Web Music Leaks Spur Studio Clampdown

By | July 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Long an artist’s sanctuary, the commercial recording studio is becoming a virtual fortress, guarding against the potentially devastating consequences of theft.

The thieves’ targets are the rough mixes, outtakes, alternative takes and finished masters that traditionally have been loosely handled, even by the artists themselves.

Leaks of this material are nothing new, but the advent of unauthorized file sharing on the Internet has greatly increased the consequences of this phenomenon.

Recent albums by Eminem, 50 Cent, Korn and Radiohead were all available online prior to release, because unauthorized copies were leaked to unknown parties. In such cases, marketing strategies are disrupted, official release dates often must be changed and, presumably, sales are lost.

For recording studios – already affected by tighter recording budgets – this unfortunate reality has demanded new, unprecedented layers of security.

“There’s a safe now in every studio, and eventually we’re going to build those safes into the walls,” says Kelly Garver, studio manager at NRG Recording Services in North Hollywood. “We are designing a new studio with safes built right into the floor.”

Serious music fans and collectors have for decades hoarded bootleg records and tapes purchased at second-hand stores and collectors’ shows. Typically made from third- or fourth-generation analog tapes, these rarities were frequently of poor or unlistenable quality.

While the circulation of bootlegs annoyed many artists and label executives, the recordings did not significantly depress legitimate sales.

The digitization of music changed all that. At the same time, recording technology has increased the potential for studio theft.

Many master recordings are now largely created within a computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW). These masters spend at least part of their existence on removable hard drives that can be easily stolen.

For NRG Recording Services, the recent sessions for Linkin Park’s “Meteora” inspired new and permanent procedures, many of which are being applied at studios worldwide.

“It really became an issue with the Linkin Park album, because they were so concerned about security,” Garver says. “It brought it to our attention. This is clearly very important now, and we need to take steps for all of the artists that are coming in.”

Linkin Park, like some other acts that have recorded at NRG, hired a private security company for the duration of the “Meteora” project. “They went to extreme, extreme, steps,” Garver observes.

In a busy recording facility, clients, employees, deliveries and rental equipment come and go through the day and night; studio personnel admit it is impossible to keep a constant watch on everything and everybody.

“When we did the last Aerosmith record, I recorded all the strings for the album,” says recording engineer Allen Sides, owner of the Ocean Way and Record One studios in Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, Calif., respectively. “We rented a Pro Tools, we took the discs and put it into the Pro Tools system and did the string date. When they left and the rental company picked up the Pro Tools, the entire album was sitting in the Pro Tools drive bays!

“This happened all the time. We changed the way we did it, and now we have dedicated drives, specifically for the projects, that don’t go anywhere; they stay with the projects.

“We have vaults where we keep tapes and drives and such,” Sides adds. ” I can’t tell my clients exactly what to do with their product. To some degree, they control their own project.”

Sessions for Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” which took place at Ocean Way, were leaked online weeks prior to its release.

Studio principals are understandably eager to absolve themselves of any actions – or lack thereof – that could lead to theft. But the ease and speed with which a digital copy can be made carries a corresponding, exponential increase in that possibility.

Artists and producers routinely create rough mixes at the end of a session. In an age of CD burners, MP3s and peer-to-peer services, however, the potential for disaster is significant.

“I’ve got 50 employees here, any of a dozen rental companies coming and going, guitar techs, tuners – everything,” Sides says. “I see CDs of albums just lying around. It’s been extremely loose, so I’ve certainly made some suggestions of ways to deal with this.

“One is that the drive stays with the project. I would suggest pulling them out and locking them up at the end of every session and not just leaving them sitting in the Pro Tools.

“The other thing, of course, is to really cut down on the CDs that you make. Honestly, artists are working, and they’re making CDs every 30 minutes, taking them to their car and listening to it. Sometimes they’ll have 30 CDs sitting in the trunk.”

Garver says artists have stopped casually burning session updates to CD.

“They’re being very careful about that, actually. If they are burning – a lot of people will burn a mix at the end of the night – they’re keeping track within the session of what CDs are made and what’s on each CD and who they’re going home with. So if that mix ends up on the radio, we can track it back to whoever took that CD from the band. But generally, we’re encouraging people to not make those extra CDs, and if they do, to keep them here and safe.”

In addition to these measures, the practice of instilling rigid rules of conduct in new studio employees – who are typically young and computer-savvy – is of great importance to commercial studio management.

At the Village Recorder in West Los Angeles, where Korn recorded “Untouchables,” CEO Jeff Greenberg notes that content security was stepped up more than 18 months ago. Though he will not confirm it, it has long been understood that a project arousing tremendous curiosity – “Chinese Democracy” by Guns N’ Roses – is in progress at the Village.

“We’re doing some really high-profile stuff, and we’re very, very cautious,” Greenberg says. “Our staff is not permitted to listen to anything in the building unless the clients are present.”

“We have an entire employee manual that deals with stuff like this,” says David Amlen, owner of Sound on Sound Recording in New York. “It’s something that, in this day and age, you have to do.”

When hiring new employees, Sides says, “we talk about property rights and how serious these issues are. I make it as clear as I can. It didn’t used to be that big a deal, but it’s a huge deal.”

In addition to traditional security measures – Amlen, Greenberg and Sides all refer to attaching ID numbers and/or bar codes on all incoming and outgoing media-the new paradigm of storage area networks requires another area of care. “We have a completely password-protected, double-secure storage area network,” Greenberg says, “so that nobody can access anything without the permission of the project engineer.”

A central server for multiple control rooms “is an area of concern,” Garver says, “but we have a huge firewall protecting that network. Someone comes in, and they are assigned one or two of our drives for their session, which are locked in our drive bay in our server room.”

A ROLE FOR LABELS

Not only are studios applying every means available to maintain the security of ongoing sessions and, by extension, their own reputation, but many have reached out to labels – which, along with the artist, suffer most acutely when an album is leaked.

“We warn the clients that if they’re sending stuff to A&R people, they should abrogate it with time-outs and stuff,” Greenberg says. “And we tell everybody that any time something physically leaves this place, they’re in danger of someone burning it or ripping it.”

Garver says, “My personal opinion is, once it goes to the label, it’s on the Internet.”

The Firm’s Rob McDermott, who manages Linkin Park, says the outcome of the uncommon security surrounding the “Meteora” sessions is self-evident: “The proof is in what we were able to do the first week: 810,000.

“We’re a very Web-friendly band, and we believe that people should be able to trade songs that we give them to play with and do what they need to do with,” McDermott says. “But it doesn’t mean that they should be able to get my whole album months in advance.”

He adds, “We destroyed everything that we made, if we made any listening discs.”

Linkin Park did the same thing at Soundtrack Studios, the New York facility where “Meteora” was mixed. “We pretty much had around-the-clock security at Soundtrack,” McDermott says.

Sides notes that such caution with loose copies was unnecessary in the past. “No one really thought about it, because they didn’t go anywhere – there wasn’t anywhere for them to go. Now, there is.”

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