Remember when album releases were fun and exciting? You would hear a single on the radio a month before the release, then go buy a physical copy when it came out? Actually, odds are you don’t, because if you’ve just been an active listener in the 21st century, you’ve only been able to experience music in the dawn of the information age. The internet has always been an extremely helpful source for any information you couldn’t otherwise find. However, those damned hackers nobody seems to know anything about, and even major music publications, release loads of information you’re not supposed to have, at least according to the artists and record labels. This technological overload of data has greatly harmed album sales, and even a lot of artists’ careers.
The dreaded album leak is every artist’s worst nightmare. Despite its recent prominence, album leaks have been going on since the earliest days of the internet. The first notable leak occurred in 1993, when Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion was somehow released into online chatrooms everywhere much to the shock and panic of both the band and Warner Music. Then, in 2000, the floodgates started to open wide, with the beginning of Napster and other music sharing sites, leading to the leak of Metallica’s “I Disappear”, set to be on the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack. This, of course, led to the historic lawsuit of Napster by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. This case led to a massive change in regulation of the internet, and particularly music sharing websites like the now deceased Napster. However, we can obviously see with hindsight that, not only was this not a flash in the plan, but it was actually the start of a revolution that no amount of government regulation could have prevented. Bringing it back to 2015, it is apparent that music sharing and hacking are at an all-time high, and the artists have begun to freak out.
Nowadays, you can find just about any and every album available for download online days, or even weeks, before it is meant to be released. One notable example is the fiasco involving Swedish pop singer and part-time psychopath Björk. Her latest album, entitled Vulnicura, was leaked online in its entirety two months before its scheduled release date. This caused a rush release to iTunes as a way to save face, which meant a sloppy album was released and her sales greatly suffered. Another notable leak was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The album was surprisingly released digitally a week before its expected date. Before it was taken down, enough people got in just in time to spread it all over every torrent site on the web. Despite its incredible critical acclaim, the album never quite reached its expectation for sales. Even the majestic Taylor Swift has been subject to the pandemic. The deluxe version of her smash hit 1989, originally set to be sold exclusively in Target, was leaked early. Fortunately for Swift, her rabidly loyal fans angrily took to social media to tell the world to wait until its appropriate release. Not every artist is as lucky as Taylor, however. This recent trend of album leaks is nothing but an obvious lose-lose situation for the record label, the retailers, and the artists.
How might artists react to this overwhelming trend of premature releases, you ask? It’s actually quite simple: the artist has to release their work on their own terms. More and more, we’ve begun to see artists release new albums in unique and interesting ways. The biggest and most successful attempt comes from the queen bee herself. On December 13th, 2013, Beyoncé shocked the world when she released her eponymous album without any warning whatsoever. No leaks, no unwanted premature releases, just a full body of work released how it was meant to be. She was rewarded for her efforts, selling a million copies worldwide in only six days. Other notable artists have found success in streaming the album themselves. Recently, iconic rappers Dr. Dre and Drake have streamed their own new releases through their Apple radio shows. Even Mac Miller decided to stream his album five days before his expected physical release on NPR in order to avoid leaks. While these may seem like somewhat ridiculous measures to prevent leaks, there is no denying that these methods are incredibly successful, and in a day in age where leaks are almost entirely unavoidable, these artists have started to discover ways to take matters into their own hands.
Now am I sitting here saying that Sony Records and Best Buy are going bankrupt? Am I saying that Taylor Swift might have to start flipping burgers on the side to survive? Of course not, this is in no way a matter of financial turmoil. This crisis is, however, taking a big swing at artistic integrity. Ethically, every artist deserves to not only have their body of work and their livelihood released in the way they want it, but to be compensated properly for the work they’re doing, just like anyone else would. Ultimately, we have reached a technological age where any information imaginable is available online, and there will always be album leaks. However, if artists continue the recent trend, there is still hope for artistry.