Column 113 — Stealing from Conor; Earl Greyhound tonight …

Category: Blog — @ 1:30 pm February 8, 2007

I know what you’re thinking: Why does such a well-respected music journalist/critic/columnist like Tim McMahan need to illegally download a copy of the new Bright Eyes EP? Surely a team of couriers was sent by Press Here Publicity (Oberst’s flacks) and Saddle Creek Records to hand-deliver a promo copy of Four Winds to Tim’s palatial Dundee address. Hell, Conor himself would merely need to drive a few blocks from his Fairacres mansion and drop one off himself. Tim doesn’t need to steal, does he?

Well, blame it on laziness. Apparently a promo copy was sent to The Reader instead of my home address. As I tell bands who want to get me a copy of their discs — if you send it to The Reader, you might as well just throw it away — the chances of me getting the CD before it falls into the piranha-like clutches of Reader staffers never to be heard from again is nil. And I drop into The Reader‘s subterranean offices only about six times a year (even though they also reside in my neighborhood). I just happened to come across the download link serendipitously during an evening of surfing, and the results are column 113. That said, I still haven’t received a copy of the new Maria Taylor CD…

Column 113: Stolen Winds
Pinching the new Bright Eyes.

A couple weeks ago I was perusing the Saddle Creek Records webboard, an online community where you can find such titillating discussion topics as “What if everybody’s hair in the entire world was shaved off and put in a gigantic container and mixed with equal amounts of peanut butter and you had to go swimming it?” and “So my boyfriend wants to buy me a dulcimer…” and even music-related topics like “Bands you wish you could have seen at their peak” (The late Elliott Smith topped most lists).

Rarely do the discussions stray to actual Saddle Creek-related topics, but sometimes fights break out over which is the best Cursive album or if Conor Oberst has “sold out” or what brand of guy-liner The Faint wears. Riveting stuff? Not really.

Still, you can find some entertaining — and useful — information reading webboards, and even get pointed toward music that you’d never find on your own (especially if you live in Omaha, where there are no radio stations that play college music). So there I was, glancing through threads about the new Arcade Fire CD and the Cold War Kids when I found a discussion thread named “Four Winds EP” — the title of the new Bright Eyes album which isn’t slated for release until March 6. Included in the discussion was a link to a web server where anyone could download the entire CD free of charge.

Post haste I clicked the link, than clicked a few times more and within a couple minutes I had a pristine quality copy of the EP on my hard drive (and moments later, on my iPod). I had become *gasp* an illegal downloader. I should have felt guilty — I was stealing directly from Saddle Creek Records and Conor Oberst and everyone who depends on the enormous cash flow that the release of Four Winds will generate come March.

But actually, I didn’t feel guilty in the least. After all, I found the link on Saddle Creek’s official webboard, where it had been for days. In fact, there were more than four pages of replies to the original thread, with each person presumably having downloaded the CD. Surely Saddle Creek knew all about the link and were using their webboard as a clever form of viral marketing. Get those kids talking about the CD, and then everyone who hasn’t stolen a copy surely will buy one in March.

I asked Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel if I was wrong, and I was. He knew that the EP “leaked” a few days prior. And no, they weren’t using their webboard for viral marketing. After pointing him to the discussion thread, he deleted it. “We try to delete anything with direct links for our music before it’s released,” he said.

Deleting the thread was easy. Why not go after the guy who ran the download server that hosted the CD files? “It’s really a losing battle,” Kulbel said. “You could spend all day every day on it and not even come close to getting all of them removed/shut down.”

Kulbel said everything that Saddle Creek releases gets “leaked” a few weeks before it comes out. “Leaked” typically refers to someone illegally uploading the CD via mp3 into the file-sharing networks. Kulbel said it’s the result of the label sending out pre-release copies of the disc. “Funny enough, it’s always right after copies go out that leaks happen. Not to nit-pick the press, they just get them first. Watermarked CDs are one method labels are using to combat this. I wouldn’t say that leaks are all bad, but they certainly aren’t all good, either.”

Stopping illegal downloading is like holding back the ocean with a spoon. If the kids want it, they’ll find it on the Internet, either through file sharing or online networks where people send files back and forth. By not actively taking on the pirates, Creek is gambling that a few hundred downloads won’t hurt their bottom line. At least not too much.

“So did you like the EP or what, you illegal downloader you?”

I had given my illegal copy of Four Winds a few spins, but could only make surface comparisons (Plus, I didn’t have a lyric sheet, yet another drawback to downloading). The title track, with its rootsy fiddle, reminded me of an old Waterboys track (off Fisherman’s Blues). “Reinvent the Wheel” sounded like “From a Balance Beam” from 2002’s Lifted. “Smoke Without Fire” was early Simon and Garfunkel, say around Bookends (especially in the lonely-sounding way it was recorded). “Stray Dog Freedom” was pure Jim James (or Matt Whipkey). I’m still on the fence over the cartoon voice used on “Cartoon Blues,” and “Tourist Trap” got me thinking Conor’s been hanging with M Ward too much lately. A very eclectic EP.

Imagine how the full-length, Cassadaga, slated for release April 10, will sound. I guess we’ll have to wait until mid-March to find out. That’s when the promos go out, followed by the “leaks.” Anyone got a download?

Tonight at Sokol Underground, Earl Greyhound with Prospect Avenue and Dance Me Pregnant. Here’s what I said about Earl Greyhound for The Reader:

Look for signs of head-trauma from NYC rockers Earl Greyhound — not from banging their heads on the stage, but on their dashboard. The trio were involved in a van accident Jan. 23 while trekking across North Dakota. Everyone’s okay, but gigs in Portland and Seattle had to be cancelled to give them time to clear their heads. Often compared to T. Rex and Led Zep (thanks to crash-bash drummer Christopher Bear, who knows his way around them cymbals), one spin of “SOS” off their Some Records debut Soft Targets suggests an odd resemblance to a cadre of ham-fisted FM staples, from The Black Crowes to Lenny Kravitz. Regardless, hop-jump back-beat ditties like “It’s Over” throttle back the blues a notch while blistering riff machine “All Better Now” recalls ’70s cock rock at its finest. Eclectic? You bet. Better find that neck brace. You’ll need it.

It’s $8 and starts at 9 p.m. Get there early to catch the grim future of Omaha punk by way of Dance Me Pregnant.

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