Indie record companies are using controlled (and sometimes uncontrolled) leaks of new music to generate buzz.
This year's most interesting Billboard successes have been staged by one very unlikely hit machine – the scrappy independent scene, once the province of self-professed rock geeks.
In recent weeks, albums from indie acts The Shins and Arcade Fire both recently debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, selling about 90,000 units each. The two bands soared past releases by entrenched mainstream artists such as Christina Aguilera and Nickelback. And this week, Modest Mouse, a longtime independent powerhouse – now signed to Sony – made a splash with "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank."
The commercial explosion is no accident. Indie labels may have finally found a way to harness the Internet's sizable community of tastemakers. These music labels are bringing bloggers who have a reputation for posting legal and illegal MP3 tracks into the fold by purposefully leaking albums ahead of the release.
Much as iTunes created a palatable model of digital downloading, these labels increasingly rely on carefully controlled – and sometimes uncontrolled – leaks of MP3 files to publicize upcoming records. Ever since the arrival of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Grokster, entertainment firms have grappled with the question of whether to crack down on the sharing of copyright material or find a way to harness its spread to boost music sales. Even as major entertainment firms mull similar questions relating to the spread of unauthorized clips on YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, they will be keeping close watch on the effectiveness of such "leak" strategies by small labels.