The Anatomy of a Leak: A Year of Crimson/Red

exitsomeoneThe first phase was shock.

It was June the 8th, 2013. 10:25 AM, a Saturday morning. I was on my way out to spend the day with friends, but before doing that checked the Sproutnet forum. I found that a mysterious new user “ExitSomeone” had signed up to post a link to Soundcloud where a set of files marked “Prefab Sprout” had been uploaded, apparently in March of the same year.

I didn’t have a lot of time, so I kicked into a sort of default procedure: any time anything turns up online I figure out the best way of permanently saving it in case it gets taken down. I had a quick listen – nothing conclusive – and saved the files. And went out, thinking nothing much of it.

ExitSomeone disappeared following this notification. We later learned that someone had emailed the site owner in March with the link as a one line inclusion in an email, but because this met a standard definition for Spam, it disappeared into a quarantine folder. You would guess it was the same person, and I’d imagine she or he was surprised by the lack of response initially.

The next phase was denial, and it’s personally rather embarrassing. To understand why I denied the album’s authenticity thrice before the cock crowed the next day, I maybe have to set it in context. I had spent the previous 3 years hunting high and low for material. Nothing had ever “just turned up”. It absolutely didn’t happen like that. Clue had to be painstakingly followed into blind alley after blind alley, extended negotiations and often refusals or other difficulties would follow, and I stupidly and rather vainly felt that if something was happening I’d know about it and would probably have instigated it.

Now there had been rumours of a new album for a couple of years: some had deliciously had it that a new album was to be called “Trapdoor Melancholy” and would precede a 10 album box set of lost work called “These Decades of Denial” – such rumours deserve to be true – but the last sighting of Paddy in about October 2012 had found him angry and depressed and never wanting to record anything ever again: he had expressed horror at the expense of “From Langley Park to Memphis” and questioned why he had ever bothered trying to make music. Neil Conti had also explained to a fan that although he’d heard something was happening, it had been abandoned. So Sprout fandom was in its usual slightly depressive default state of expecting nothing new at all ever but hoping to be wrong.

And against that context, another project was getting ready to be released: “The Prefab Sprout Project”, later “Sproutless”, were recording uncannily accurate pastiches of the Sprout sound, and there were numerous demo’s floating around here and there which could easily pass for the real thing. So it wasn’t as if it was impossible to create something that sounded convincing, and indeed precisely that was being done.

Anyway I came in that evening about 10pm and had a quick listen. I liked the songs, particularly “the Old Magician”; I was highly sceptical but kept an open mind. The theory that was forming was that this was a skilled pastiche linked to the PSP, and when I got up and listened again the next morning I felt that although the singing was almost self consciously “Paddyish” and the songs were pretty good, it was a fake. I couldn’t imagine Paddy singing “asshole”, not from any sense of offence, but because it was an Americanism. And the breathy vocals just sounded a bit too breathy. And “Danny Galway” seemed clumsy lyrically.

I mean I know it’s ridiculous in retrospect, but your mind plays tricks at such times. I went public with my doubts, there was some dispute, and eventually Rhodri Marsden of Scritti Politti tweeted that anyone doubting the authenticity of the material was probably mentally ill and I gave in. It was real.

The discovery thread is worth reading in sequence, at least for the first few days. You can find it here

01paddySo there we were, and the next phase was UTTER EUPHORIA. The files were being shared around, fans were appearing from all directions to find them, and questions were being put to anyone close to the band who might have answers although no-one gave any. A name had even been put to the album “The Devil Came A Calling” based on the inclusion of that song in an interview about an “inverse” album to “Let’s Change the World With Music”. And although it had been pointed out that the songs were on Soundcloud in alphabetical order, a theory that this was a musical autobiography had been advanced. It was a good theory: I know that because it was mine, and in fact I still prefer the alphabetical order track listing.

The Soundcloud link was taken down very quickly on the Sunday, but the cat was now out of the bag with the files available to one and all. More mysteriously, those examining the metadata to the files found the striking graphic of Paddy pictured here which was traced back to the source website – a talented graphical designer  named Alex Reece. It became the face of the leak, and in fact was later used officially as a graphic for a promo CD of “Billy” issued by GO! Entertainment in Holland. There is something about that picture that haunts and intrigues, and so it was at the time.

As it happened, the truth here was a simple imbroglio during the file sharing. Someone who had received the files had copied them into iTunes and had chosen the picture for the “album graphic”. This person then shared the files with someone else who put them onto dropbox and advertised the link widely on social media. As it was more or less the sole onward source, the picture was propagated and fed the flames of rumour. There was in fact no metadata at all in the leaked files: I downloaded direct stream copies of the MP3 files and had checked them very carefully myself.

dmcaMeanwhile, all hell was breaking loose in the official Sprout circles. In an interview more recently Paddy explained that he had “flown into a rage” because he had been planning the album to be a complete surprise. There was a flurry of activity over the weekend, and the main sharer of the files had a DMCA notice issued to ensure they were taken down. During this time I was contacting any people I could think of who might be able to verify authenticity and find out what was happening, and having listened a few times to the album considered it to be an absolute masterpiece deserving of the widest possible audience.

One of the people I contacted via Twitter was Tom Robinson, of the Tom Robinson Band, the nicest bloke on the planet, and a DJ on 6 Music. I gave him a closed download link, he downloaded the files and said he’d listen to them later, I think on the Monday evening.

The next morning I was due to take my wife to hospital for a minor surgical procedure, so got up early and had breakfast while having a look at the PC. I was astonished to find that Wendy had followed me on Twitter to send a DM, which I think was something like: “where the hell did you find these files and why are you sharing them?”. There was a brief email and Twitter correspondence after which she made it crystal clear that while it was nice people enjoyed Paddy’s music, downloading it was theft and I should stop sharing. She had also contacted Tom who had deleted the files unlistened. I said I’d do my best to stop any further sharing and pass her message on: she explained she didn’t want her name used and I agreed. The tone was best described as determined and icy: I distinctly felt I’d transgressed a line I shouldn’t have gone anywhere near, despite the fact I’d been fairly peripherally involved only in the sharing – I’d shared the files on my own Dropbox only until the Soundcloud link was taken down. It was a difficult few days for me, not least because I was unable to tell people on whose behalf I was suggesting sharing should stop, so it appeared I was being self-serving I guess. For much of the first day I was trying to do this via a Kindle browser from a waiting room in a hospital too.

And so we passed to the “Guilt and Recrimination” phase which lasted quite a while. There was endless online argument about whether the files should be shared, unilateral sharing and more arguing, fallings out and bitching. The idea that there was some self appointed fan “inner circle” was invented by those who I guess felt themselves excluded from it. Some people vowed never to listen to the songs again. Guilt became anger for a while as there was still no official word on what might be happening.

What we didn’t know at the time is that despite the initial anger and attempts at stopping the leak, the realisation had dawned at Icebreaker – the record label and investment group organizing the release – that the leak was providing massive advance publicity for the album and was more of a benefit than a problem. The release schedule that had been planned for Spring 2014 was therefore being moved forward to October 2013. Finally, on the 1st August, pre-publicity started and the release date and album title was announced on Facebook.

So what was behind the leak? I spoke to Icebreaker at the launch party for the album which I was fortunate enough to blag a ticket for, and they were very vague but said it had been a mistake. Paddy has said that he thought that investors had been given a CD which had been copied onto Soundcloud. Personally what I think probably happened was that someone at Icebreaker – a small and enthusiastic group of very nice but arguably inexperienced people – had loaded the files thinking that the wouldn’t be visible outside a closed group. As no-one found them initially, nothing bad happened and they were forgotten. The ID of the Soundcloud account, ICIMUSIC, that had been used for the album upload was later used again for a “single” edit of “The Best Jewel Thief In the World” with similar lack of security, which does rather lead me to believe it was linked to the label. Obviously that would be difficult to admit publically, but the conspiracist idea that the leak had been designed as part of a viral media campaign is way off the mark.

We do also know now that Paddy’s October 2012 depression was about being nailed to a contract and having been forced to record an album in double quick time. That’s nice to know in a way, because the subsequent interviews have found him happy and talkative and it wouldn’t be nice to feel he really felt so negative about “Langley”, but it does probably mean that Crimson/Red is the last album we’ll get as he’s unlikely to allow himself into that position again. There are still scars in the inner circle too: when I spoke briefly to Martin about the leak he made it quite clear he still deplored it, even following the success of the eventual release.

In retrospect, I find the whole process fascinating, and it does rather bring the lop sided relationship between the artist and the fan into focus: the fans sit and wait and hope and only the artist is in complete control of the situation. For a period the roles switched and it was an exhilarating roller coaster of pleasure in illicit possession of a truly wonderful album.

I’ve often asked myself what I’d do if I found myself in the shoes of an “ExitSomeone” and found a cache of hidden treasure of this sort. I’m fairly sure I’d do the same. It was ever thus: “Protest Songs” followed a very similar trajectory as I’ll describe in a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts

  1. As one of the very first to stumble onto the leak (on the first day that ExitSomeone posted to Sproutnet), the story about the leak is interesting.

    However, I’ve never felt a moments regret about downloading the songs that day, and listening to them. While I didn’t host the files to share, I certainly spread the word.

    Martin, Wendy and Paddy are from another time. They’ll never get it, and angry accusations of stealing…simply display how out of touch they are with today’s music industry.

    Once leaked, the cat was out of the bag. Expecting folks to not listen to and share leaks available on the internet, is asking too much.

    Ultimately, the responsibility is on creators to manage leaks and prevent them.

    1. The key point is not “accusations of theft” but more about the idea that having recorded an album he didn’t really want to record, it was given away before being released apparently by the people he was obliged to do it for, which would irritate anyone. It was a fast moving couple of days, and no-one was really thinking of the big picture.

      The leak did turn out to be a publicity coup and beneficial, but peoples’ perspectives will differ and it’s hard to rationalize sometimes even in retrospect.

      I don’t agree with the “from another time” narrative. Martin is very au fait with the industry, Wendy works very successfully in another facet of music anyway, and Paddy is less rooted in the bakelite era than his public persona might indicate. As was pointed out by someone recently, Crimson/Red did better commercially than some of the work of, say, Lloyd Cole who works into a much more zeitgeisty model.

  2. An interesting take on the leak and also some revelations too! I was just so thrilled to be hearing another Prefab Sprout album after convincing myself that Paddy had given up on released anything again. Last year was a very exciting one for me music-wise, 2014 turning out less so.

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