Beck is paranoid. I know this because I’m jammed into the middle seat, one row from the toilets, on a wretched American airliner heading to Los Angeles.

Adding to my hell is the tubby Midwestern seatmate who won’t stop talking about how excited he is to be visiting the back lot at Universal Studios. I consider telling him about the fire, but after about 20 minutes of him burbling about Back To The Future, I figure he deserves the surprise.

Beck’s paranoia surrounds the release of his new album, tentatively titled Modern Guilt. With CD sales on a supersonic vector downwards, timing the appearance of a new album has never been more critical. It must not — cannot — appear online before it gets a chance to be shipped to stores.

Nothing ruins careful marketing plans like an album leak. And when marketing plans are derailed, sales crater.

Take Weezer’s Red Album, which came out this past Tuesday. It wasn’t supposed to be released until June 24th. But sometime on May 7 — the day after the band finished pre-release interviews with journalists (including me) — it showed up on a variety of torrent sites, forcing the band, their management and their label into some serious damage control. No one knows who leaked it online, but given how careful the Weezer people were with the demo disc, it had to be some kind of weird inside job. We’ll see what happens with first week sales when the numbers are released on Wednesday.

A few days later, I heard the new Coldplay album, Viva la Vida, at a private listening room set up by their label, EMI. After my cellphone was confiscated, a burly dude in a security uniform wanded me as if I might have C4 wrapped in tinfoil around my chest. I almost expected him to X-ray my shoes. Would someone go to a listening session wearing a wire? Maybe. That’s how paranoid EMI is about new Coldplay music going over the wall.

Beck is being even more careful. The only listening session will be held in the L.A. offices of his manager, John Silva — hence my current air travel hell. Knowing John — whose other clients include the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World — security will be super-tight. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m fingerprinted and asked for a DNA sample. Or maybe I’m just paranoid.

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