In April, roughly a week before the rapper JELEEL! was set to release his debut album on 10K Projects, half of the songs leaked onto the internet. “I found out because his superfans were sending me screenshots from Discord chat rooms,” recalls Dylan Bourne, who manages the rapper. “I’m being sent clips of songs that are the finished product. I still have no idea how it happened.”
This unsettling experience is not out of the ordinary at a time when artists and producers routinely text tracks back and forth, sometimes creating whole songs without ever setting foot in the same studio. Leaks “are definitely more common” than they used to be, says Warren “Oak” Felder, who has produced for Demi Lovato and Miguel, among others.
That said, prematurely disclosed songs and albums don’t necessarily cause the career damage they once did. “What I don’t see as much as I did a couple years ago is leaks ruining a future release,” says attorney Jason Berger, a partner at Lewis Brisbois who represents a wide range of hip-hop producers. Sure enough, when music from JELEEL! leaked, “it didn’t really get out widely,” Bourne says, and the album rollout was unaffected.
And in the hyper-digital modern music industry, where sparks of virality and surges of fan interest come from unexpected places, leaks can actually prove to be commercially beneficial for some artists. They “empower fans to play the role of A&R for their favorite artists,” says Courtney Stewart, who manages Khalid, among others. “Often that leak will just make people want to consume the artist more,” adds Nima Nasseri, who manages the producer Hit Boy (Kanye West, Travis Scott). “It is just another trigger for discovery.”
“Phones and Clouds Constantly Get Hacked”
Historically, the music business has viewed leaks as crippling — a cousin of another longtime industry scourge, piracy. If a song was somehow pried free from a hard drive or studio and released prematurely into the wild, labels often assumed it had ruined their rollout strategy, and that fans wouldn’t engage with songs that had surfaced on the internet before their release. “Leaks used to be destructive back in the day when people were releasing a lot of physical,” Nasseri says. “The test pressing got out somehow and now the sales were gonna get diminished by 100,000.”
This hurt artists, who suffered from the reduced sales. A leak also “ruins the moment when everybody’s listening to the project at the same time [for the first time],” explains David Kaufman, co-founder of the hip-hop label New 11.
The producers and songwriters who worked on the leaked tracks may have it even worse than the artists. In hip-hop, for example, “a lot of these producers typically go into the sessions and make no money in the session,” says Josh Pothier, director of Kingsway Music Library, a collection of original compositions created by the producer Ging (formerly known as Frank Dukes) for sampling purposes. “Then when the songs don’t come out, they also make no money. They have to rinse and repeat.” While artists can still make money through touring and merch sales, “the producer can’t get that day back,” Felder adds.
Though there’s no data on the frequency of leaks, all types of online fraud have been on the rise in recent years. Ron Culler, principal for Hoyle Technology Consulting and a cybersecurity expert, told Billboard last year that “the pandemic really rocketed everything up.”
Leaks have “gotten worse because there are so many methods now with the improvements in technology,” according to Anthony Cruz, who’s been an engineer for a decade and works closely with Meek Mill. “Phones and Clouds constantly get hacked,” adds Benjamin Thomas, an engineer who works closely with Lil Uzi Vert. “We’ve dealt with that multiple times.”
Technological advances that have made digital theft increasingly easy have also led to music creation becoming more collaborative than ever, with artists and producers trading files from far-flung locations. “I talk to mentors of mine about how they would have finished master tapes and fly them to New York in a suitcase and deliver them by hand to make sure nothing went wrong,” Thomas continues. “That’s when there was only one copy of the music. With songs changing hands so much like they do today, it’s always gonna be hard” to contain leaks.
On top of that, digital superfan culture has also reached new heights. Just as groups of fans mobilize to try to help their favorite artists reach chart goals, die-hards work together to track leaks via shared spreadsheets and Discord chat rooms, discussing and trading them like limited edition collectibles. Super-fans “do group buys on Discord where they’ll all raise money” to buy leaks from hackers, says the producer Waves, who has an unreleased song with Juice WRLD that was leaked online. “And once they hit the purchase price, which could be thousands of dollars, the song gets sent to them” — an illicit treasure available only to the fans who kicked in cash.
In September, Ye filed a lawsuit against an unknown leaker (or leakers) who had been posting his unreleased music on social media during the spring and summer. In October, FKA Twigs told fans that more than 80 of her songs had leaked. That same month, Sia filed a lawsuit against someone who was impersonating her online for the purpose of phishing for unreleased recordings. Leaking music is “pervasive,” Berger says.
“A New Way to Fire Up Fans”
Back in January 2020, Spotify’s Viral 50 chart was awash in songs with “blueberry” in the title: “Blueberry Fweigo” by 73bands, Mikey.Otx’s “Blueberry Faygo,” Yung Anime’s “Blueberry Faygo,” Khlaw’s “Blueberry Fejgo,” Lil Monet’s “Blueberry Fergo,” Lil Andrei’s “Burberry Faygo,” Shmackdat’s “Blueberry Fanta.” They were all leaks of Lil Mosey‘s unreleased single “Blueberry Faygo” uploaded by different fans. “Mosey has a really big leak community,” Josh Marshall, who manages the rapper, said at the time. “Kids pay $200 a song for his music on the internet, and they trade his music like Pokémon cards.”
Notably, those leaks did not appear to hurt “Blueberry Faygo” when it was officially released the next month. The track peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains Lil Mosey’s only top 40 hit to date. “It’s really the cult fanbase that hear” a leak, Waves says. Many listeners are so accustomed to the convenience of streaming now that the idea of downloading and playing a leaked track doesn’t feel worth the hassle.
Not only that: When “Blueberry Faygo” leaks were all over Spotify, TikTok was still in its infancy. Today it’s the music industry’s premier marketing tool, a place where artists and producers tease acoustic demos, a cappella vocals, explosive beats, even fully finished tracks.
TikTok is also a major factor in changing how labels and creators look at leaks. As Nasseri puts it, TikTok “is basically one big-ass leak.” And Thomas says, “We intentionally leaked [Lil Uzi Vert’s] ‘Just Wanna Rock’ — posted it on TikTok before the official release.”
“Just Wanna Rock” eventually reached No. 10 on the Hot 100. Earlier this year, This year, Atlantic Records also released “Watch This (ARIZONATEARS Pluggnb Remix),” a viral remix of a years-old Lil Uzi Vert leak; it climbed to No. 56 on the Hot 100. “Leaks have become this whole new way to fire up fans,” Kaufman says.
Or a way to force a slow-moving label into action. “Maybe the label isn’t excited about the record yet” and hasn’t green-lit an official release, Felder explains. “But if the record leaks and catches some sort of virality, it creates an opportunity for the artist.”
As a result, Berger says that when his team discovers a leak that involves one of his producer clients, the first thing they do is reach out to the artist to ask, “are you guys in on it?”
Even if they’re not, Berger continues, “there have been instances where we’ve hit the artist’s team, and they said, ‘let’s let that [leak] live for two weeks — and then see where we are.’”