About 7 a.m. last Wednesday, I received an email. “Want the new U2 album?” Within seconds, I was listening to U2’s No Line on the Horizon.
A legitimate online store in Australia accidentally made the full album available for about two hours while Europe and North America slept. A few fans bought the album, re-ripped it to remove any digital locks and set it free. The tracks went global in seconds. A disaster for U2 and its label, right?
But since I believe in gunmen on grassy knolls and that the government knows that grey aliens are regularly kidnapping hillbillies, I began to wonder whether this really was a leak.
Argument for: The album leaked through the online store officially used by Universal Australia. Universal is U2’s record label.
Argument against: Why would the world’s biggest record label do something that sabotages sales for an album by its biggest band?
For: This was actually the second leak. A week earlier, it was available on Napster Mobile. But since no one has ever heard of Napster Mobile, it went unnoticed. Could the Australian leak have been a mulligan?
Against: U2 manager Paul McGuiness is one of music’s most outspoken people on the problem of piracy and illegal downloads. He wants ISPs put on the hook for money lost due to file-trading.
For: Reaction to Get On Your Boots, the first single, has been tepid. An album leak gets people talking about U2.
Against: People will talk about U2, anyway. The band played for Obama and opened the Grammys.
For: According to Forbes, only one-eighth a band’s income comes from album sales these days. U2 will gross a $250 million from its upcoming world tour. A new CD is just an excuse for U2 to go on the road and make some real money.
Against: When you sell more than 10 million copies of each album, one-eighth is still a lot of money.
The real answer is probably “It was all just a mistake.” You can keep a new album secret as long as it stays in the studio, but the moment you have to ship it to pressing plants and download stores, it can all go horribly wrong very quickly. All it takes is one digital copy.