The Elaborate High-Security Tactics Behind Taylor Swift's Album Release
Special iPads and Sharkey the security guard kept album leaks (almost) in check.
The prerelease security plan around Taylor Swift's 1989 was not a complete success -- the album leaked three days before its Oct. 27 street date -- but it may have been the most elaborate, at least for an album that more than a few people knew existed (see the gold standard in album security, aka Beyoncé).
"I have a lot of maybe-/maybe-not-irrational fears of security invasion, wiretaps, people eavesdropping," Swift told Jimmy Kimmel on Oct. 23, adding that for months the only copy of the album in existence was on her phone. At a surprise September listening party for approximately 20 fans at Swift's home in Los Angeles, loud heavy metal music was blasted out of the dwelling's windows in an effort to foil any supersonic microphones lurking nearby. Otherwise, the album reportedly lived in a safe at her Nashville management office.
For reviews, journalists were only able to hear the album through headphones on an iPad that was flown in by a management executive (accompanied, at least in New York, by a bodyguard named Sharkey) -- after signing nondisclosure agreements -- in order to avoid eavesdropping and surreptitious recording.
While bootlegging has plagued the music business virtually since its inception, extreme security measures around advance recordings generally date back to the advent of mass-market cassette duplication in the 1980s. Here are some landmarks:
-- 1993: Advance cassettes with serial numbers prevented recipients from duplicating and circulating the tapes by... um...
-- 1997: glued-shut Walkman anti-duplication technique was used by Radiohead and Capitol Records for prerelease copies of OK Computer — an innovation "advanced" to glued-shut Discmans by Epic in 2002 for CDs by Pearl Jam and Tori Amos.
-- 2002: Vinyl-only advance pressings: Jack White correctly assumed that relatively few critics were cool enough to own functioning turntables in 2002, and taunted them with vinyl-only advances of The White Stripes' hotly anticipated Elephant LP.
-- 2000s-2010s: Watermarked CDs and downloads ostensibly lead to copyright violators’ virtual front doors but can be so deeply encrypted that they’re unplayable.
-- 2011: Digital blackout: Employing CIA-like levels of security for their Watch the Throne tag-team LP, Jay Z and Kanye West recorded in hotel rooms, requiring engineers to disable Wi-Fi on their computers and save the tracks to locked hard drives. Emailing tracks was also forbidden.
-- 2013: Surprise! Plans for Beyoncé’s self-titled LP were kept secret by a blizzard of "scary" NDAs, goodwill and industry muscle. Only the highest-level staffers at Columbia Records and iTunes, the album’s initial exclusive distributor, were aware of the LP until it arrived.
-- 2014: Manufacturing a single copy may be the most secure method of all, as Wu-Tang Clan did for its up-for-auction, silver-box-encased Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.