Album Leaks: A Nightmare, or Opportunity?

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Matthew Simmons / Getty Images

Antwan "Big Boi" Patton in concert in June 2010

Outkast member Antwan "Big Boi" Patton's first solo album came out July 6, but if some of the songs sound familiar, that may be because you've heard them before — two years ago. In March 2008, "Royal Flush" — the first song to leak off Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty — began appearing on music blogs and file-sharing sites. Since then, the rest of Sir Lucious has been slowly seeping out; by the time the entire record appeared online June 29 (still a week early), a third of it had been available for more than a year. Antipiracy companies estimate that Big Boi's tracks are currently being downloaded an estimated 45,000 times a day.

Big Boi may have had the longest, most elaborate album leak of the summer (or even of the year), but he's hardly alone. Two of the most anticipated recent releases, Drake's Thank Me Later and Eminem's Recovery, both appeared two weeks before their official sale date. Kanye West's song "Power" surfaced weeks before it was released as a single (his forthcoming Good Ass Job album is currently scheduled for September). And M.I.A.'s aggravatingly titled /\/\/\Y/\ has been floating around for the past month, leading to several preemptively negative reviews. These days, record labels don't worry if an album will leak; they worry about when and how.

Album leaks are an old but ever changing problem. In 1995, a Los Angeles radio station somehow snagged a copy of Michael Jackson's "Scream" and began playing it on the air weeks before anyone was supposed to have heard the song. But back then, fans couldn't get their own copies unless they recorded them off the radio. What once required patience and a little technical know-how now asks only for the click of a mouse. "Even just a few years ago, you had to know where on the Internet to go," says Eric Garland, founder and CEO of media-analysis company BigChampagne. Whereas would-be downloaders once lurked primarily on peer-to-peer file-sharing programs like Limewire or BitTorrent, "now," says Garland, "it's like, eh, just Google it."

But how do these songs wind up on the Internet in the first place? Record companies are tight-lipped on the subject. Representatives for Big Boi, Eminem, Kanye and Drake — even the indie group Arcade Fire, whose upcoming album The Suburbs has been appearing in dribs and drabs online — all declined to comment. But in general, leaked tracks fall into two categories: unintentional and deliberate. The unintentional variety is the most common, the most frustrating and the most difficult to control. Record labels send copies of upcoming albums to journalists, critics, bloggers and radio stations — basically, anyone who might promote them. Most major labels now watermark these CDs with individualized codes (sort of like a VIN on an automobile) so that if the album appears on the Internet, the illegal files can be traced back to their irresponsible source. Still, a large portion of such material comes from members of the media, according to Garland. Perhaps that's why advance copies of Radiohead's 2003 album Hail to the Thief were sent to journalists sealed inside individual CD players that couldn't be opened.

"The media is a major source, but leaks come from a variety of places," says Terri Denver, head of sales at antipiracy-tracking company Peer Media Technology. "Employees within the music industry, distributors at record stores, radio DJs — they're all culprits from time to time." And any music streamed online, such as on MySpace or a band's website, can be converted to an MP3 and sent around the Internet.

Intentional leaks, whether public or clandestine, can also be tricky for artists and labels to manage. In 2001, the rock band Weezer uploaded MP3s of unfinished songs to the band's website and invited fans to help front man Rivers Cuomo decide which tracks should go on the album, eventually called Maladroit. Cuomo also sent an eight-song promotional disc to radio stations, which of course aired the still unreleased music. The band's label, Geffen Records, had not approved the disc and immediately asked the stations to stop playing it. But the songs were already out there, released by the artist five months before the album came out. Maladroit debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart but dropped out of the Top 10 the following week. It's hard to say whether the months of advance airplay were to blame as much as middling reviews, but Cuomo hasn't tried to crowdsource an album since.

Big Boi's leaks also seem to have come from close to home, although the artist has so far not said whether he'd leaked his own work. Sir Lucious Left Foot was originally supposed to contain two songs, "Royal Flush" and "Lookin' for Ya," that Big Boi recorded with his OutKast bandmate André 3000. But OutKast is signed to Jive Records, while Big Boi's album will drop via Def Jam. When Jive refused to let the rap duo release songs on another label, the unofficial tracks mysteriously made their way online. "The fans' thirst will be quenched. You know, I'm no stranger to that Internet, baby," Big Boi cryptically told GQ earlier this month.

The decision to give away two potential hits is a bold move, but it may prove beneficial if positive word of mouth whets the public's appetite for both Sir Lucious and OutKast's next album, expected later this year. But intentional or otherwise, a leak that meets with tepid reviews can mean trouble for the artist. Take the recent Jay-Z and Dr. Dre collaboration "Under Pressure." An unfinished version of the track hit the Internet on June 16, and it was a dud. After Entertainment Weekly called it "not an immediate stunner" and Pitchfork noted that "it has no chorus whatsoever," Dre released a statement explaining that the song was incomplete. "When it's ready, you'll be hearing it from me," he promised.

The "Under Pressure" slipup most likely came from someone within the music industry, someone who had access to the rough tracks. Record labels can usually stem those leaks (though not always — Fiona Apple's entire 2005 album Extraordinary Machine appeared online before it even had a release date). The real danger occurs when the record is being manufactured — the CDs physically printed, the files sent to iTunes. Too many people outside the record label have access to the music at that point; a leak is almost inevitable. This is why most albums hit the Internet two weeks to a month before the their official release. Leaks often happen literally while the records are being made.

Drake's Thank Me Later may have been the victim of such a leak. The album sold 447,000 copies in the first week of its June 15 release and immediately hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. But by then, it had been available online for more than two weeks. Peer Media Technology estimates that songs from the album were swapped online 135,000 to 580,000 times a day prior to their release. Drake, who shot to fame primarily through his freely distributed mix tapes, didn't seem to mind. "I gave away free music for years so we're good over here," he wrote on Twitter when news of the leak first broke. "Just allow it to be the soundtrack to your summer and enjoy!"