, also have been instrumental in shutting them down is hinted at, but never officially voiced.
Although established artists accept the need to run a tighter ship, attitudes to file-sharing are still ambivalent. Arctic Monkeys are a classic example of an act apparently happy to have their cake and eat it. Having famously built up their fan-base by giving away CDs at gigs and encouraging fans to download their music for free, they subsequently (through their record company Domino) employed Web Sheriff to prevent any unauthorised copying and sharing of their second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare.
And while most acts are aware of the ruinous loss of earnings that can result from illegal trading of their music, nobody wants to put themselves in the position of Metallica, who suffered a public-relations disaster when they initiated legal action against Napster for trading Metallica songs illegally on their network, and against several universities in America for not blocking Napster from their campuses.
Bracegirdle even admits that a certain amount of pre-release activity on the internet is desirable. “You have to allow a little bit of it to go on, to get the buzz going,” he says. “You don’t want to completely eradicate all ways of people getting excited about stuff. It’s knowing where to draw the line. The thing is I’m now fairly confident that there won’t be any major breaches, which helps me to sleep at night.”
‘Somersault’ by Chicane is out now on Modena/Absolute; ‘Planet Earth’ by Prince is on Columbia