When Digital Thieves Strike, Artists Act Quickly to Seize Opportunity When Music Is Purloined, Artists Try to Exploit Opportunity

JOE COSCARELII NYTimes.com 1/21/15

When nearly 30 new Madonna songs, many of them unfinished demos, surfaced online last month, the singer and her team reacted both emotionally and with a savvy business acumen tailored to the digital era.

In public statements on Instagram, Madonna called the leaks “a form of terrorism” and likened the theft to “artistic rape,” urging fans not to listen to songs that were “stolen long ago and not ready to be presented to the world.”

But behind the scenes, Madonna’s team was scrambling not only to find the source of the leak, an investigation that resulted in the arrest of a man in Israel on Wednesday, but also to set the stage for her new album, “Rebel Heart,” which had not yet been announced. It wasn’t quite the surprise album strategy used most famously by Beyoncé, but something more makeshift: Within days, six songs from the album had been polished and officially released for sale on iTunes and Amazon, with the rest of the album promised on March 10.

This week, Björk mirrored that aggressive digital maneuvering when her new album, “Vulnicura,” which had been announced only four days earlier, leaked online in full more than two months before its scheduled release. After the appearance of “Vulnicura” on illegal downloading sites over the weekend, the singer’s record label rushed the entire album to digital retailers, and by Tuesday night, it was available for purchase worldwide.

In the online music age, advance leaks are all but inevitable — Björk’s and Madonna’s happened to come exceptionally early — but the same distribution methods that make downloading stolen songs a breeze can allow artists to take control of the chaos and try to make lemonade from a sour situation.

“In the past, labels tried to shut down leaks by hiring so-called ‘web sheriffs’ who stopped blogs from sharing the links,” said Staffan Ulmert, the founder of HasItLeaked.com, which tracks early album releases. “But it’s really difficult to shut down a leak once it starts.” Recently, the strategy used by artists and their labels has shifted:

“Madonna is the first big artist I’ve seen try to make money off of it by going to iTunes,” he said.

Previously, Mr. Ulmert said, labels would offer an online stream after an album leaked, either through a media outlet or a site like SoundCloud. “But I don’t think they are generating a lot of money,” Mr. Ulmert said. “I think when it comes to big artists, we’ll see more of this in the future.”

The six Madonna songs have sold a combined 146,000 units so far, according to Nielsen Music.

In addition to making some of the leaked songs available for purchase, Madonna pursued the matter through private investigators and, eventually, law enforcement. In December, Guy Oseary, the singer’s manager, approached Wizman Yaar Investigations, a Tel Aviv-based firm that specializes in intellectual property theft and commercial leaks.

Alon Levy, Wizman Yaar’s head of high-tech investigations, said the firm sent investigators to New York to check Madonna’s personal computer, and using the data they collected, tracked the theft back to Israel. After a few weeks of “undercover activity” and “surveillance,” Mr. Levy said, the firm had zeroed in on a suspect and turned the information over to the police.
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On Wednesday, Micky Rosenfeld, the foreign press spokesman for the Israeli police, confirmed on Twitter that a 39-year-old man “suspected of hacking known artists’ computers, stealing and distributing songs” had been arrested, although Madonna was not named.

An Israeli police unit said in a statement that the suspect “broke into the personal computers of several international artists over the past few months and stole promotional final-cut singles which have yet to be released and traded them online for a fee.” Law enforcement officials did not identify the suspect.

The law enforcement unit added that it had “collaborated closely with the F.B.I., with suspicion of even more break-ins to computers owned by unknown international artists, stealing and selling their works.”

While online album leaks have plagued artists since the dawn of Napster in 1999, Mr. Levy, the investigator, said targeted thefts, which range in scale from a single song to the North Korean hack of Sony or the stolen batch of celebrities’ nude photos, are increasingly prevalent. “There is a full world in the dark net that specializes in trading data,” he said. “If you have a buyer for data, you will find someone to bring it to you.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Madonna thanked those “who helped lead to the arrest of this hacker.” She added, “Like any citizen, I have the right to privacy. This invasion into my life — creatively, professionally and personally — remains a deeply devastating and hurtful experience, as it must be for all artists who are victims of this type of crime.”

Björk’s label, One Little Indian, has not approached any law enforcement agencies about the leak because it was focused on releasing the music, said Derek Birkett, the label’s founder. “We had lots of discussions about alternative ways to get it out,” including preorders and streams, he said. While putting out the physical version of the album in March remains a priority, One Little Indian ultimately decided to release the full album digitally first: “Björk called me up and said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” Mr. Birkett said.

Björk, meanwhile, avoided directly mentioning the leak at all. “ ‘Vulnicura’ will be rolling out worldwide over the next 24 hours!!” she wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, announcing the change of plans. “I am so grateful you are still interested in my work!!” she added. “I appreciate every little bit!!!”

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