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You Can't Buy De La Soul's Music on the Web. So How Did the Band Give It Away?

Well ...

Darwyn M. Dave
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

De La Soul gave its fans a pretty great Valentine’s Day present on Friday. Via a website, the pioneering hip-hop group gave away its entire six-album catalog, asking only for downloaders’ email addresses in return.

Free download promotions aren’t groundbreaking these days, but they’re still pretty cool. And De La Soul’s move was extra cool, because they were giving away something you couldn’t get — legally, at least — any other way: Almost all of the band’s music has been AWOL from download stores like iTunes and subscription services like Spotify, due to an odd licensing tangle involving Warner Music Group, the band’s old label.*

So how did De La Soul get the rights to give away music you can’t buy anywhere on the Web?

Maybe — probably — they didn’t.

A quick look at the metadata on the files the band distributed on Friday seems to indicate that many of them came from Rappalata, a Russian pirate site.

That’s not conclusive evidence. But it suggests that De La Soul got its digital files the same way anyone else gets digital De La Soul files these days — from someone who doesn’t have the rights to distribute them.

I’ve asked the band and their website operator for comment, but haven’t heard back. I’ve also asked Tom Silverman, who ran the Warner Music-owned Tommy Boy imprint the band was signed to for many years. And I asked Warner, which presumably still owns the master recordings. Crickets.

So in the absence of actual evidence, I’ll go ahead and speculate: What De La Soul did on Friday was a slightly different take on hip-hop’s mixtape tradition, where artists give away music that isn’t intended for sale as a promotional move. Which is more or less what they told Rolling Stone last week, minus the legal part.

The fact that this music has already been sold — and you can still buy it, in analog form — complicates things a bit. But the reason you’re not hearing squawking from Warner, for instance, is that it’s hard for Warner to argue that it’s losing any sales from the stunt, since you can’t buy the stuff online. If, say, Bruno Mars did the same thing, it would be a different story.

It’s a bummer that the band has to jump through all of these hurdles just to get their music out there (music that’s been blessed by the Library of Congress, by the way).

On the other hand, it says … something about the state of the music industry in 2014 that they can do this without raising a fuss. As far as I can tell, the giveaway went off without a hitch. And if anyone else is asking questions about the legality of the whole thing, that’s news to me. Which is refreshing!

And, of course, because it’s 2014, it’s easy enough to hear De La Soul on the Web, even if you can’t buy it that way. YouTube has all or just about all of their catalog available with a minimum of fuss. Here’s Buhloone Mindstate, their third album, and probably my favorite.

* I’ve watched this from afar for years, because 1) De La Soul’s first three albums are three of my all-time favorite albums, so I really would like to be able to repurchase them** and 2) checking to see if a music service had De La Soul has been a quick way for me to see if they’re using licensed music. The hang-up here, according to Tom Silverman, is Warner Music’s unwillingness or inability to clear the many samples that the band used.

But that has always confused me, since other labels have found ways to deal with — and sell — lots of other sample-heavy music from that era, like the Beastie Boys or Tribe Called Quest. No idea why no one’s bothered filling this pothole.

** De La Soul’s absence from my (legal) digital collection points out a problem with relying on subscription services like Spotify for your music: You can only stream the stuff they have, and while they have some 20 million tracks, if they don’t have the thing you want to hear, they don’t have the thing you want to hear. This also applies, by the way, to music the services do have at any given moment, because you can’t guarantee that they’ll stay there.

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