Heard On The Street

Ten years ago producer Andre Young--a.k.a. Dr. Dre--began to work on his solo debut, "The Chronic." This was the beginning of the Death Row years, and the album's recording sessions were as dangerous and freewheeling as the music itself. Into the wee hours of the morning, the studio was an expressway for childhood friends, groupies, gangbangers and girlfriends. "It was the kind of atmosphere where anything could have happened," he says. In fact, it did. Turns out that whatever drama the girls and guys whipped up was nothing compared with a more ordinary problem--theft. Some of his visitors could have easily walked off with copies of his unfinished record and then sold it on the black market. Dre now works out of a recording studio at home in Burbank, Calif. "It cuts down on worrying about who gets to what and where it could be leaked," he says. "This is a business, and you have to deal with it like that. You have to think about everything that you're doing and everybody you're dealing with." And he means everybody. These days, every visitor--even the pizza-delivery guy--gets a full-body search. "I'm real careful about who comes in the studio and hears a song," Dre says. "It could be the janitor copying the s--t and selling it on the corner."

Piracy has long been a headache for the record industry. Cassettes proved so easy to copy in the '80s that the compact disc was introduced. Then the digital revolution, complete with the ease of downloading from personal computers, gave birth to Napster. Today, music theft--especially in the world of hip-hop and R&B--is more likely to come in the form of old-fashioned bootlegging. With CD burners that are cheap and fast, bootleggers can make thousands of flawless copies of a recording and sell them to street vendors. The Recording Industry Association of America estimates that record companies lose more than $300 million a year to the streets, where knockoff CDs can go for $2.50. Troubled R&B singer R. Kelly is reworking an entire album after several songs were leaked. Jay-Z, Scarface and Eminem have been forced to record bonus tracks and juggle release dates to compete. Not that those tricks will stop the demand. "Everybody wants to tell their friend, 'Oh, you're just now hearing that? I heard it months ago'," one bootlegger says.

Bootlegging CDs--even albums that aren't finished yet--is a lot easier than you'd think. Each stop a recording makes in its journey from the studio to the record store is ripe for potential theft. "We've had instances where leaks have come from a processing plant overseas," says Pat Monaco, senior VP of sales at Universal/Motown Records Group. "Someone could just steal a disc off a machine, and before you know it you'll have copies in a flea market." The minute an artist announces a new album is in the works, bootleggers get on the job. Not surprisingly, many bootleggers or their suppliers have a regular gig in the music business. "When an artist and a producer go into the studio, there's also techs, engineers, assist-ants and interns running around," says rapper LL Cool J. Once the music is lifted from the studio, getting copies on the street takes no time. "My machines copy seven to eight CDs at a time," says one bootlegger in Washington, D.C., "but I know people who do 20 CDs and make a thousand an hour." Even the cover art can easily be duplicated. "You could go to a Kinko's, and no one is going to say: 'What does this guy want with 10,000 copies of a Nas cover?' " says DJ Kay Slay of New York radio station HOT-97. "It's a dirty game."

Bootlegging isn't entirely bad for business in the hip-hop world. It helps some artists establish street credibility--thieves bother to copy only popular acts with an edge. Bootlegs also provide free publicity. "If you're bootlegged three months before, then you're f--ed, but leaking a few weeks before your album drops helps to create a buzz for the artist," says Elliot Wilson, editor of XXL, a hip-hop magazine that reviews bootlegs in order to keep up with the latest music. Bootlegs also serve as a sort of early-warning device, letting the streets weigh in on new material. Last February R&B singer Usher was set to release a comeback album when several songs leaked out. The tepid listener response drove him to scrap the entire project. "The [songs] were garbage. It was good for him to get the feedback and go back to the studio. Look at what he came back with," Wilson says. The result was "8701," which is now quadruple platinum. Not surprisingly, some industry executives speculate that albums are often "leaked" deliberately. "Everybody always acts like they don't know where these bootlegs are coming from," says Jermaine Dupri, CEO of So So Def Records. "I think some labels are leaking. It creates a hell of a buzz, and record companies are starting to pay attention to that."

As bootlegging spreads, the music industry is trying to strike back. Some labels are placing fake albums on file servers. Others use digital codes--called watermarks--to keep tabs on advance CDs sent out for reviews. Law-enforcement agencies are stepping up their efforts, too. Last year New York City's Organized Crime Investigations Unit seized more than 3 million contraband CDs. "Imagine the amount of money involved if you have 50,000 CDs in a box going for $5 each-- that's a quarter of a million dollars," says Sgt. Thomas McFadden.

Meanwhile, artists are turning in recordings closer to the finish line, to reduce the lag time before the sales date. They're also adding features to their albums that can't be bootlegged so easily. "The Eminem Show" has sold 5.8 million copies, thanks in part to a DVD featuring interviews and performance footage. "That was a tremendous help," says Steve Berman, senior executive of marketing and sales at Interscope Records. Well, maybe not tremendous. After all, Eminem still had to push up his release date to stay ahead of the bootleggers--twice.