Meet the Web Sheriff

Fighting music piracy via ominous blog comments and pre-written apologies

Ed Droste, frontman for Brooklyn's beloved Grizzly Bear, is an unlikely target in the battle against leaking new albums early. Nevertheless, when he recently found a new Animal Collective track floating around online and liked it enough to post it on his own band's blog at Grizzly-Bear.net, he immediately came under fire from someone called the Web Sheriff, who cited the incident as "no laughing matter" in a series of e-mails and ordered the band to take down the as-yet-unreleased MP3. Droste complied, and was further ordered to leave a pre-written (by the Sheriff) apology up on his site for a week.

So here's the newest soldier in the other Bush-era war with no end in sight: the arbitrary and unseemly battle over music piracy. What began with Metallica calling out Napster (and the Recording Industry Association of America suing a 12-year-old for illegal downloading) has now led here, to a London-based organization of "Internet policing specialists" whose website claims to combat everything from libel to pornography. But the Sheriff has become most notorious for unusual efforts to prevent album leaks, which, until recently, mostly involved leaving ominous comments on personal blogs.

John Giacobbi says he started Web Sheriff—now boasting a 20-member "core team" with two U.K. offices and plans to open a third stateside—as a means to "take care of online-rights management for artists, managers, and labels, entailing everything from managing album leaks and manufacturing watermarked CDs and DVDs, right through to building and managing websites and YouTube channels, and actually filming and editing content for them," adding that the concept came about "through my long-standing representation of the Village People and the increasing amount of online issues that started to arise." Feel free to read that again.

I'd had my own run-in with his company. In June, I scratched out a list of my favorite early 2008 albums for my blog, including Hold Steady's Stay Positive, then rushed to iTunes several weeks before it hit stores due to early leaks. I didn't post any MP3s or really write a review, but I still received this message in the comments section:

On behalf of Rough Trade, Beggars Digital and The Hold Steady, many thanks for plugging "Stay Positive" (street date 15th July) . . . thanks, also, on behalf of the label and the band for not posting any pirate links to unreleased (studio) material and, if you / your readers want good quality, non-pirated, preview tracks, "Sequestered in Memphis" is available for fans and bloggers to stream / link to on the band's MySpace. . . . Thanks again for your plug.

Regards,

WEB SHERIFF

This is a new species of crackdown; the RIAA never reached out to people for not leaking an album. Searching for similar comments, I found them on sites ranging from the well-known (Gorilla vs. Bear) to the obscure (Harley Blues, Swan Fungus). Some recipients took offense. The proprietor of BerkeleyPlaceBlog.com (who only wanted to be identified as "Ekko") likened the Web Sheriff to Big Brother in a post titled "Open Letter to a Watchdog," wherein he announced he wouldn't provide any further promotion for the Kills or add them to his "Best of 2008" list after the Web Sheriff left a message asking him to take down two live bootleg Kills tracks that he'd posted. He argued that the tracks removed were neither from an official album nor copyrighted content, but received no response. (Both the Kills and Hold Steady declined to comment for this story.)

"I'd say about 90 percent of what I review is submitted to me—many PR teams and indie labels submit to my site regularly," Ekko told the Voice. "So that must be some indication that they believe the impact is positive." The D.C.-based blogger considers the Web Sheriff to be "obnoxious," and counterproductive to its clientele: "If you look at the raw data, you will see that record sales have not been hurt by MP3 blogs. Those artists who are most blogged about also sell the best. . . . The top 10 albums traded on Usenet, for example, are also the top 10 selling albums. Again, I don't advocate [giving away] entire albums, but the record companies need to gain a little perspective." (Indeed, the best single-album sales week of 2008 belongs to Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which officially arrived after so many illicit leaks and bootlegs that the rapper cheekily named the bonus disc The Leak.)

Ekko also remembers the time a major label sent him a promo CD and then balked when he posted an MP3, reminiscent of last year's surprise police raid on DJ Drama and DJ Cannon for "racketeering" street mixtapes loaded with tracks provided by the same industry that now vilified them. Labels both minor and major have benefited from such underground promotion: 50 Cent is just one of many rappers to score a major-label deal via mixtapes, and most cite a slew of well-regarded 2005-2006 "bootlegs" as the fuel for Lil Wayne's astronomical chart ascendancy this year. Similarly, bloggers like Ekko see this sudden rejection as labels biting the hand that blogs them.

The Web Sheriff appears to act as the middleman for (slightly) smaller imprints whose artists are assumed by many to look the other way on illegal file-sharing and industry-sales figures, concerns more synonymous with the RIAA and the larger companies they represent. Nonetheless, "Every time we've used Web Sheriff, we've done so with artist and management approval," says Matador Records co-president Gerard Cosloy. "Some artists are more interested in this stuff than others. We did have one instance in which an artist and their manager objected to the tone of Web Sheriff's correspondence to a blog. That's out of the three times we've used them." (Cosloy declined to name which three artists Web Sheriff was hired to protect—Google searches turned up blogs targeted regarding Matador artists Cat Power, Mogwai, and Yo La Tengo.)

"The majority of the artists on our label have expressed concern over the manner in which file-sharing impacts sales, as several are quite concerned about material leaking early," Cosloy continues. "Everyone understands how positive buzz/chatter in blogland is useful. Conversely, a crap review or a ton of negative message-board comments about a low bitrate [MP3] of a song that might not even make the final mastered version strikes many artists as a terrible way to bury an album." As to targeting MP3 blogs specifically, "It's a little hard for us to get a third party like Web Sheriff to fully grasp the nuances of what's the difference" between one-track cheerleaders and, say, torrent sites simply offering the full album, "so we tend to make hard-and-fast rules for everyone."

John Giacobbi is swift-spoken on a call from his London office: "We don't have a statistic or anything like that, but I can say quite categorically, yes, it has made a significant difference," he says of his company's efforts. He also touts the Web Sheriff's other pursuits, including aiding an artist when "a picture of his house and coordinates to the home" were posted on a fansite. His company's day-to-day routine consists of "watching" blogs, peer-to-peer networks, and torrent sites, all while listening to free music—surprisingly, his offices receive promos weeks or months in advance, just like the press. ("Well, we have to know what we're looking for.") The "Outlaws Gallery" featured on WebSheriff.com explains that other offenders include sites that "superimpose the heads of female stars onto hardcore images," plus a Moby fansite with a "Stalking Moby" section, here referred to as "disturbing."

As for Grizzly Bear's pre-written apology, "We're not at liberty to discuss details of specific cases in this instance," Giacobbi says. (Both Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear declined comment.) "But we can say that it's common practice for the wording of an apology to either be provided by or pre-approved by the injured party."

Droste's entry on his band's blog now reads, in part: "If I've offended anyone in the Animal Collective family with my excited post, I apologize. It was meant to generate even more excitement for what will surely be a great album, and yes the Web Sheriff is just doing his job." He further notes that he found "Mr. Sheriff's" letter "funny."

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