Springing leaks

By James Cook on August 15th, 2013

As a journalist, particularly in today’s febrile media environment, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of content and to respect copyright. Alas, I cannot make the same claim for my family or my friends, one of whom was so eager to hear the new One Direction album recently that she took to searching file-sharing websites for an album leak, desperate to hear it before its release date later in the month.

Every night, she typed “One Direction Take Me Home” into the search box, and eagerly clicked Search (or sometimes ‘поиск’; many of the sites are hosted in Russia for legal reasons.) Usually: nothing. But one evening, her face lit up with delight: 1 result. There it was, the hallowed album, with its accompanying download link. Take Me Home had leaked two weeks ahead of its official release date.

After unpacking the file, she imported the tracks into iTunes and hit play. Volume turned up to full, earphones in, Twitter open, she was ready to be cocooned in the seductive tones of Louis, Harry, Liam, Zayn and the other one.

“Nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga! I’m 100% nigga!
Nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga! I’m 200% nigga!”

This was not the new One Direction album.

Despite having the same track names and play lengths, a mischievous internet user had uploaded thirteen copies of the track “Nigga Nigga Nigga” by the fictional band Gangsta Rap. This repetitive rap song, recorded for the soundtrack to the spoof movie Gangsta Rap: The Glockumentary, is something of a running joke on the internet.

As demonstrated by this cautionary tale, so-called album leaks aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Fake tracks and viruses abound, even though the community of music fans sharing the news about leaks grows by the day.

‘Labels and artists have begun to understand that it’s very difficult to stop a leak.’

“Leaks have been around for a very long time now, ever since Napster and the MP3 boom. But the term ‘leaked’ has become mainstream – People expect albums to leak out early on the net.” Staffan Ulmert is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Has It Leaked, a “music hype community and online magazine” enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to the rise in album leaks. Misinformation and rumours accompany every leak: this site collects user reviews to help you judge the authenticity of packages available for download. Usually, it gets it right before anyone else.

“Labels and artists have begun to understand that it’s very difficult to stop a leak,” he says. “In the past, labels would either take legal action against file sharing sites (for example, SOPA) or hire “web sheriffs” to stop blogs from posting links. They still do, but at least they start to make counter-offers, such as album streams. It’s very cool of them, and makes for an interesting future. And a place for Has It Leaked to stay current since we’re embracing and listening to both parties.”

With a renewed crackdown against pirates, The Kernel asked Ulmert how he ensures that the site avoids any legal action. “We’re here to stay 100% legal. We don’t share links or downloads. In the end, they asked us to remove the [Justin Timberlake] album cover since it was copyrighted. While it was rather silly, it didn’t really affect the site.

“On rare occasions, we get DMCA takedowns via Google. But they are taken care of. We are super strict when it comes to download links, we moderate the site closely and remove those straight away.”

Ulmert must know, however, that he is treading a fine line. His site may not post links to downloads, the eventual aim of many of his readers is to illegally download an album leak. While he claims to be legally sound at present, the music industry is lobbying for stricter controls on sites like Has It Leaked.

When he’s not running Has It Leaked, Ulmert is an accomplished musician. Going by the name Mojib, Ulmert initially found fame with his remix of Radiohead’s “Videotape”, which was uploaded just hours after the original song leaked online.

“My music is sample-based, and while it’s more creative to put out a cool mash-up than a full album leak, there are similarities between remixes and album leaks. The remix community, especially the unofficial one, is all about the love for music. Take The Grey Album from Danger Mouse, he most likely did that because he loves Jay Z and the Beatles, not to provide free copies of their albums.”

It’s not just dedicated sites that cover album leaks. Some of the world’s largest news organisations, anxious to appear current – and perhaps to drive page views – are throwing caution to the wind and covering online leaks, with occasionally embarrassing results. On April 17 of this year, Rolling Stone published what they claimed to be a leaked track from Daft Punk’s forthcoming album, Random Access Memories.

But, instead of the full version of “Get Lucky”, what Rolling Stone shared was a fan-made collection of loops and existing snippets. Other news sites went on to carry the same story, confident that they had obtained the full release. The “leaked” track was quickly shown to be fake. After its official release two days later, the posts were taken down.

Journalists are using album leaks as a way to beat the competition to the first review. Just hours after Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus leaked, reviews began sprouting up on major sites. With conflicting versions and varying audio quality across the album leaks, the difference in reviews began to confuse fans.

Perhaps that’s one reason some artists have taken to leaking their own music. The Beastie Boys, Fall Out Boy and Weezer have all uploaded their own tracks to the internet for fans to listen to for free. That may sound odd, but releasing their creations this way can help bands to combat the control freakery of their record labels and release their own, “directors’ cut” version of their music.

London band Clement Marfo & The Frontline benefited from the publicity of the 2012 Olympic Games. Their track Champion was repeatedly used as an unofficial anthem for the games. But when it came to releasing an album, they they hit delays for which they blamed their label. Furious with Warner, they leaked five of their own tracks online:

When approached by The Kernel, Warner declined to comment on this remarkable act of insubordination from one of their artists.

Record labels are increasingly concerned about album leaks, so they’re turning to new distribution methods to avoid them. One of the most popular ways for bands to share new music before release date is streaming an album, often through iTunes. Everyone from David Bowie to Daft Punk has used this method to generate excitement for a release before it’s available to buy.

But a stream is easily downloadable using specialist software. Record labels realise this, as do eager fans. In fact, vulnerabilities in iTunes and Spotify have allowed users to download unreleased albums straight from the program.

Since any form of digital distribution opens up music to piracy and leaks, some artists are returning to traditional ways of releasing music. Veteran British ponytail-wielding rock band Status Quo, for example, released their 2011 album Quid Pro Quo solely through UK supermarket chain Tesco.

When asked why, the band said: “We are really proud of the new songs and wanted to make sure that the album got to as many people as possible, working with Tesco achieves that aim.”

Another artist who keen to avoid that pesky internet thing is Prince. In 2010, he released an album named 20Ten in an exclusive deal with six European newspapers. The album was only ever available as a free CD with those newspapers.

In a rare interview with the Daily Mirror, the only UK newspaper to give away the album, the artist explained: “The internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else … All these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”

In another interview with the Mirror, Prince elaborated on his unusual release strategy: “It’s the best way to go. No charts, no internet piracy, and no stress. Period.”

Despite his claim that releasing the album as a free giveaway with a newspaper would mean “no internet piracy”, 20Ten was of course available on illegal file-sharing sites just hours after the papers hit newsstands.

Despite the unintentionally comic efforts of bands like Status Quo and Prince, a community is building around album leaks, even if that just means a well-read comment section. Fan sites and forums are stacked with links to download pages for forthcoming releases.

It isn’t just the hardcore geeks doing it any more.

For record labels and artists, piracy is preferable to album leaks. At least they hope for a boom in record sales when a finished piece of work leaks and causes a stir online. But an album leak? That’s a half-finished artist’s canvas being shipped off to Christie’s to go under the hammer. Once it’s in the public eye, their art will never be seen in the same light again.

Piracy is nothing new, but it’s so widespread now, and the communities around it so mature, that it’s becoming an integral and characteristic part of the music lover’s world – a bit like the bootleg trading community of the 1960s and 1970s. Record labels may once have hoped that punitive prosecutions and new revenue sources like iTunes would make illegal downloading unattractive.

There can now be no doubt that irrespective of convenience and low pricing, some people are always going to pirate their music. Judging by Staffan Ulmert’s carefully-worded defences, those facilitating and hosting these communities will be ever more difficult to prosecute.

How do we know? Because it isn’t just the hardcore geeks doing it any more. Mainstream, casual music fans are joining the album leak community and putting out requests for illegal content. They’re even doing it publicly on Twitter.

Record labels still invest money in takedown complaints, and eager fans scan social media for downloads links. Album leaking is becoming more widespread and permanent, just like piracy of already released content. So the labels had better get used to it.

But it does seem a shame that music fans’ obsession, blended with the faster-than-light delivery the internet has conditioned us all to expect, has led to fans wanting copies of the album before it’s even finished.