Can album leaks ever be good news for artists?

Father John Misty (photo credit: Keith Ainsworth)

Father John Misty (photo credit: Keith Ainsworth)

Album leaks are part and parcel of getting excited for your favourite band’s next release, but is there ever an upside for the artist – Getintothis’ Matthew Lear takes a closer look. 

Leaks are bad, I know. Everything written on the topic seems to reiterate this, describing the plethora of its terrible implications. Though I agree, mostly, with these arguments and assertions, doing so seems so utterly futile.

Just this month high profile albums from Ben Howard and Father John Misty, among others, were leaked before their given release dates. It appears that despite labels’ efforts and widespread artistic and journalistic condemnation, album leaks are to be going nowhere.

Instead of debating this inexorable fact, perhaps it is time to consider how this trend could potentially benefit the artist. I am by no means condoning music leaks, however, as they seem to be such an inevitability, can we take any positives from them?

To ask this question effectively means disregarding the morality of album leaking. It is in most circumstances, in some way or another, stealing. Yet it can in some cases give more back to the artist than it takes.

Sometimes, the daring excitement of an album leak gives the record more promotion than anticipated, creating a firestorm between media and fans alike. This genuine enthusiasm is not the result of some artificial, premeditated corporate marketing strategy but one stirred up by real people and real fans.

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For example, the great Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco began as a leak, with Warner unwilling to release it. Only after it had created an authentic hype was the classic album given an official issue.

However, any leak hoping to be successful needs to happen at a certain time. The difference between an album being leaked months in advance compared to days is highly significant.

Leaking months before the release date will mean the music unavoidably loses any momentum or hype initially generated by the time it hits the shelves. On the other hand, leaking in the immediate build-up to an album’s official release is nowhere near as disastrous and can often prove beneficial to album sales and interest in the artist.

Unlike when an album is leaked months in advance, if a leak happens close the to the official due date it’s likely that the majority of pre-orders will already have been placed. The purchasers of such tend to be those most enthusiastic about the release, the most passionate of which would likely scour the web to find leaks or clips of their beloved artist’s new work. As these people have already pre-ordered it could be argued that the leak matters little; it only satisfies their impatience whilst they await their purchase, effectively still supporting the artist.

It’s those who haven’t pre-emptively backed the artist yet access the leaks which hold the power. They are a macrocosmic listening party; a judgmental collective there to be pleased or disappointed, supporting or dismissive – there to make or break the album.

Arctic Monkeys's Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was leaked weeks before its due date

Arctic Monkeys’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was leaked weeks before its release date earlier this year

If they find the release to be lack-lustre, they have no obligation to create a buzz around it. As they will, by nature of a leak, listen to the album before most others it will be experienced and reviewed in a staggered timeframe, taking any of the momentum out of the strategic promotion of the release.

Although a staggered listening can derail an album’s momentum if it is simply a great release it can alternatively build momentum – developing layer upon layer of positive recommendations and reviews. Though enthusiasm doesn’t translate directly or explicitly into sales or support, it certainly encourages such. The power of genuine hype must not be understated and the forbidden and intriguing nature of leaks have the perfect ability to create and foster such a buzz.

The excitement surrounding an unreleased album is even gauged by the informative, and amply named, online leak hub Has It Leaked? by means of their hype rating. Measured numerically – though I’m not quite sure how, it emphasises the importance of a genuine enthusiasm if a leaked album is to blow-up and subsequently benefit the artist.

This is what standardised, supposedly soulless, label promotion can never hope to offer – an organic buzz that is so real and so special, that everyone is either talking about or wants to hear the album. An authentic excitement and discussion that should, hypothetically, be reflected in and result in sales success. The recent Arctic Monkeys album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino leaked weeks before its due date and comments on its unorthodox style stirred up a real anticipation for the official release, notably how it would be received by a wider audience. Such a frenzied buzz correlates with the commercial success of the album – now officially the fastest-selling vinyl record of the last 25 years.

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Leaks rely on personal reactions, whether by the source of the leak, links to it or discussion on the topic. These all require communication that is devoid of the artist’s or label’s intervention. Therefore, if somebody raves about a leaked album, it is likely to be for a valid reason and not merely the result of some big promotional campaign – I know I for one would be far more inclined to listen to a personal recommendation than generalised advert.

This all works, just as long as the music is good. However, album leaks are a catalyst via which the album will either flourish or flop to a greater extent. It will amplify the sentiments of the reactions towards the music – essentially making or breaking the record both critically and commercially.

Wiley (photo credit: Michelle-Roberts)

Wiley (photo credit: Michelle-Roberts)

Wiley leaked his own album The Ascent via Twitter in March 2013 – the month prior to the official release date, creating a sense of drama which, along with its catchy singles, led initially-shocked listeners to lap up the album which consequently charted higher than any of his previous releases. Though it is difficult to say how the album would have done without leaking, it is clear that it didn’t suffer considerably from doing so.

Even over a decade before this, artists’ leaking, or embracing leaking online, found it to be a quaint promotional strategy, one in which Radiohead’s Kid A certainly capitalized on. The album was leaked then shared (via Napster) nearly a month before the official release date. Instead of kicking up a conventional fuss, frontman Thom Yorke instead stated that Napster “encourage enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do”. In light of this reaction, the Kid A leak simply drew more and more inquisitive listeners in and went on to debut at number one in the U.S – a first for Radiohead – doing so without radio play or traditional music videos. This began to demonstrate just how and to what extent leaks could be used to exploit universal curiosity, therefore benefitting from the hype.

This leak was fine with Radiohead, yet their release Hail To The Thief, leaking three years later was met with backlash by the band. The difference was that the latter was not mastered or mixed when it was leaked. This highlights the importance of a leak’s quality and state if it is to succeed. With people listening to the leak, judging the content, and possibly deciding whether to buy the album as a result, how is it fair do so if the album is not yet finished? Well, it isn’t.

Bjork performing Vulnicura at the Royal Albert Hall (image courtesy of the artist's Facebook page)

Bjork performing Vulnicura at the Royal Albert Hall (image courtesy of the artist’s Facebook page)

To draw a culinary parallel, imagine baking a cake to be judged, only for someone to snatch it out the oven before its ready, complain it’s soggy in the middle, then form an opinion of you based on this – doesn’t sound not too fair does it. Reiterating the weight of this injustice, when Björk’s album Vulnicura leaked months in advance, and though upset, she described how she “had one thing going for (her) – the album was mastered and ready”. This just goes to show how much an unfinished leak undermines and can damage the artist’s reputation.

However, it does seem that providing the album is finished and ready to go, an increasing number of artists are accepting and even embracing album leaks. On the leak of the songs from album Salad Days, Mac DeMarco didn’t complain, instead saying that “the fact that someone wanted them badly that they found someway to get them – that’s cool”. Drake shared a similar attitude regarding the leak of his album Thank Me Later, tweeting that “I gave away free music for years so we’re good over here”.

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But this by no means validates all album leaks – both these opinions come from artists that either don’t care for or don’t have to care for money. If an album is to  be leaked and flop as a result, these artists won’t have worry as much about the financial implications as a smaller or upcoming artist would.

This being said, if an album leak is to help the artist, it must lead listeners to financially back the artist whether that be through paying for the album, gig tickets or merchandise – contrary to exploitative opinions, enthusiasm and exposure do not pay the bills. This funding is especially important for smaller artists.

Album leaks as a conceptual positive rely on the honesty and generosity of the consumers and whilst discussion and hype are all well and good, if leaks are to be genuinely beneficial, listeners must put their money where their mouth is and support the cause.