Inside album leaks: how do they happen, how do we stop them, and do they even matter?
Digital album leaks have been happening for more than 20 years, but it’s been a long time since they were this prominent in the news.
Two of 2015’s biggest records – Björk’s Vulnicura and Madonna’s Rebel Heart – leaked several months before their planned release dates, with different consequences: Björk’s label have stated that they will not take legal action, while Adi Lederman, the man who leaked demo versions of Rebel Heart‘s tracks, was tracked down and arrested in Israel. But if leaks are nothing new (and in fact, people being arrested over leaks and artists rush-releasing albums to counter leaks is nothing new either), why are they currently being debated so furiously – and not just in terms of the processes and morals behind them, but related issues such as whether music publications should acknowledge them?
To find out more about leaks in 2015 – how they happen, how to counter them, whether they affect sales and whether they will ever disappear – I spoke to a series of label managers, A&Rs and artist managers at both independent and major labels, including LuckyMe’s Dominic Flannigan, Tri Angle’s Robin Carolan (who was heavily involved in the making of Vulnicura) and Peter Quicke of Ninja Tune, the label involved in a the very public fall-out of a leak in 2011. Several of the people I interviewed, for obvious reasons, chose to speak anonymously.
Are records leaking further in advance than they used to?
Peter Quicke’s Ninja Tune label has publicly shamed journalists who leak promos (German writer Benjamin Jager, writing for Backspin, was accused of leaking albums by Toddla T and Thundercat, though Backspin later claimed that their staff had “never leaked confidential information and data”). Quicke has not backed down, telling me that the magazine “systematically leaked our records for months”. Ninja Tune now includes stickers on the packaging of all promos, warning potential leakers.
Leaks became a regular occurrence for the label around eight years ago, and became “endemic” around five or six years ago, he explains. “The developments have been mainly in our understanding of the effects of leaks, although we’re still guessing. We’re better at controlling audio now so things usually don’t leak unless we expect them to, i.e. where we haven’t used watermarked copies. But as leaks have become ubiquitous you sometimes find that niche or less hyped records don’t leak quickly at all.”
Dominic Flannigan, co-owner of independent label LuckyMe, claims that “basically every single record” released will leak. “It’s a complete fact. I don’t understand the news stories. The ones we talk about are simply the anticipated releases people are looking for,” he says, adding that he warns all LuckyMe artists to expect their record to leak four to six weeks before release.
A manager for several significant independent labels, speaking anonymously, claims that although records have “started leaking as a matter of course in the last eight years or so – this is almost every release – some do [leak quicker than they used to], within the first week weeks of the press cycle.” An anonymous A&R at another large independent agrees that things are speeding up: “I thought it was something that had gone away a little bit. With releases happening quicker, and labels reacting more, and Spotify, I thought it would go away a bit, but it’s reared its head again.”
An ex-staffer at Warner Music Group, however, thinks that things are getting better. “It used to be months in advance albums leaked – 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ for instance, that was months before the album came out,” he says. “Now everything leaks, but it generally leaks closer to the release date. Plus labels are getting more wise to it, and the surprise release [such as with Beyonce’s last album] is more of a thing.”
Where do leaks stem from?
Ninja Tune may have alerted people to journalists leaking records, but Quicke is one of the few people I spoke to who claims that the press are a bigger threat than production and distribution companies in this department. Although it was a journalist that Ninja Tune named and shamed at Backspin, Quicke believes that it’s often assistants or interns who are to blame, claiming that Bonobo’s The North Borders was leaked by an intern at an Australian radio station. Flannigan also reckons that radio is “a big one”, due to many radio stations still insisting on promos being sent as physical CD copies rather than digital files (several publications, mostly newspapers, also do this).
“I know myself from student radio days that [there’s stock] just sitting about in sleeves in an empty office,” he says. “You feel thousands of miles from the label and band – so why the fuck not rip it and up your What.CD seed?”
Tri Angle’s Robin Carolan admits that leaks can occur when artists have been too lax with sending tracks to friends, but says that “the most vexing situation is when you know a leak has occurred because of a journalist who feels as if they can get away with distributing the record amongst their social circle. We’ve had that happen to us and it’s incredibly disappointing. I feel that there should should be some sort of unspoken code of honour between journalists and music people. Most of the time there is, but it only takes a few bad apples to ruin it for everyone and help cultivate a culture of paranoia.”
Most of my sources, however, cite distribution as the main cause of leak. The ex-Warner staffer I spoke to claims that “it’s impossible to stop a leak once it’s been pressed up on CD”, while a former member of staff at another major label, Sony, says that it “always happened at distro, when they got to the warehouse. I’ve never had a press leak, ever.”
A manager for several major label artists, meanwhile, claims that many leaks are planned by label or management. “I can imagine label heads sitting around a table talking about ways to get more publicity – they just lie and make up stuff because they absolutely do not want to lose money,” she explains. “If they’re not going to make money from selling CDs then they’ll leak music so that they can get exposure, then potentially vinyl sales, tour sales or synch [placement on TV or film].” She adds that at her management company there are no methods in place to avoid leaks, as they believe that they rarely happen accidentally.
Our ex-Warner staffer confirms this, claiming that labels do plan leaks to manufacture hype around a release. “I know labels who’ve done it on purpose for a failing artist,” he says. “With Angel Haze’s Dirty Gold, things weren’t quite working with her and the label, so they made up that whole beef to leak the album, but it didn’t lead to good sales. He adds, however, that Wiley’s The Ascent – released on Warner and leaked by Wiley on Twitter before release – wasn’t a planned leak. “That was just Wiley being nuts.”
Our anonymous indie A&R tells me that he’s never heard of manufactured leaks happening, but wouldn’t be surprised. “Major labels have different vested interests to an indie. Our label’s priority is the record, but the major’s might be more about the act and synch and hype, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other label or managers do it deliberately.” He doesn’t think a planned leak would be good for the long-term impact of the artist or album.
He also alerts me to some more sinister ways for a record to leak, when the artist is big enough: “People are hacking people’s email addresses – that’s how Drake had several tracks leaked. It depends who you are, but with What.CD you get a certain amount of points for leaking an album, and there’s a very high-end group of people who purposely go out of their way to leak high profile releases.” He’s never had a journalist leak a record that he’s worked on, but he tells me a story about one high-profile artist carelessly leaking a single by an even higher-profile artist several years ago. Sometimes email accounts don’t have to be hacked, either: a few years back, one chancer with a fake Thom Yorke email account managed to trick Machinedrum and other artists into sending them unreleased material.
Our anonymous label manager adds: “You have to remember that there’s an industry behind leaking that runs counter to artists and labels making money directly from releases, and the earlier the leak the more they profit. By this I mean that the people who are leaking make enormous money from uploading leaks to various lockers, raking in ad revenue and positioning themselves as reliable places to get leaks for free.
“These aren’t kids who want to shove a few tracks up on a blog and help the artist. They’re usually pretty wholesale music giveaway businesses, and often have legitimate advertisers, payment systems and revenue attached to what is essentially illegal business.”
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Is there any way of stopping them?
There are several services, such as Audiolock and Track It Down, that send takedown notices to leakers and hide leaks from Google’s search results. This is a retroactive measure to stop leaks spreading, rather than a means of actually stopping a leak. Quicke believes that it does help, though: “Once there are lots of dead links it becomes hard to find live links, which we think deters many potential illegal downloaders, and definitely those inclined to buy legitimate copies.
“With bigger records, however, the leaks are less manageable and spread so quickly you it takes many days to get to a situation where dead links outnumber live ones.” In terms of Ninja Tune’s promos, which come with a lengthy message to would-be-leakers, “[watermarks] do prevent leaks for the most part, but you still have to be careful that everyone who has a watermarked promo is someone you know somewhat. The stickers do little except remind honest people of the situation. The people who leak don’t care about our stickers, but they don’t want to be found out, hence watermarks working.”
Our independent label manager agrees, adding that “managing the leak with one of these systems is helpful, although some of the lockers don’t always [comply with takedown notices], because obviously they make a lot of cash from hosting leaks.”
Carolan emphasises the value of “restricting whether we send out mp3s or just streams, and making sure these are sent out on relatively secure networks.” He cites Evian Christ’s Waterfall, released last year, as an example of a release where the label managed to prevent a leak happening until the day that stores received physical copies. “This isn’t something I like doing to be honest, as it obviously suggests a certain degree of distrust, but at times you feel as if there’s no option.”
One option, though only accessible to artists of a certain stature, is having someone from iTunes come into the studio to upload the record straight to the store, cutting out the distributor in the process. I’m told about one big hip-hop artist doing this with a recent release that didn’t leak, and the ex-Warner staffer suspects that Beyoncé may have done something similar.
“What smart people do – people who have the sort of power and influence that Beyoncé and Jay Z have – is keep their team incredibly tight,” he reveals. “When people have a smart, tight team, you can prevent a leak. It’s when you have a loads of people working on shit when you can fuck up. Majors are smarter about this sort of thing that they used to be.” The major label manager we spoke to, however, said that she’d never heard of somebody uploading an album direct to iTunes.
What we’ll almost definitely be seeing more of is labels cutting out the distribution middle-man by prioritising direct-to-fan services, such as Bandcamp or BigCartel, for sales. There are also emerging subscription systems like Drip, which has been embraced by Ghostly International and Domino. Speaking to FACT’s Laurent Fintoni, Ghostly’s Sam Valenti IV said that labels are using a “silly model: we do all this promotion on bands before the record comes out, yet we don’t let fans buy it in advance. Meanwhile it gets leaked, and fans either already have it or aren’t interested anymore. It’s a really silly distribution method.”
“Labels are great at releasing music and promoting content, but in one way not necessarily great at communicating with fans and customers,” he continues. “They always go through someone else, be it stores, distribution or press. I’ve always thought that the industry was wrong to make people feel bad about stealing music. [After a recent leak] we suggested they put a post on their blog asking people to respect the system. Three comments in, someone apologised for the leak saying they wouldn’t do it again. This was followed by tens of posts repeating the value that Drip was bringing to users and them not wanting to see it go away. So it’s almost like the community is self-regulating.”
Do they affect sales?
Honestly? Nobody quite seems to know. Our independent label manager thinks it’s “hard to say, as you’re dealing with a minus figure rather than a plus … but when you do put prevention technology into plan and keep a lookout, there is an increase in digital revenue.” Our ex-Sony staffer thinks it depends on the act, citing Kings of Leon as a band whose sales haven’t been affected by leaks due to their dedicated fan base.
Flannigan is “convinced” that leaks are “flattering and make a record bigger”. Our ex-Warner staffer agrees, and “strongly believes that leaks aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If the music’s good, they’ll help sales.” He thinks that in the case of a leak such as Björk’s causing a rush-release, the impact is similar to a surprise album drop such as Beyonce’s – but he emphasises that the music has to resonate first and foremost, using Wiley and Angel Haze as examples of leaks that negatively affected sales.
“We’ve reached a point where if you’re determined not to pay for something, then you’ll just wait till it’s out and then torrent it,” he continues. “I don’t think a leak really changes sales, and you also need to bear in mind pre-orders [which all add to first week sales, traditionally an album’s jumping-off point in terms of sales]. Unless it leaks really far in advance, it’s not gonna affect your preorders, which are key.”
Carolan isn’t convinced: “It’s almost unquantifiable in some respects. When The Haxan Cloak’s record leaked six weeks upfront, the first thing I thought was ‘oh great – by the time this comes out everyone is going to have moved on and won’t actually bother to buy it.’ I can’t really say whether it affected sales, but I can’t see how it helps either.”
Are leaks here to stay and what’s the industry’s attitude towards them?
“The attitude at Warner was not if but when,” says our ex-staffer, “and if it didn’t leak until a week before or even two weeks before, you’ve done a really good job and no one cares. It was common place and expected – even a month wasn’t that big a deal.” Our indie label A&R agrees, saying “things aren’t like when I first got into the music industry and leaks were all that everybody talked about. Some people get really upset about leaks and I understand that, but I’m fine with it. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often actually – take a big hip-hop or pop record, and you’ve got however many people going through that track, you’ve got lawyers, managers, everybody hearing it. All these people are on Gmail, there’s tracks and demos being sent all around the world with minimum security. I’m surprised more demos don’t leak.”
Flannigan says that although LuckyMe try to block leaks, he “tries to take a view that actually supports leaking. We buy a lot of music and we pirate a lot of music. I do think you can build supporting fans out of free, stolen music. So I have to try to support that, and the best way to beat it is make great physical product and make it available across the big digital platforms. We also have these big fan reward projects like the Advent Calendar that I think make people fight for us and support our releases.”
But Carolan believes we’re at a point where “something probably does need to be done”. “I don’t think people should be getting arrested or anything like that, but I also think there’s a culture of unaccountability where maybe people who leak records genuinely think there are no consequences – because in all honesty, are there any consequences right now? I had these kinds of discussions with Björk when her record leaked, and even though she wasn’t exactly happy about what had happened, the silver lining was that it hadn’t happened to her in the way it had happened to Madonna where tons of unfinished, raw demos had found their way out into the world. She freely accepted that, had that happened to her, it would have been heartbreaking, because even though her record leaked in low quality, at least the songs were effectively finished.”
“What happened to Madonna was pretty terrible, because it’s no longer really even about record sales or promo plans at that point,” he continues. “That’s more about witnessing someone’s art being defaced. Some people might think that’s funny, ’cause maybe they think Madonna’s art is terrible, but at the end of the day, it’s still her art. I can’t think of one musician who wouldn’t find that to be a humiliating and incredibly dispiriting experience. I accept leaks are part of the cultural landscape, and I also get that some people get so hyped on wanting to hear a new record by their favourite artist that they literally can’t contain themselves, but it does anger me as well. Releasing records is often about so much more than just the music. It’s also about the framing, which can involve a lot of creativity in and of itself, and when someone leaks a record they take that away from you.”
Björk herself has now addressed the Vulnicura leak, saying there is “no way to say how you should react”. “In my situation, I had one thing going for me – the album was mastered and ready. I don’t know how I would have reacted if it was four months before. It might have been messier…. And I think also, because of the nature of the album for me emotionally, it’s the sort of subject matter where I really wanted to just get it out of the way, over and done with it. My gut reaction was immediately like that. It was an immediate album, and I did it so quickly, and it was like ‘Oh, it’s leaked, let’s just put it out.'”
“What is encouraging,” adds Quicke, “is that the success of services like Spotify have made it less damaging for a record to leak. If you like using Spotify you probably don’t want an illegal download, you’ll listen on Spotify instead.” Our independent label manager agrees that “there are lots of opportunities to hear the music for free, which artists get paid for, that are much better than leaks,” but echoes Carolan in that “the lead-up to releasing an album is meant to be fun for fans too. A leak can ruin that.”
“I think artists and labels need to bring back the idea that labels aren’t evil, money-grabbing corporate beasts doing tons of coke in Lambos, especially not in the independent industry,” he adds. “Artists lose out from leaks, which means music fans do too. It’s interesting to see the incredible goodwill that Björk got when her album leaked and it became necessary to release it early, however. As with most things, a brain and a heart outweigh everything.”