Leaky media, lucrative media?



I’m not exactly sure when the “leak” came into vogue as a sales and marketing tool. Perhaps the seeds were sown in 1972 during the Watergate era, when information relayed from a shadowy character named “Deep Throat” helped topple the Nixon administration – and transformed a couple of Washington Post reporters into instant legends. Maybe it came a year earlier when former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg passed the Pentagon Papers to a couple of newspapers and shed a damning new light on a faltering U.S. military effort in Vietnam. Possibly I’m being too journalism-centric on this sort of thing and the “art of the exclusive” – and its penchant for profitmaking – claims its heritage elsewhere.

Yet one thing seems certain in these heady days of the early 21st century. The “leak” remains very much alive and much more than well. Particularly when it is used to generate advance buzz and apprehension about an awaited new product in a variety of media- and content-related industries. And especially when the product comes from a previously established producer.

Throughout much of our latest reading on changes that have beset the music industry in the ever evolving digital era, we learn that much angst from artists, producers, distributors, etc., concerning the – shall we say – “premature release” of new music led to innovative new strategies to thwart such efforts.

One example offered is that of the British band Radiohead, which after having four earlier recordings leaked before the official release date, turned the tables by “leaking” its own music [In Rainbows] online as well as using other tactics [such as “pay-what-you-want” for a low-bitrate download] to drive sales for more “proper” items such as the full CD or box sets [pp. 240-241]. How effective was it? Only effective enough to claim a top spot on the Billboard charts in January 2008 [p. 241]. Nine Inch Nails tried the same thing soon thereafter with its album The Slip, which later reached No. 12 on the billboard charts.

Again, as with In Rainbows, the Nails also cashed in with the physical release of its album. And in both cases, each cause gained extra mileage from media outlets eager to tell the story of how “smart” these well-known artists were for taking such an original approach to their fan base [p. 241] – particularly in light of the adversarial attitude that the recording industry took toward much of its MP3-sharing, song-leaking audience. In the words of one industry journalist: “They are the only industry I can think of that openly scorns, disrespects, and tries to fleece their audience at every turn” [p. 239].

That said, music is hardly the only media industry that – overtly, covertly, accidently, or on purpose – benefits from the “leak” [or appearance thereof] as an effective marketing tool. Case in point: The Apple iPhone.

We all have heard the story of the iPhone 4 leak back in March 2010 when an Apple software engineer mistakenly left a prototype at a bar and the thing ended up going viral:


So what happens a year later? Something that is starting to become a regular tradition – not only with Apple and not only with iPhones – but all manner of consumer electronics.

As the release date for the iPhone 5 [er, iPhone 4S] crept closer and closer, reports circulated throughout the media that yet another leak had surfaced.


Then followed by stories of “sorta leaks:”


Only to have the whole kit-and caboodle debunked …


However, early reports indicate that sales are hardly disappointing [then again, you know how early reports can go – just look at the previous link]:


Yet perhaps the key passage to take from all of this is the role that publicity and a pre-existing name brand plays in making these “leaks” pay off. As chapter author Eric Harvey writes, artists, tech companies, content producers, etc., do not profit from leak alone [p. 241]:

“Much of these artists’ success in these ventures came from the extensive media coverage that typically attends the news of any new release by internationally famous artists, especially innovative and generous offerings like these. There exists little evidence to suggest that this sort of model works for lesser-known acts.”

— Bill W. Hornaday

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