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Ghost in the Machine

The new Wilco album has been leaked. Should we feel guilty for listening?

The CD player is being a bad, bad boy. It's being naughty, maybe even felonious. Sure, playing music is what a CD player does; the CD player is just fulfilling its function. But what makes this particular stereo so sinful is that it's playing the St. Louis-rooted band Wilco's A Ghost is Born, the eagerly awaited follow-up to the masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, almost a full three months before Ghost's official release date.

In the parlance of our downloading times, Ghost has been leaked. It apparently first became available on the peer-to-peer network Soulseeker on March 18, months ahead of its June 8 release date. Within hours of its availability, the album had spread like wildfire throughout the band's fan base, immediately polarizing said fans into two camps: those who were getting the album as fast as they could and those who were advocating holding off until the official CD could be purchased. On the discussion board of the music site Glorious Noise (www.gloriousnoise.com), a poll of fans was split almost right down the middle, with 48 percent eagerly grabbing MP3s and 52 percent abstaining.

The way the disc landed on my desk is a good example of just how quickly a leaked album can spread. One person (who we'll call Patient Zero to shield him from Recording Industry Association of America lawsuits) finally secured a full copy of the album on Sunday, March 22 (queues to download the tracks stretched into the thousands by Thursday evening). Zero immediately burned eight copies of the disc to distribute to friends and fellow music fans, one of which got into my hands the next day (another copy ended up getting airtime on community radio station KDHX). Zero estimates that his eight copies have already spawned ten or more second-generation copies, each of which presumably will spawn its own clones.

While leaked albums are nothing new, most leaking happens less than a month before the album's release date, and the artists whose work is being pirated are much bigger stars than Wilco. Hip-hop albums such as Eminem's last LP, The Eminem Show, often have their release dates pushed forward a week or two to battle bootleggers selling leaked copies on the street. But three months in advance is too early for a record label to respond by quickly putting the album on the street, and Jeff Tweedy and the other guys in Wilco aren't the Cristal-chugging bling-wearers that Slim Shady is. So, even in these permissive iPod times, is this a step too far?

Representatives of Wilco and its record label Nonesuch did not respond to requests for interviews by press time, but it's pretty safe to assume that their answer is an unqualified "yes." When Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was leaked, Wilco's manager, Tony Margherita, released a statement that included the following: "Anyone who downloads, trades or otherwise participates in the dissemination of this material is stealing from the band. Plain and simple."

Of course, Yankee's leaking took place as the album bounced between record labels, and the fan acclaim for the leaked tracks is largely credited with Wilco securing its handsome deal with Nonesuch. And the leaking didn't prevent the album from debuting at No. 13 on the Billboard charts. In fact, most fans believe that someone associated with the band was responsible for leaking that album. But while similar rumors are already flying about Ghost, and the extremely early leak date suggests that someone involved with either the band or the label is responsible, it's difficult to rationalize a benefit for Wilco to leak the album so soon.

If you're looking for rationalization for downloading, give Rebecca Laurie of Downhill Battle (www.downhillbattle.org) a call. Her organization was one of the driving forces behind Gray Tuesday, last month's one-day downloading frenzy of Danger Mouse's The Gray Album (a remix of Jay-Z's The Black Album using samples from the Beatles' The White Album). Gray Tuesday was in direct defiance of an injunction from the RIAA and led to Downhill Battle creating www.bannedmusic.org, a site for downloading sample-heavy songs that have earned the wrath of the recording industry.

"We believe that one should download RIAA artists since the artists themselves get almost no money when you purchase their RIAA albums," Laurie explains. "It's not going to hurt them any more if you download their music. You should probably support them in more [significant] ways, such as going to their concerts. For independent artists, buy their album."

This logic gives you the thumbs-up to start downloading Wilco: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of Warner Bros., so this isn't some mom-and-pop indie label. But leaking presents its own thorny questions by preventing an artist from authorizing his or her work before it is consumed.

"Leaking is another thing," agrees Laurie. "Should you feel guilty? I don't know -- do you feel guilty?"

Well, kind of. Pulling a track off the Web has become so commonplace that even if it is wrong, it doesn't feel wrong. But getting ahold of music that is still supposed to be secret feels a little dirtier, almost voyeuristic: This isn't just stealing, it's spying. In one last effort to justify listening to the disc that refuses to come out of my stereo, I turn back to my source, Patient Zero. He feels no guilt at all.

"Everyone I gave that CD to will go see Wilco when they come to town. They'll probably buy T-shirts. They're real fans."

This echoes the sentiment of Dremin, a poster on Glorious Noise: "I swear to gawd I'm almost gonna single-handedly put Jeff [Tweedy]'s kids through college. I'm hardly a casual fan of this band and I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm too weak to resist a sneak peek."

Weak, indeed. I'm a sinner, Wilco. Can you forgive me?

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