Digital Flashback: Pearl Jam Get MP3'd

Two years ago this month, college student introduces the world to MP3 format.

Two years ago this month, an enterprising college student helped the MP3 format burst beyond the world of computer tech-heads when he posted several Pearl Jam songs on his website two months before the band's Yield album hit stores.

Josh Wardell, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Syracuse University, taped the songs from WKRL-FM, which had previewed the album without the consent of the band or Epic Records.

"For six hours straight I had my finger on the record button waiting for them to play something," Wardell told Addicted To Noise at the time.

Within 30 minutes, he converted three songs — "In Hiding," "Low Light" and "Pilate" (RealAudio excerpt) — into MP3 files and posted them to "Josh Wardell's Pearl Jam MP3 Archive" for fans the world over to hear.

Wardell later removed the songs after being contacted by an Epic representative. The label, meanwhile, moved up the radio release of "Given to Fly" (RealAudio excerpt), another leaked track, to Dec. 19 in response to the incident.

Still, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard told Australia's JJJ Radio that he didn't mind the posts.

"I'm flattered that somebody cares enough to put it on the Internet," he said.

The incident was not the first such use of MP3s. Almost a year earlier, over the weekend of Dec. 27–29, radio stations in Los Angeles and New York aired a prerelease version of U2's "Discotheque" that turned up on numerous websites.

But relatively few people heard about that leak. The Pearl Jam event marked one of the first times the world paid attention to the growing grassroots MP3 phenomenon.

"This is the first incident of its kind," an Epic source said at the time. "That's why we didn't know how to deal with it at first."

The Pearl Jam leak drove home a new reality: In the digital age, an advance play on a single radio station was no longer confined to fans in one town being given an early treat. Now, one early spin meant that the entire world could hear the track over and over again online.

It was far from the last time that record companies would crack down on MP3s. One year ago this week, the Beastie Boys removed several MP3 tracks from their own website after complaints from their record label, Capitol.