Commentary: How indie band Yacht duped us with their sex tape stunt


On Monday we reported that the romantic partners who make up the L.A. indie band Yacht said a sex tape of theirs had been stolen. As a result, the bandmates said they'd been forced to make the footage available for sale in order to take back some control.

Claire L. Evans and Jona Bechtolt called the theft an exploitative action by a “morally abject person” and said they hoped to take legal action against the individual. Fan support was overwhelming, with hundreds of supportive messages on the band’s Facebook page, where they made the announcement through a sincere open letter.

“You have always held such integrity, you didn't lose any of that integrity today. You were violated and victimized,” one fan wrote. “I am speechless. You two are immeasurably brave,” another fan wrote.

But it all turned out to be a phony, concocted stunt from a band looking to either make a statement about the state of music journalism or draw attention to their music.

And it largely worked.  

On Tuesday afternoon, Yacht responded to fans and media: "We released [the sex tape] as a slowly-unveiling conspiracy, inspired in equal part by The X-FilesNathan for You, and The KLF. It’s a project that allowed us to play with science fiction, the attention economy, clickbait journalism, and celebrity sex tapes all at once."

The band's seemingly desperate statement appears to be spin after backlash on social media. 

Way to exploit [people’s] earnest concern and sympathy (as well as make light of legitimately serious, traumatizing stuff like revenge porn and female sexual agency) for publicity.

— A Facebook user, writing in response to reports that Yacht misled fans

"This was not designed to make money or sell records, but to explore the intersection of privacy, media, and celebrity," the band's statement said. "We enjoy and have spent a decade creating multi-faceted projects that unfold over time, using the most current tools at our disposal."

In the duo's original open letter, the pair said they had begun taking legal action against the person who supposedly released the footage but felt it was important to explain to fans why it happened.

In the emotional statement, they pleaded with fans to “make the right decision” and not view their private act made public. Then the musicians issued a second statement saying they made the decision to take some control by putting it up for sale.

“Controlling how this video is seen, and who profits from it, is the only form of agency we have left over this exploitative situation,” they wrote.

The story caught the attention of dozens of publications, including ours.

Here was this small indie band in our backyard (one we’ve covered before) that had fallen victim to revenge porn and attempted to steer the narrative back into their favor by opening up to fans with a public letter that doubled as an official statement.

We covered it from the news angle we thought correct, taking their statement for face value, without purchasing the video – because buying the video wasn’t the story as much as them taking control over the seemingly unfortunate situation.

And as the writer of the post, I felt a great deal of empathy for the couple who wrote in detail about firing up a camera and making love in front of it to spice things up amid a mountain of pressures that put a strain on their relationship and career.

Not to mention the idea of anyone being subjected to revenge porn – a serious issue in our social-media-driven world that has led to more lawsuits and suicides than we fathom to imagine – was outright deplorable.

Hours after our story went live, a reader emailed to ask if I actually watched the film because there was growing buzz that it was all a stunt.

Had I watched the film? Of course not. Not because I’m some prude that would never watch porn, but their impassioned letter was a desperate plea of the opposite: “If you feel like you 100% have to see this tape, don’t stream it on some tube site, or download a torrent. Instead, we beg of you to download the video, Louis C.K.-style, directly from us,” they wrote.

I then did attempt to purchase the film on the quickly cobbled together website they launched to sell the thing – one where they require your email address and credit card info.

After making the purchase, I was directed to a 404 message, indicating that the tape had crashed the server. (Five bucks to watch a famous couple shag is a pretty good deal compared to celebrity porns before it).

An authorization charge of $1 by a company named Stripe was posted to my card immediately after the transaction, and then an email from the band with a receipt attached said there was no charge due to an error.

We contacted the band's representatives who told us they were not currently working with them and had no involvement in the stunt:

By Tuesday morning, Yacht’s would-be stunt had turned into a firestorm.

Jezebel wrote a follow-up story in which the writer had obtained an email from band cofounder Evans (she contributes to their sister site io9) that she posted; in the email, Evans appears to solicit coverage for the planned stunt:

“For the upcoming music video for our song, 'I Wanna [expletive removed] You Til I’m Dead,' we’re faking a sex tape leak.

In the days leading up to the video’s release, we’re going to pretend we were hacked, share and delete confessional social media posts on the subject of our privacy, then try to “get out in front of it” and sell the sex tape, fake a server crash, etc.”

And a video of the two, which has the same night vision still that’s posted on the site selling it, was released to Pornhub, a very real adult site.

The video starts off like most amateur celeb porn we’ve seen: The couple making googly eyes at each other, and bashfully flirting with the camera. And then, in the midst of passion they shed their skin and become aliens.

Stunts and hoaxes can be a brilliant way to drum up hype around an album, if done right.

From surprise drops to social media stunts, there’s no shortage of savvy and innovative ways for artists as tiny as Yacht or as big as Beyoncé to get you to talk about their music.

But there are ways to not do a stunt. And this is certainly one.

While it's true that music journalism, much like all forms of news, has struggled with finding ways to get clicks and new readers, most, if not all, outlets that covered Yacht’s story did so with empathy, believing the two were victims of a horrible crime.

An embarrassment to the music industry.

— A Facebook user in response to Yacht's reportedly fake open letter to fans

A few years ago there was a widespread leakage of nude photos stolen from smartphones and devices of celebrity women and posted to a site called 4Chan.

Though the general reaction was, sadly, to shame the women for taking photos of their own naked body on their own devices, actress Jennifer Lawrence perfectly summed up the hack, which was grossly referred to as a "fappening": 

“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It's disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”

And remember the case of former ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews, whose stalker filmed her naked body through a peephole and uploading the footage to the Internet? She had to relive her victimization in a high-profile trial. 

But not every victim gets to tell their story to Vanity Fair, get covered by the L.A. Times or have a jury award them millions of dollars.

Sure, more than half of the states in the U.S. have laws against revenge porn, but it’s often too late for some victims. Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott hung herself after being cyberbullied with photos of her own sexual assault by a group of boys; the images were uploaded to social media. Canadian teen Rehtaeh Parsons also took her own life after a similar incident. And there are many more instances like these.

What Yacht did was capitalize off the empathy of fans and use the horrific thought of having our most intimate moments disseminated to the public.

And that public support has turned into outrage. “Way to exploit [people’s] earnest concern and sympathy (as well as make light of legitimately serious, traumatizing  stuff like revenge porn and female sexual agency) for publicity,” one person wrote in response to their statement. Another poster called the band “an embarrassment to the music industry.”

In their statement, the band responded to claims of revenge porn, noting they would never make light of victims of any form of sexual abuse. 

"Frankly, it’s disturbing to us that press outlets could make the incredibly irresponsible leap from “celebrity sex tape,” which is the cultural trope this project explicitly references, to “revenge porn,” which is unfunny, disgusting, morally repugnant, and completely unrelated," the band said in their statement. "Even within the fictional narrative we created, there was no violence or exploitation. It was always about agency and proactive empowerment."

But that statement ignored the band's original claim that they had begun legal action against the person they claimed had leaked their sex tape. (Isn't that the definition of revenge porn?)

In the end it was foolish for us, and other outlets, to take their statement for face value (a sad pitfall of our overworked, under-resourced world) and not think to purchase a sex tape that they so convincingly pleaded with fans not to purchase.

Maybe they sold a few singles or got a few clicks on their YouTube videos. But was it really worth it?

May 10, 5:40 p.m.: This article replaces another article originally published May 9 that reported on Yacht's open letter, saying that its members had had a sex tape stolen. The band now says the video's release was orchestrated.

Twitter: @gerrickkennedy