Aug 052013

Three days ago a writer named Jordan Campbell wrote a piece on the Last Rites web site under the title “Your Carcass Is Leaking – The Surgical Steel Saga”. As the title suggests, what prompted the article was the recent leak of the highly anticipated “comeback” album by Carcass on the Nuclear Blast label — an album that isn’t due for release until mid-September. I saw references to the article, most of them complimentary, by several metal bloggers I keep up with on Facebook. It’s a lively, punchy diatribe, and I was sympathetic to parts of it, but the more I thought about it the more I disagreed with it. So I thought I’d provide a contrary point of view.

To explain why I don’t buy most of the arguments, I need to summarize them. Summarizing arguments with which you don’t agree runs the risk of failing to do them justice, so I’d encourage you to read it for yourself HERE. In a nutshell, Campbell makes these assertions:

Nuclear Blast is still living in the dark ages, ignoring the power of online media and limiting their distribution of advance album promos to print magazines such as DECIBEL. (“Essentially, they’re still mired in the old-world record label M.O., refusing to alter their business model until the roof collapses. . . . Thus, print mags get the advances, and their readers the spoils. Digital ‘zines get the album at the release date, if they’re lucky.”)

Nuclear Blast does this as a form of collusion with DECIBEL and its ilk, in which the print zines get content that will boost their advertising and in return they help promote Nuclear Blast releases. (“One filthy hand washes the other, and their iron fists lord high above the lowly ‘net serfs. We clamor for the scraps.”)

To make this business arrangement work, Nuclear Blast must prevent leaks, which is another reason why they don’t give promos to webzines. (“Along this winding road, the entire package is carefully kept out of undeserving hands, preventing the dreaded leak.”)

But the Carcass album leaked anyway — which serves Nuclear Blast right for trying to keep it locked up and out of the hands of “ruthless pirates“.

A Facebook post by Carcass’s Jeff Walker suggests that maybe the leak was planned by Nuclear Blast, as a way to justify the label’s continuing distrust of webzines and persistent refusal to share promos with them. (“Leaking the album is a perfect foil for those dastardly webzines, a calculated castration of colossal proportion. With one giant sweep of the scythe, the label has effectively sliced the legitimacy from any ‘zine that reviews the record from here on out . . . [and] they’ve made the fans feel guilty about having access to an album we’ve been waiting seventeen years to hear.”)

The article ends with these words: “So take that guilt over to the Nuclear Blast webstore and place your preorder, you freeloading fuck.

Now, here are my reactions to all of this:

First, the author is just factually incorrect when he says that Nuclear Blast doesn’t provide advance promos of albums to webzines. How do I know this? Because we get advance promos from Nuclear Blast, and it’s obvious that other webzines get them, too. It doesn’t help your case when you begin with a premise that’s demonstrably false.

On the other hand, it’s true that Nuclear Blast and other large metal labels are selective in who gets their promos, and when they get them. Clearly, DECIBEL and other print mags with large distribution get them very early. So do web sites and blogs with high traffic. Less widely read sites like this one tend to get promos later (though there’s not always much of a wait), but still in advance of the release date. And of course many webzines and blogs don’t get promos until the eve of the release date, or they don’t get them at all. (FYI, we haven’t received a Carcass promo yet, but we’re still more than a month away from the release date).

Is this kind of “staging” of promos a dumb, outmoded idea? Before venturing an opinion about that, it might help to have some experience trying to run a big record label as a profitable business. I’m pretty sure Jordan Campbell doesn’t have any such experience, and I know I don’t. But it’s not as obvious to me as it is to him that it’s a stupid business decision.

For one thing, if you distributed promos to everyone at the same time, you’d tend to get reviews bunched together as well. It’s generally better for marketing purposes to have a plan — a plan in which new things appear week-by-week in the ramp-up to an album’s release. That’s one reason why labels (and DIY bands) also spread out their song premieres or music videos over time. It keeps the album visible over a longer period and helps build interest and anticipation. Obviously, you don’t have to do things this way, and many labels don’t. But that doesn’t make it stupid or backward.

There’s another reason why limiting distribution of promos and staging their distribution might make some sense: It tends to minimize the risk of leaks. Of course, that obviously doesn’t always work — the Carcass leak is a prime example. Is preventing leaks a dumb idea, too? Depends on where you sit. If you’re a fan who has no moral qualms about illegally downloading music, then stopping leaks is a bad idea. If you’re a label or a band who has a marketing plan and actually wants to make some money from making music, then seeing that plan get fucked up by a leak has got to suck. The fact that your efforts to prevent leaks don’t always succeed doesn’t mean you should just surrender, unless of course you don’t give a shit about making money from your chosen career.

When a record label gives a reviewer a promo, there’s a quid pro quo, sometimes unstated and sometimes explicit: You get to hear this music in advance, and in return you agree not to leak it or give it to people who the label didn’t intend to have it in advance. Now, if you as a reviewer don’t like that bargain, then don’t take the fuckin’ promo. But if you do take it, and then you violate the conditions under which you got it, you’ve just trashed the agreement you made. Your word is shit. If you never get another promo from that label or any others who find out about it, who’s really to blame?

Is it frustrating if you happen to be late in the staging process or don’t get promos at all? Fuck yes, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to see other web publications, especially ones you don’t think are as good as your own, come out with reviews way before you ever will. But that doesn’t make it a dumb business decision.

Does this process of limiting and staging promos involve another kind of quid pro quo — the kind that Campbell calls “collusion of the most transparent kind”, with “[o]ne filthy hand wash[ing] the other”? Is it just a carefully orchestrated mechanism for herding the mass of unwashed consumers, with both the label and the publication making money along the way? Do publications like DECIBEL or big-platform web sites twist their genuine opinions about music to suit the label’s goals so they’ll continue getting the privilege of way-in-advance promos?

I guess to know for sure you’d have to be inside DECIBEL or comparable highly trafficked web sites or know someone who is (someone who talks and tells the truth). I don’t have any personal knowledge myself. I don’t know about Jordan Campbell. But I know that I read plenty of negative and middling reviews in DECIBEL. I’m pretty sure that if I looked back through old issues of DECIBEL I would find negative reviews of Nuclear Blast releases among others.

I can’t say that I have personal experience of this kind at NCS, because our philosophy is to focus on recommending music we like and ignoring music we’re not prepared to recommend. But I can say that no label, large or small, has cut off our promos because we chose not to review releases or simply couldn’t get around to them. So while I’m not prepared to say the kind of collusion that Campbell describes never happens, I doubt that the level of caustic cynicism Campbell displays is justified.

Look, I’m not naive. I know there’s a psychological tendency to want to say positive things about releases you get in advance from metal labels, especially those very highly anticipated, high-profile releases by the bigger labels. And I’ve heard of one instance where a blog has lost access to a label’s promos after they’ve trashed some big release by the label. I’m just not prepared to tar the shit out of Nuclear Blast (which has been a mainstay of underground metal for a long fuckin’ time) and DECIBEL (which is far and away the best print publication about metal that you can find) without more evidence — and I saw no evidence at all in Campbell’s piece.

Speaking of no evidence, I’ll turn now to Jordan Campbell’s suggestion that Nuclear Blast intentionally leaked its own promo in order to justify its ongoing policy of restricting promo distribution. Hey, I get it: people love conspiracy theories, and lots of people are prone to believe that nothing is really what it seems, particularly when it comes to decisionmaking by businesses who try to shape consumer demand. But Campbell constructs his conspiracy theory on nothing more than this FB post by Carcass’s Jeff Walker:

You gotta do a lot of reading between the lines to get proof of an intentional leak out of this exasperated status. In fact, I don’t see anything in there which even remotely suggests that Nuclear Blast was behind the leak of Surgical Steel, unless “twat” is a code word for “our record label”.

It may make titillating reading to hypothesize that Nuclear Blast leaked what is probably their biggest release of the year, but seriously, it makes no sense. Nuclear Blast doesn’t need to justify their policy on promos. It’s their fucking business, they can do what they want with it, and I’m pretty sure it won’t hurt their sales one whit to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing. Fucking up their own marketing plans and losing pre-order sales of an album as big as this one just to be able to say, “See! We told you so!”, just doesn’t make much sense to me.

I guess it depends on whether you’re the kind of person who likes to see proof before you accuse someone else of being a liar and a fraud. Once again, I don’t see any in Jordan Campbell’s article. What I see instead is a load of sour grapes.

Okay, now I’ve said my piece. Undoubtedly, someone out there will want to accuse me of being a shill for the larger metal labels. I’d suggest they read this first.

As always, your comments are welcome. Leave ’em below.


  1. Mr Campbell seems to be living in a vacuum. I don’t see a problem with a label giving early access to a print zine. Heck, it’s a quality zine and respected. and if they think the album is great and willing to give you a quote that might help push a few more units, I don’t see the issue at all.

    Maybe he loves Carcass and is jealous that his name isn’t on a big sticker (I guess people have ego issues with these things, apparently)?

    Either way, unless the guy has proof, which looks like he doesn’t (and his facts are clearly wrong to begin with) seems like you said, sour grapes (until proven otherwise)

  2. Going off topic a little, but I downloaded the album yesterday and thus far, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by how good it is. I mean, it’s REALLY good! It’s melodic as hell, yet retains a lot of the grind elements of their early stuff…just a good representation of everything they’ve done up to this point. Before I get put on blast for pirating, I DO intend to buy this when it get’s released because 1. it’s a fantastic record and I want them to continue to make more and 2. Carcass was the first true death metal band I discovered as a teen and I’ve always had a soft spot for their music.

    • That is really cool to hear. Since this album has already made the rounds far and wide because of the leak, I’ve seen some put-downs, e.g., saying it’s too much like “Heartwork” and not enough like the earlier albums. There does tend to be an elitist whiff about some of these comments, and besides, I loved “Heartwork” anyway.

  3. You have officially locked horns with Lastrites. Nice article though, but i am taking a bit of both here. I am still on two minds when it comes to the Label themselves might have leaked the record. Since it might just be a “cunning new plan”, to promote their albums. Who knows. And you are right about decibel. (although i own none of their copies.) their are online content is far better than most sites out there. And Waldo’s Pecks of the Week regularly trashes albums with an indifference.

    Nuclear Blast and did i mention Century Media are the toughest to get promos from. Probably because we have no traffic at all.

    • I’m really not trying to pick a fight with Last Rites. Apart from the fact that I don’t enjoy fighting, I’ve read excellent, well-written reviews there. I just thought this article was off-base.

  4. I do a webzine and have had the Carcass promo for two weeks now. Then again, I have had a working relationship with the label (meaning they send me promos, I DON’T FUCKING LEAK THEM, and I write my honest feelings on the albums) for about a decade now, so they know that I am doing my actual job. I have never had a problem with this system at all, and I get access to their music well, well in advance.

    Also, many print zines are working months in advance on certain stories and reviews. I’ve written for one for the last few years (not Decibel), so I know this. Having the advance music helps a print writer with a deadline far more demanding than a web writer (who could edit and add and subtract right up to the minute something is published and even afterward) to have the music and prepare an interview based on it or a review. Print basically NEEDS music way earlier than zine writers. It’s simple logic. I have had instance where I’ve had an interview scheduled based on a band’s new music that the label couldn’t even get to me until the day before because even THEY didn’t have it yet. So yeah, this is why print is served early. It’s not collusion. It’s just how the schedule works.

    Anyway, build trust, be honest, do your job, and don’t fucking leak material that is not yours to leak.

    • Not having worked for a print zine, i didn’t think of the point you made about deadlines and how far in advance copy must be ready in order to make printing and mailing deadlines, which is another excellent point.

  5. As someone who gets promos for a print magazine I can also attest to print publications needing promos before online sites as we have strict deadlines, even more so for mine since we have a print magazine every week.. as far as labels stripping away promo rights to those whose opinions they don’t like, that is their choice but I think its fucked up, unhealthy, and promotes a lack of open discussion over the multitude of perspectives and opinions about a record deemed bad by the reviewer

    • I agree with your last point, and should have said so. But it’s not something I’ve heard ever happening other than the one time I mentioned in my post, and I don’t even know for sure if that was a true story. Since vindictiveness seems to be part of human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has happened, but it does seem like it would be very short-sighted.

  6. I don’t get CM or NB promos.

    That out of the way, I think this whole thing is ridiculous. This is the first I’ve heard of this whole thing, and immediately I see a whole lot of logic behind the idea that NB leaked it themselves, but not for the reason stated. It is their biggest release of the year, and, therefore, is going to be downloaded illegally more than any other, and is more likely to be leaked anyway. So, they generate controversy around it, a big ol’ shitstorm to draw attention to their biggest release of the year, and keep people thinking about the moral implications of piracy and thinking about NB. It would have been available on the release date illegally anyway, but that doesn’t make a gigantic ruckus.

    • Also, I’m given to understand they can figure out whose copy leaked based on inaudible markers put into the music. Either a lot of people are lying to a lot of bloggers about that just to scare us into not leaking*, or NB would be able to instantly out whoever leaked it and that would be the focus of the controversy. UNLESS they leaked it themselves.

      * Which is totally unnecessary in almost all cases; you have to work hard to get noticed enough to get promos, so why would you give your rewards away for free?

      • I’m not saying it’s impossible that an intentional leak happened, nor am I denying that it happened. I’m just saying that coming up with a motivation for it (which still seems strained to me) isn’t proof that it actually occurred.

        And yes, I think the watermarking technology does in fact enable users of it to know where a particular leaked copy of a file originated. I know of one other recent leak where the source of the leak has been identified. That could have happened here, too. But the fact that you and I haven’t seen something public by NB about who leaked doesn’t mean they did it themselves.

  7. This is all pretty silly. Print mags like Decibel NEED promos earlier than webzines/blogs/sites SIMPLY because they need lead time.

    • Again, a very good point. And I would have ignored this article except for the fact that I saw people linking to it as if the author was really on to something.

      • It’s the other article that is absurd, not yours. I run a small metal label and have had a couple leaks. One time we were able to retrieve a name from a watermark. This particular writer vehemently denied it even though everything pointed to him. We didn’t skewer him. I simply explained to him how disappointed I was and we removed him from future promos. So, it’s possible NB knows the culprit but isn’t lambasting them publicly.

  8. Personally I’m glad that young Jordan wrote the article. By taking a stab at my article/review which he linked on his article about the leak, he completely de-legitmized my initial opinion about “Surgical Steel” thus rendering me powerless and left cowering in a corner begging for milk and Chips Ahoy… I thank him for this being that I’m a masochist and all.

    First listen – the album was a huge disappointment.
    Subsequent listens – the album gets better and better.

    Just my take on it all…

  9. There is also one difference between web and print: the magazines have to meet deadlines so they NEED those promos earlier to get the review into the issue. Websites are updated on a daily basis, so they can wait a little longer.

    (If this was already said above please excuse me, I had no time read all comments)

  10. I don’t believe NB intentionally leaked the album just to stir up some controversy on a highly anticipated album, jeopardising their sales by doing so. Probably it was some high profile site or magazine that got the advance promo. Some years ago, Converge publically blamed Metal Sucks for leaking their Axe to Fall album, which was in fact true as the watermark promo was traced back to one of their writers.

  11. great post! i had no idea the album had leaked, crazy how far in advance some of these torrents are appearing. but regarding your comment on album reviews one of the things i love about this site is the focus on recommending music you like instead of trashing on artists you don’t. it makes all the difference in the world.

  12. The main thing I have learned from this is that anyone who reads any webzine or print source other than NCS is wasting their lives.

    • I’m so tempted to make this the new blog sub-header. Do you think it would be immodest?

      • Do it! Just make sure to put it as a quote from Andy so you can blame him for any potential backlash:
        “…anyone who reads any webzine or print source other than NCS is wasting their lives.” – Andy Synn

        • That’s good thinking. I could also put his phone number and address next to his name so people could give him their reactions directly.

          • That should help streamline the process quite nicely. Perhaps you should add a photo as well. Just in case a reader runs into him in public and wants to tell him off in person.

  13. Excellent post! I think it’s silly, not to mention to critizise labesl for having a, you know, marketing plan. Some fish are bigger than others and as many have already mention, some fish need more time just because they have a deadline 3 months before the print issue is actually in stores.

    I do not doubt that there is a certain degree of backscratching; high reviews make you more likely to be invited to that listening session at the castle in Lake Como, but that sort of corruption is inevitable and at least in my mind, not really a huge concern as reader. Out of all the blogs and magazines I read I’ve quickly learned which reviewers taste I tend to trust and whose are polar opposites of mine.

    I do know that there was an incident at the webzine Global domination, where I used to write, where the label actually asked the editor to remove a Nightwish-review they found negative and offensive. Naturally he told them to fuck off and burn.

  14. If anybody thinks the leak is going to hurt sales you need your head examined. If the album was bad, sure. But it’s a great album and word of mouth spreads faster than any review could ever do.

    • What has caused the large decline in record sales if not filesharing?

      • I’m not saying file sharing hasn’t caused a decline. I think in this instance it’ll work the opposite way. The expectations before they released a track were low. The initial track I’m sure changed that a bit but with all the great word of mouth about the leak it’s bound to help sales. I don’t think file sharing hurts the music we all listen to as much as it does other genres.

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