These days, it’s almost a given that a record will be available online before its release. Or, if it’s not, that it’ll be streaming shortly thereafter, essentially for free, provided you’re willing to a few commercials. But how did the industry get that way? Everyone knows about Napster, but who was actually leaking the records that ended up getting passed around online. The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of Dell Glover, a North Carolina man who worked at Universal Music Group’s CD pressing plant and used rubber gloves, scheduling, and seven expensive CD burners to leak hundreds of records to the internet, including albums by Kanye West, Eminem, and 50 Cent. Detailing Glover’s rise through IRC and into “topsites,” the piece is a little tech-heavy, but incredibly interesting all the same, especially for those who are interested in the continuing decline of the music industry’s business model.
Most interesting is Glover’s process for actual album theft, which is below. Though he claims he never did it himself, instead using an army of subordinates and friends within the plant, it’s still an interesting look at just how leaky the music industry is, especially in its lower echelons. Behold:
In addition to the randomized search gantlet, a fence had been erected around the parking lot. Emergency exits set off alarms. Laptop computers were forbidden in the plant, as were stereos, portable players, boom boxes, and anything else that might accept and read a CD.
Every once in a while, a marquee release would come through—“The Eminem Show,” say, or Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” It arrived in a limousine with tinted windows, carried from the production studio in a briefcase by a courier who never let the master tape out of his sight. When one of these albums was pressed, Van Buren ordered wandings for every employee in the plant.
The CD-pressing machines were digitally controlled, and they generated error-proof records of their output. The shrink-wrapped disks were logged with an automated bar-code scanner. The plant’s management generated a report, tracking which CDs had been printed and which had actually shipped, and any discrepancy had to be accounted for. The plant might now press more than half a million copies of a popular album in a day, but the inventory could be tracked at the level of the individual disk.
Employees like Glover, who worked on the packaging line, had the upper hand when it came to smuggling CDs. Farther down the line and the disks would be bar-coded and logged in inventory; farther up and they wouldn’t have access to the final product. By this time, the packaging line was becoming increasingly complex. The chief advantage of the compact disk over the MP3 was the satisfaction of owning a physical object. Universal was really selling packaging. Album art had become ornate. The disks were gold or fluorescent, the jewel cases were opaque blue or purple, and the album sleeves were thick booklets printed on high-quality paper. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of extra disks were now being printed for every run, to be used as replacements in case any were damaged during packaging.
At the end of each shift, employees put the overstock disks into scrap bins. These scrap bins were later taken to a plastics grinder, where the disks were destroyed. Over the years, Glover had dumped hundreds of perfectly good disks into the bins, and he knew that the grinder had no memory and generated no records. If there were twenty-four disks and only twenty-three made it into the grinder’s feed slot, no one in accounting would know.
So, on the way from the conveyor belt to the grinder, an employee could take off his surgical glove while holding a disk. He could wrap the glove around the disk and tie it off. He could then hide the disk, leaving everything else to be destroyed. At the end of his shift, he could return and grab the disk.
That still left the security guards. But here, too, there were options. One involved belt buckles. They were the signature fashion accessories of small-town North Carolina. Many people at the plant wore them—big oval medallions with the Stars and Bars on them. Gilt-leaf plates embroidered with fake diamonds that spelled out the word “BOSS.” Western-themed cowboy buckles with longhorn skulls and gold trim. The buckles always set off the wand, but the guards wouldn’t ask anyone to take them off.
Hide the disk inside the glove; hide the glove inside a machine; retrieve the glove and tuck it into your waistband; cinch your belt so tight it hurts your bladder; position your oversized belt buckle in front of the disk; cross your fingers as you shuffle toward the turnstile; and, if you get flagged, play it very cool when you set off the wand.
The entire piece is here, and is well worth a read.