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Music labels spring leaks – for publicity

Indie record companies are using controlled (and sometimes uncontrolled) leaks of new music to generate buzz.

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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.

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