As legend has it, the modern music leak came into shape sometime around the early aughts, largely due in part to the creation of the peer-to-peer mp3-sharing service Napster in 1999. The ensuing two decades equipped fans with the tools to access music through illegal channels like Limewire, Kazaa, and MegaUpload. “Fans are thirsty,” Nick Barart noted this week in an essay on The FADER about Kanye West’s unconventional album rollouts. “They expect artists to over-serve them, and if they can’t get their fix from an approved source, they’ll find other means.” Still, does illegally downloading music or leaking it to the web make it right?
Below, FADER editors Ruth Saxelby and Jason Parham debate the good and bad of music leaks.
JASON PARHAM: We live in an economy of excess, and modern existence demands one have a voracious appetite to stay afloat. Consequently, many of us have become flabby information-craving cyborgs molded by the advent of the internet and its subsequent interfaces: chat rooms, email, the once-treasured Blogspot, Facebook, Twitter. And though each of these transmittal dashboards took a different shape and value over the last quarter century, a commonality persists: the desire for access to the people and the world around us. True democracies are built on access, and a people’s insistence upon it: equal access to information, to civic resources, to housing, to jobs, to education, to art.
In a stuffy college-room dorm sometime around the mid-to-late aughts, I began downloading music illegally. I don’t remember the first song or album I pirated, but for a novice 19-year-old the ecosystem into which I saturated myself was as profuse as it was puzzling. I quickly became a rabid consumer of NahRight, the go-to rap blog that was a source for up-to-the-minute songs by artists both established and emerging. Along with NahRight, there was the West Coast-inclined 2DopeBoyz and OnSmash, a blog that had a particular acuity for knowing which free MP3s would become chart-climbing hits. “OnSmash was doing a good job of saying, ‘Hey, this is gonna be big,’” NahRight founder Eskay remembered in an interview last year.
What was especially interesting about OnSmash was the relationship its founder, Kevin “Hof” Hoffman, had with record labels (he’d previously worked in the digital marketing department of a major imprint). “The A&R staff would give me records a little early to see what the feedback was,” he admitted of the leaks that eventually surfaced on his site. The decision of A&Rs to share unreleased tracks with Hof was an early indicator that even aging industry executives moderately understood the mutating landscape of the music business as the first decade of the new millennium came to a close: leaks created organic buzz, sparked conversation, and introduced listeners to artists not previously on their radar. It was access by unconventional means.
Still, not all leaks are created equal. Instances vary from artist to label to platform. Are leaks necessarily bad when, trapped by contractual obligations or label inactivity (as was the case with Young Jeezy in 2013, Ab-Soul in 2014, and a glut of other musicians in recent years), the artist releases, or threatens to release, the music themself? Like much of life, the realities are often a matter of sifting through a moral gray area. As Stephen Witt, author of How Music Got Free, noted to The Guardian in 2015: “Legally there is no question, it’s illegal. But the question is: morally, is it wrong? And to what extent do you want government and large corporations to limit our ability to reproduce things on the internet? ‘What rights do we have?’ is the real question.” Or, more to the point: What rights do we have to other people’s art?
I believe, in its most essential and necessary form, art should serve as a public good. It should live among the people. Whether secretly released to blogs by music executives, liberated by unprincipled hackers, or set free via the artist due to grim label circumstances, leaks allow for the democratization of art. And shouldn’t art — in all its hued permutations, with its unending creative promise and power to inspire and provoke thought and true transformation in our splintered world — live in the open?
“Does a culture of leaking allow us the time and space to nurture, and be nurtured by, music?”
RUTH SAXELBY: If you believe that having everything, all at once, is a good thing, then, yes, okay, music leaks sound like a great idea. That album you want, when you want it. In fact, before you even know you want it. The late 2000s bred that expectation. If it’s good, the logic went, it will leak. Some artists bought into that, while others initially frustrated by a leak ended up feeling validated or relieved by it. It was a symptom of a culture shift that went hand-in-hand with the devaluation of music in the internet age; with the songs themselves no longer a precious commodity, it was the buzz surrounding it that signaled dollar signs. Simultaneously, the idea that a bunch of fans were talking about something, were in on something, became more compelling to some than the actual music itself. To say it was FOMO that led to a leak-led music industry is a bit of a reach, but it’s perhaps fair to say that fans began to consume music the way they did fast fashion, which apparently makes waiting for an actual release date seem impossible. The next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. That’s exactly what the bottomless pit of the internet craves so badly: an endless loop of what’s next?
People in the music industry often like to say that it’s access to the tools of creation that’s led to an explosion of music on the internet, but that’s overlooking the behavior that internet culture reinforces: clicking. It is the click that is the metric by which editors and music labels and social media apps all measure success. For better or for worse (if you can’t tell, I’m leaning towards the latter), an internet economy that runs on views demands the circulation of click fodder. On one hand, that’s encouraged a proliferation of platforms that lean on the user to do the legwork, by uploading their own creations. On the other, it breeds in publishers, labels, and PRs an intense thirst for news items with a long tail — and the leak is the perfect package. It calls for a news post about the leak itself, fan reactions to the leak, the artist statement, the early review, etc, etc, etc. The feed, as we all know, always needs feeding. Over the past three years, smart artists have followed Beyoncé’s lead and taken back control of their own news cycles with the surprise drop — circumventing leaks in the process.
A confession: the only album leak I’ve ever downloaded is Jai Paul’s, and even that was just because I thought it was the real deal (I paid for it on Bandcamp). I’m not trying to be a goody-two-shoes — I’ve illegally streamed countless movies and TV series, not to mention done more than my fair share of torrenting Lost episodes back in the mid-2000s (a big, fat waste of time, in retrospect). It’s just music is a different kettle of fish. It’s too personal, too intimate; for independent artists, especially, it seems too much like dipping a hand in their pocket. Plus, I already have too much on my must-listen list to contemplate adding leaks; I can wait.
Listening, of course, is what it all comes down to — and what a cacophony of leaks actually obscures. The internet doesn’t want you to waste time listening — or reading, for that matter — when you could be clicking. So, while there’s argument to be made against leaks from a creative perspective (one, the quality’s rarely there, and two, when artists are allowed the space to go at their own pace, it’s the audience who really win in the end; see Frank Ocean) and from a moral perspective (are we really all okay with ripping artists off, whatever the consequence?), the one I am stuck on is listening.
Are leaks good for the way we process music? Do they encourage contemplation? Does a culture of leaking allow us the time and space to nurture, and be nurtured by, music? My gut says no, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter what I think: albums will keep on leaking until the ways of the music industry, and the internet, inevitably shifts again. The only thing we can do in the meantime is decide how, and when, we want to listen.