Who leaks music, and why? It's a question with a complicated answer.
The illicit tapes of yesteryear were bootlegs: unofficially released recordings of concerts and, occasionally, promotional copies of since-cancelled releases. Bootleg recordings took on a life of their own, with some becoming legendary parts of artists' discographies. Danger Mouse had The Grey Album; The Beach Boys had Smile; Bowie had Santa Monica '72.
It's 2018, and the game has changed. The connectivity fostered by the internet poses a significant problem for artists and their labels, who must contend with the oft-anonymous hackers who stand to benefit from leaking unreleased material. Whilst leaks were once a risk associated with distribution, they're now an ever-present threat to any successful, sought-after musician. The same audiences who once relied on industry insiders to rip a physical CD now rely on the work of mysterious thieves who infiltrate Google Drives and escape with CD quality (CDQ) masters.
From journalists to hackers and everyone in between, let's delve into the varied and unpredictable world of music leaks.
Cast your mind back to 2017, when Tyler The Creator's Scum Fuck Flower Boy burst onto the scene. The internet erupted into spirited debate about Tyler's sexuality weeks before the release date, thanks to a high-profile leak of the entire album. Tyler's introspective approach to sexuality only worsened the leak, as fans and newcomers alike flocked to hear his heartfelt admissions. Was he being serious? Was a rapper famed for edgy, homophobic lyricism earnestly coming out, or was a famed troublemaker resorting to his usual outrageous press strategies? Flower Boy prospered as debate ensued.
It would be naive to suggest that this isn't what Tyler intended: "Garden Shed," which makes the most overt reference to Tyler's sexuality, is an album track. It's safe to assume that such an admission would attract interest, and that that interest would act to promote the newly-released album. This well-planned strategy failed to account for the ever-present threat of leaks, which have destabilised many a top-tier release.
Some of the most anticipated albums of the century have suffered from significant leaks. Björk's Vulnicura, her eighth studio album, was leaked in full two whole months ahead of schedule. The highly-anticipated album, only just announced, had no confirmed album cover, track listing or featuring artists when it burst online, spoiling months of carefully orchestrated album promotion. Björk refrained from legal recourse, unlike Madonna, whose 2015 record Rebel Heart suffered a similarly substantial leak. A month-long investigation ended with the arrest of a 39-year-old Israeli man, who, unknown to Madonna and her label, had stolen the tracks from her computer and sold them on to opportunistic fans.
Whilst pre-internet musicians worried about the physical dissemination of their unfinished records, Internet-era artists must contend with an unpredictable landscape in which their tracks are always at risk of appearing online without their consent. The 1993 leak of Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion was a watershed moment for the music industry: for the first time in history, an album leak could be easily broadcast and disseminated around the world. Whilst that leak boasted hefty download times and poor sound quality, rapidly improving technology has paved the way for nigh-instant downloads of CDQ albums and tracks.
The New Normal
In a traditional model, there are five major points at which a release schedule can fall apart. The graphic below outlines the risks associated with each stage.
Though this model concedes that leaks are almost inevitable, it provides a structured look at the vulnerabilities of the supply chain. Many artists and bands opt to release their albums via streaming services and digital downloads before distributing their physical copies to stores. In postponing the shipping until after the release of the record, the artist allows fewer opportunities for pre-release piracy.
Despite this intuitive tactic, the traditional model of leaks has been all but usurped by hackers. The fact that Rebel Heart and Vulnicura leaked months prior to their scheduled dates reflects poorly on the music industry. Unable to keep up with ever-improving technology, their grip on art and content is increasingly precarious.
Charli / T-Pain / Kanye
Charli XCX is an interesting case: whilst she's yet to officially announce her third studio album, she's been suffering from ongoing leaks for the last year. It's a subject she has been reluctant to address in interviews. Speaking to EW in December, she offered a brief condemnation:
"I’m just so honestly pissed off about it that I’m figuring out how to deal with that myself. That’s all I say on that."
Charli has haemorrhaged more than 40 original, unreleased tracks in the last 7 months, a factor that's believed to have indefinitely delayed her long-awaited third studio album. Precise details about the leaks are few and far between, and Charli's reluctance to explain the ongoing issue only compounds the mystery. The fact that the tracks are leaking individually, and not as a part of an assembled album, again begs questions. How has the leaker got ahold of Charli's unreleased catalogue? What relation are they to the artist - a friend, a producer, a mixing engineer or a complete stranger? Could Charli herself be behind the ongoing leaks?
It's definitely not unheard of. Artists such as T-Pain, M.I.A., Danny Brown and Ab-Soul have threatened to leak projects shelved or otherwise maligned by the powerful labels behind them. The collision of artistry and business allows release schedules to be dictated by projected sales and earnings, a fact that angers both musicians and fans. Without any label troubles, it's safe to assume that Charli isn't leaking her own material: XCX released two mixtapes in 2017 alone, also earning enviable critical and commercial successes with standalone singles such as "Boys" and "After The Afterparty." Whilst it seems the entire world is prepared for Charli's upcoming record, the leaker - whether a hacker or an associate - seem to have indefinitely postponed her much-anticipated project.
Whilst this kind of ongoing leakage is rare, unpredictable leaks often force artists and labels to make brash decisions regarding their work. There are generally two strategies: either the release date remains unchanged, or the record is rushed to market in order to capitalise on buzz created by the leak. Björk opted to rush Vulnicura to market, whilst Madonna held strong with her scheduled 2015 release.
One notable response came in 2003, when Kanye West's landmark debut, The College Dropout, leaked. The fledgling rapper took the leak as an opportunity for reflection: instead of rushing the release to coincide with the untimely leak, he withheld the album and continued to polish it into 2004. When it was officially released, the track listing had been revised. Five tracks included on the leaked version - "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly," "Keep The Receipt," "Heavy Hitters," "My Way" and "Home" - were replaced on the final product. Verses from messy demo "Home" would reappear on his 2007 hit single, "Homecoming." Kanye's decision to workshop his seemingly finalised record both negated the leak and saved him from releasing an altogether messy debut. It would ultimately be one of the most important decisions of his career.
However, as Kanye's star continued to grow, he would again find himself at the mercy of increasingly entrepreneurial thieves.
It should come as no surprise that leaks have become a lucrative business.
Website HasItLeaked.com offers fans a comprehensive directory of what albums have prematurely leaked online. According to site creator Staffan Ulmert, leakers "want the attention" that possessing an unreleased record brings. Whilst Ulmert doesn't actually advocate for piracy or leak albums himself, his website is an important bastion for fans on the lookout for upcoming albums. Once you know it's out there, it's usually surprisingly easy to source a dependable torrent.
Larger groups such as Music Mafia, however, are more than happy to provide leaked music to consumers - for a price. With a website registered in Tonga and servers based in Iceland, MM are a mysterious group of pirates who turn leaks into a profitable business. Their model is simple: Music Mafia somehow sources the unreleased tracks before hosting snippets online, urging fans to put bitcoins towards a total sum. Once that sum has been met, the tracks are leaked in full, at which point they usually spread across the internet like wildfire. This GoFundMe-esque model lead to the high-profile leak of two unreleased Kanye West tracks, "Euros" and "Hold Tight." For fans of artists such as West - top-tier musicians with long stretches between albums - the prospect of new music is enough to warrant purchasing the track off a third party. Recently, a Travis Scott leak hosted by Music Mafia was sold, yet went unreleased, spurring suspicions that labels would rather pay off leakers than share unreleased material.
In the eight months since Music Mafia emerged online, they've procured and distributed tracks by artists such as Kanye, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Meek Mill, Justin Beiber, J. Cole, Travis Scott, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Lil Uzi Vert, Mac Miller, Future, Maroon 5, Post Malone, A$AP Ferg and Kehlani. A relatively honed focus on hip hop may suggest that the group has connections in the fledging hip hop industry, though it may also indicate that hip hop fans are more willing to illegally procure unreleased tracks. Music Mafia represents the worst of fandom: it encourages consumers to pay thieves for access to stolen art, an ethical issue that clearly fails to dissuade a content-hungry audience. It robs musicians and artists of time and money, instead rewarding anonymous thieves and their distributors with financial support.
So how does a consumer ethically interact with leaks?
The obvious answer is abstaining from all unauthorised releases, but there are cases where engaging with a leak seems an attractive prospect. For example, this writer listened to the leak of Joey Badass' ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ in the interest of imparting fair judgment. My thinking was thus: at the time that AABA leaked, Kendrick Lamar had hinted that his upcoming album was also releasing on April 7. On "The Heart Part IV," a standalone single presaging the release of DAMN., he rapped:
You know what time it is, ante up, this is in forever
Y'all got 'til April the 7th to get y'all shit together
Ultimately, DAMN. would not arrive until April 14. Kendrick's seemingly clear-cut album announcement drove me to seek out and listen to Joey's AABA in the hopes of avoiding unfavourable comparisons. I used a brief hospital stay to dive into Badass' effort, which I found to be more cohesive and structured than his post-1999 output. Had I approached the record alongside Lamar's DAMN., I feel as though I would have been more critical of Joey's digestible-yet-superficial political commentary throughout. Ultimately, however, AABA and DAMN. are two very different projects with very different objectives, and approaching them as such helped me find excellence in both.
In order to continue supporting Badass' career, I purchased the album when it released and have since seen him live. The key to engaging with bootlegs and leaks is continuing to support the artist financially - indeed, those who seek out unauthorised copies of an artist's work are likely the same fans who would gladly pay for an album or live performance. The same fandom that drives album leaks drives all manner of an artist's financial success. Therein lies both a problem and a solution: whilst fans of an artist are likely to be drawn to their leaks, they're also likely to financially support the artist. As long as the same fans that engage with leaks continue to financially support the artist, they're largely counteracting the negative effects of their piracy.
Though one could rightfully argue that an artist's intention includes the timing of their releases, it's hardly an important consideration for many music fans. In legally procuring copies after having consumed leaks, audiences can undo the problematic financial impact of illegally-sourced projects.
Can leaks be averted? It's a question without a definite answer.
Whilst online piracy has become far more complicated and far-reaching, responses to leaks are usually reactionary and punitive instead of preventative. Some popular independent artists, such as Frank Ocean, have had few leaks since abandoning their major labels. Whilst the industry is threatened by piracy, it's also a source of leaks: from insiders exploiting their access to artists to journalists sharing review copies, the problem of leaks is irrevocably tied up in the business of music. As long as there's money to be made, there's individuals who'll find questionable ways to profit. Whilst it seems unlikely that the industry itself will be able to deal with leaks, artists may find new and innovative ways to protect their unreleased properties.
If you'd like to know more about leaks, check out a comprehensive history of internet-era leakage from Pitchfork's The Pitch.