Lots of musicians have given their work away for free, but De La Soul is different. On February 14th, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Three Feet High and Rising, they uploaded their back catalog and made it available to anyone who signed up for their mailing list. There are at least three really interesting things about De La's Valentine's Day gift, especially given the fact that the albums on offer have never been available digitally before.
Of course, they almost weren't available last week, either. The original links sent out that morning went to a Dropbox account, which (no surprise) was almost immediately shut down for excessive bandwidth use when everyone on the Internet went to download the free tracks. A new solution was soon found, but it just goes to show that even a band that you'd think would absolutely have a nerdy, Internet-savvy friend, didn't. I kind of like that, though. It gives the whole affair a charming, straight-from-their-garage feel to it.
The first interesting thing is the question of why the albums were released for free in the first place. Reports are vague, but the gist is that De La Soul's label, Warner Brothers, hasn't cleared the samples on the albums, so they can't be sold online. Due to the weirdness of music contracts, you can still buy a physical copy of Three Feet High — it's even been re-released with bonus material a couple of times — but you can't buy the MP3. While it's true that people still buy CDs, I'm guessing that number doesn't include most of De La's fanbase.
But that leads us to the second twist in the story, which is that what De La Soul did is probably illegal. Like a lot of musicians, they own the songs, but they don't own the music: the master recordings of those albums are owned by the label instead. The fact that De La Soul could be sued for pirating their own albums explains a lot about both the weird, exploitative world of music contracts, as well as the ambivalence a lot of musicians feel for labels.
Let's say that nobody sues, however, and Warner Bros. decides to tacitly endorse the giveaway. De La Soul still doesn't have access to the masters, so how did they get the songs to distribute? Interesting fact number three: when people examined the metadata for the tracks, they turned out to be from a Russian file-sharing site of dubious legality. Basically, the band really did pirate their own work. I'm a little disappointed they didn't rip their own CDs, but considering that they didn't have anyone around to tell them not to use Dropbox as a CDN, we probably shouldn't be surprised. It was probably easier this way, anyway — which says a lot about the music industry, as well.
If what De La did was legal, does that make the pirated copies also legal? Would it have been legal for me to download the exact same files from Russian servers while the "official" songs were available? And now that the campaign is over and you still can't buy Stakes Is High from Amazon MP3, are the pirate sites back to being illegal? Nothing I can remember from the Napster days answers these questions for me — although to be fair, all I really remember from Napster is a number of novelty punk covers and making fun of Lars Ulrich.
Assuming they're not sued, and so far they've gotten away from it, the download promotion should be good for De La Soul. Or to put it more bluntly, they probably figured it couldn't hurt, and they're likely right: if these songs were never going to end up for sale online, most of their remaining value is promotional (for shows and other albums) anyway. So it's a savvy move, but it's one unlike the other artists (Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead) that have offered their music for free online. Those bands were issuing new material, unencumbered by sample clearance, and in support of an entirely different genre. I suspect a lot of classic hip-hop artists in similar situations may be watching this new promotion with a lot of interest. Chances are, that's just the way De La likes it.