It's one of the ultimate temptations when it comes to music.
Your favourite artiist hasn't released music in a while, and then suddenly, a track leaks from them.
You go back and forth about it in your mind, before guiltily deciding to give it a listen.
But should you?
Collecting leaked music is considered a badge of honour by many fans. If you know where to look, entire communities are based around the idea of finding music that sits outside official discographies of artists. For whatever reason, this music exists, but hasn't been deemed good enough by the artist, or hasn't yet been finished. And while it might seem like harmless fun to listen and leak this music, it can have huge consequences on the actual artists themselves.
Take the example of Jai Paul.
Since 2007, the British musician had built a fanbase desperate for music. So desperate, in fact, that on April 14, 2013, a collection of songs that were allegedly written by Jai Paul were leaked onto Bandcamp, without his knowledge. While initially, many claimed that Paul himself leaked it, it was soon discovered that the songs actually originated from a stolen laptop.
The damage was done, however, with many blogs claiming that it was an official release, despite evidence to the contrary. The experience was so traumatic for Paul that it was only this year that he was able to talk about it, staying silent about the leaks for the better part of a decade.
In a statement released to coincide witth the release of the album Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), which is the record that was leaked back in 2013, Paul said, “As things unfolded I went through a number of phases, but the immediate, overriding feeling was one of complete shock. I felt numb, I couldn’t take it all in at first. I felt pretty alone with everything, like no-one else seemed to view the situation in the same way I did: as a catastrophe.”
However, after years of therapy, Paul was at peace with the decision and said, “We have decided now to make the April 2013 leaked music readily available so that those who want to hear it can access it via platforms they’re used to,” he writes. “In order to do this we had to remove a bunch of samples that we were unable to clear, so what you hear won’t be exactly what leaked in 2013 — but I know the original stuff is still floating about if you know where to look.”
— Jacob Tender (@jacobtender) June 1, 2019
However, not every artist is fussed with leaks. Earlier this year, Radiohead had 18 hours' worth of unreleased music from their OK Computer sessions stolen, with the cybercriminals demanding $150,000 or the music would be released for free.
So Radiohead uploaded it all to Bandcamp in support of Extinction Rebellion.
Artists are taking back the power from leakers with the surprise drop. Beyoncé dropped her self-titled fifth album without prior warning back in 2013, which inspired a wave of artists including the likes of Drake, Rihanna and U2 to follow suit. Talking about the decision to Billboard, Bey said, "I miss that immersive experience, now people only listen to a few seconds of song on their iPods and they don't really invest in the whole experience. It's all about the single, and the hype. It's so much that gets between the music and the art and the fans. I felt like, I don't want anybody to get the message, when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans."
The effects of leaks can go far beyond the immediate impact, though, with artists that are on the verge of releasing new music often forced to change their plans based off the actions of potentially just one hacker or errant recipient of music not yet intended for public consumption. Charli XCX just released her latest album, Charli, to rave reviews. However, the album was delayed due to a leak of an album she was working on back in 2016, which fans dubbed XCX World.
Speaking about the leak to The Fader, Charli said "The decision was kind of out of my hands, because someone hacked me. So, it just kind of felt like my work got taken from me and it was no longer mine, and that was really sad. I didn't even get to process it much at the time, honestly, because it was just so shocking that it had actually happened. But yeah, I love the songs that are on that album, and it's such a shame that I didn't get to complete it the way that I wanted to."
On its own, listening to a leaked song might not seem that damaging to an artist. However, while not all artists will acknowledge the leaks publicly, often privately it will disrupt their plans. While artists do change their plans (Kanye West with scrapped album Yandhi is an example), there's a chance that scrapped music will emerge later, either in a different form, or on a different project. However, if this music gets leaked, then this power to re-imagine a song gets taken away.
It's also important to realise the financial impact that leaks have on an artist. The more music from an artist that leaks, the more they have to pay to produce new music, while also not being able to profit off what might become some of their most successful songs. Die-hard fans might come to love leaks from their favourite artists, but there's no real way to monetise a leak - once it's out there, it's on the internet forever.
On the other hand, listening to leaks can be too tempting, especially if the artist in question is stingy with releasing music. Some artists, rather than have music they're planning to release leak, have music that they just have lying around come out. This doesn't really disrupt anyone's plans, but rather, just adds to an artist's discography. It's not too dissimilar to artists releasing their B-sides and loosies, and depending on where you sit on leaks, might be the only leaks you choose to listen to.
Whether or not you want to listen to leaked music is a matter of preference. Some artists will threaten to leak music, some will throw their loose music out there, while others are perfectionists, and will make 100 songs to release one. It all depends on the musician. At the end of the day, it's important to trust our favourite artists and bands that the music they're releasing is the only music they want us to hear. After all, that's the best way to get excited about new music, rather than trying to obtain new music from musicians without them wanting to showcase it to the world.