If you can’t beat em, leak em

by Gianluca Pezzuti

Four months ago I sent an email inquiring about a writing job at a music review website. The editor, who also happens to run a small indie label, wrote me back in a fury:

“Hi Gianluca, I must admit that as someone who runs a record label and whose ability to pay writers is completely destroyed by illegal file sharing as without record sales labels cannot afford to advertise with us, it’d be difficult to work with someone who contributes to a site a lot of artists and labels would like to see closed down.”

The site I contributed to that he is referencing is hasitleaked.com, a place where overly enthusiastic music fans post updates reporting whether or not an album has been leaked and where it can be found (though providing direct links is prohibited, which is how the site remains legal).

Leaks are all over the news at the moment. This doesn’t mean that there have been more leaks than usual this year, but that the musicians are more high profile. Artists like Madonna and Bjork had their respective LPs leaked months before the set release date. Both were featured on Has It Leaked and both handled the adversity in wildly different ways to different ends.

Living with Leaks

Hasitleaked’s existence is a testament to just how widespread of an epidemic music leaks have become. Since Napster’s baby steps and subsequent battle with Lars Ulrich over the premature distribution of a Metallica song, leaks have become less a disease crippling the music industry and more a natural disaster. And much like a natural disaster, let’s say hurricane, you don’t have much choice but to board the windows, bear down and wait out the storm. It’s the difference between actively fighting to cure something and learning to accept the inevitable. Bjork and Madonna’s reactions to their respective leaks are a good example.

When her album leaked months early, Madonna began by posting on twitter: “This is artistic rape… This is a form of terrorism. Wtf!!!! Why do people want to destroy artistic process??? Why steal? Why not give me the opportunity to finish and give you my very best?”

This led to obvious backlash from ornery fans and easily upset twitter trolls everywhere.

Bjork handled things much better. When her album Vulnicura was leaked in January she called her agent and arranged to have the album released within the next 24 hours and provided a free stream. These armchair pirates pursue leaks not because they revel in the thrill of committing a crime but because there isn’t an easier option.

Staffan Ulmert, artist and founder of Has It Leaked, sees what Bjork did as the best course of action: “Few music fans actually like piracy, they just want to listen to their favorite artists and sometimes they get the opportunity to listen to it early, and it’s difficult to say no to that. It’s not about not wanting to pay for their music, but getting their hands on it in advance.”

By releasing the album immediately after the leak, Bjork beats the leakers by playing their game.

This is difference between treating the problem like an epidemic as opposed to a hurricane. Better to live with the wind than spit in it. In 2000 it was possible to plug a leak. MP3s were still mind-boggling futuristic and Napster copycats like Ares and Limewire hadn’t quite taken off. It was easier to point a finger. Not exactly a whodunit. Now the internet is saturated with torrents, direct download links and pockets of terrifyingly tech-savvy music nerds covertly sharing files. And that’s just what we can see on the clear web. God knows what piracy looks like in the seedy underbelly of the web where Google’s reach doesn’t extend. The point is that now, once something is leaked, it stays leaked.

How leaks affect the artist

The editor who rejected me followed up his initial email with a more comprehensive argument against leaks:

“Leaking is such a massive problem for artists (I’ve known of people who’ve suddenly flipped into massive depression because their album has leaked, records where any chance of it reaching more people has been ruined). And where the leaks can be found are on websites where some really unpleasant people make a huge amount of money from all the traffic.”

He raises some valuable points. Leakers may not all be ski-masked hackers but they aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue either. It’s not all done in some misguided crusade for the greater good of music. Someone somewhere is making dollars and cents out of it and it’s not the artist.

The source of most leaks are attributed to sloppy music journalists or staff within the label. The motivation behind the leak, especially in the case of major artists, is often bribery. The best example being the infamous leaker Koolo who would purchase leaks (via Paypal, as easy as that) of high profile acts like Eminem and then leak them to forums. While leaks may be here to stay, they’re rarely beneficial. In this Staffan Ulmert and my anonymous editor friend agree:

“They hurt sales, no question about it. There are exceptions; artists and labels who are good at turning a leak into a news story and spin it into something positive. But often those exceptions are rare, and are labels with bigger budgets to play with.”

Leaks can be emotionally devastating as well. Louise Hammar, who co-runs one of Sweden’s biggest indie labels Telegram Studios, thinks that while leaks are a fixed structure in the music industry, that doesn’t mean they aren’t poisonous for the musician: “The artist will be affected. They will feel, most likely… they will feel like shit.”

Caribou, a Canadian electro-pop artist, has actually never experienced releasing an album on its intended date. He told Gawker:

“To put it in perspective, all of the records I have released have leaked months in advance… My initial reaction was disappointment that there wasn’t going to be that moment that I’ve never had, where everybody’s waiting until the very day it’s released to hear it at the same time. It’s a bit of a shame in that it’s not a shared experience on the release date, but apart from that, I’m glad that people are listening to it.”

Caribou’s view is arguably progressive. Perhaps it’s older artists like Madonna that still react poorly and pitch a fit like Lars Ulrich did so many years ago. Maybe this new generation of creatives, because they’ve grown up with Napster, are more inclined to see leaks as just another of the evils released from this millennium’s Pandora’s box that opened with the advent of the internet.

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