Since the issue of CD piracy has struck a cord with the readers of this blog, I talked to one other expert in the field, Director of Digital Marketing, Stephen Bolles, at Gold Dust Records (People Under the Stairs, Zion I, Large Pro, among others) in Brooklyn. Having been on both sides of the issue, as a writer and on the label end, Bolles explains there's no easy answer.
NB: What's your stand on the issue of sending full length promo CDs to press 3- 4 months ahead of time?
SB: There isn't a perfect median between the needs of both sides. Press lead times keep getting longer and longer, so in order to get material into issues when the record's still fresh, writers need to have access to the music months in advance. Obviously, it sucks to have to write about something you haven't heard in full (and this happens a lot, too) so a means for writers to hear the full album is a necessity. At the same time though, it's a GUARANTEE that the album is going to end up on the internet shortly after full CDs are circulated to the press. It's usually not even malicious, just people ripping the CD and putting it in a folder that they forget is shared on a file sharing service, or making a rapidshare link and sending to some folks and it ends up on a blog, or whatever. But it's an inevitability, and once something gets out online, the time and energy it takes to try to combat its spreading is usually more trouble than it does good. And I've seen firsthand, albums circulating online months before it's available to be purchased in any form really does hurt an album's sales, and even it's buzz.
NB: What has Gold Dust done to prevent illegal downloading with respect to promo CDs?
SB: What we've been doing is putting together CD promos for the press that feature five full-length tracks, and snippets (usually 30 seconds or so) of the remaining tracks. We then have a password protected streaming player that's available on request for people who would like to hear the whole thing, and a limited quantity of watermarked full length CDs (though these can be really expensive) whose content is traceable back to the original person to whom it was sent if it turns up online or wherever.
NB: Have you found it to be successful?
SB: For the most part this has been the most successful middle ground we've been able to come up with. People can get a good impression of the album, and if they want to hear more there are ways to. There are still a couple of problems though. Writers are flooded with so much music at all times that adding hoops for them to jump through (such as requesting a streaming player or a watermarked CD) in order to hear a full album can hurt your chances of coverage, especially with artists that don't have a long standing reputation or strong following. Also, streaming music (even at high fidelity) isn't really the best way to listen to music. Ideally people could have a chance to listen to music however they like (in their cars or on their IPODS or whatever) and this kind of takes that opportunity away. One other thing is that with high profile projects, even limiting the full tracks sent out to five can be problematic. Obviously you want people to hear the strongest tracks so they get excited about the record, but if all the potential singles get leaked on Nah Right or OnSmash or wherever before they're even available digitally, there's a lot less incentive for folks to check them out when they hit digital retailers, which is where the bulk of our singles business is these days. So it's not a perfect system. But it still beats annoying drops, and really, why would you want someone who is supposed to be listening critically to your output to have to sit through someone yelling "Album in-stores blahblahblah" every two minutes?