The Ethics of Listening to Leaks
It’s a dilemma that most dedicated music fans have encountered.
You’ve been stuck in what feels like an endless vacuum of fruitless waiting for months, ever since your one of your favourite artists announced the not-so-imminent release of their next album. The singles have been killer; the marketing has been elusive and intriguing; you can scarcely bear to contain your hype for four weeks. And then, out of nowhere, salvation! The internet is suddenly ablaze with the news, zip files furtively slid to those in the know and Bandcamp links circulating around all the forums. There’s been a leak!
In the moment it can feel like a no-brainer; why wouldn’t you save yourself from all those weeks of fidgety agony. You’ll buy the album when it comes out, you promise. Well, only if you like it, that is. Naturally. The damage is done. Anyway, it’s out there now, so what’s the harm in one more person having a slightly early sneak peek.
Whether the moral gymnastics often prerequisite to bringing yourself to cave in and listen to a leak are ones you’ve put yourself through, or whether, hesitation the furthest thing from your mind, you unashamedly dive straight in. The phenomena that are leaks remain one of music’s most universal ethical issues. Indeed, sometimes the artist makes it easy for you; upon the leak of his Thank Me Later a still-obscure Drake tweeted his blessings to any fans indulging in the early release, saying “I gave away free music for years so we’re good over here…just allow it to be the soundtrack to your summer and ENJOY!”. It’s hardly a move we can imagine coming from the corporately-backed, money-churning titan of popular music that is 2019 Drake. In rare cases, the dilemma might be made altogether obsolete, as when Art-Pop icon Björk simply released 2015’s Vulnicura early in response to its being leaked. A confident young Kanye took the leak of his debut The College Dropout as a challenge, re-imagining several of the songs and even removing two from the track-list for its official version, an approach which would presage his obsessive tinkering with 2016’s The Life of Pablo.
It’s one thing for the finished and mastered version of an album to be leaked several weeks early, if in slightly deficient quality. Such leaks rose to prominence in the 2000s before becoming something of an expected inevitability for most major releases in the early 2010’s. Moreover, they were often used and capitalised upon for extra hype, or, at the very least, were found not to have any significant impact on sales. Before the rise of streaming services, it followed that anyone who wanted to buy the album and support the artist would do so regardless, and those who were going to pirate it would have done so anyway. In such cases, all that is really at risk of being ruined is the extra excitement generated by any potential marketing strategies in the run-up to the release, in which there can be a certain degree of creative investment on the part of the artist. One can imagine it being frustrating not being able to release work in the exact way intended, but the work itself is at least completed as it was meant to be by its creator. To listen to such a leak is to exhibit a lack of respect for the artist’s intentions, but the extent of any potential damage would seem to be minimal.
Rarer, but altogether more catastrophic, are leaks of unfinished work, or work never intended to see the light of day, listening to which represents a fundamental breach of respect and privacy. The response is sometimes no more than irritation and disappointment, as shown by Jonny Greenwood after the leak of a rough version of Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail to the Thief. Drawing the distinction between the two types of leak, he said “There's Napster-style file sharing of released music [...] then there's this—work we've not finished, being released in this sloppy way, ten weeks before the real version is even available. It doesn't even exist as a record yet.”
The implication is that such leaks are not only upsetting for the artist, but by their nature disappointing and unfulfilling for the listener, who is presented with music which has remained unreleased for good reason. The problem has continued to plague the band; only last week, 18 hours’ worth of recordings from the OK Computer sessions were leaked onto Bandcamp after the culprit demanded £150,000 not to put them online. Radiohead refused and instead decided to put it up themselves. However, the fact remains that listening to the original leak, as thousands of die-hards did, would be to support the blackmailer of a band of whom you claim to be a fan of. Even with ethical issues set aside, a leak offers content unrepresentative of the intentions and standards of its artist. Such extreme impatience is not in the best interest of the devoted fan, even without consideration of how it might affect the artists themselves.
“The implication is that such leaks are not only upsetting for the artist, but by their nature disappointing and unfulfilling for the listener, who is presented with music which has remained unreleased for good reason.”
And indeed, the public release of rough, unfinished projects is surely a galling humiliation for any creative who takes pride in their work. Following the leak of unfinished songs from upcoming Deerhunter project Weird Era Continued and from solo album Logos, frontman Bradford Cox had something of a public meltdown on his blog. He threatened to abandon the project altogether, and, addressing the culprit: “Whoever posted this: YOU ARE FUCKED. I don’t believe you. I can’t understand how you go on living.” Similarly, the unwanted sharing of an unfinished cut of his video for Black Skinhead provoked Kanye West to highlight the emotional toll such violations of respect can have on the perfectionist artist, tweeting: “Me and Nick Knight have been working on this video for 5 months and for creatives it’s heartbreaking [sic] when something like this happens”. To have something so long laboured over be so ignominiously ripped out of your control before its completion is more than just frustrating; it’s devastating.
Jai Paul, the uploading of whose demos to Bandcamp in 2013 through a stolen laptop sent him into hiding finally returned to the public eye only a matter of weeks ago with a candid and moving account of the psychological effect the events had on him. He depicts the impact as akin to “trauma and grief”, with the media speculation of his having leaked it himself as a publicity stunt only serving to exacerbate the situation and isolate him further. “There was a lot going through my mind,” he shares, “but the hardest thing to grasp was that I’d been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form”. The pain caused by such violations is evident, but Paul’s is a particularly compelling case, the leak so affecting his state of mind as to force him to retire from the spotlight and from music for 6 years. He continues: “on a personal level, things gradually went south, and I had a breakdown of sorts. I was in quite a bad place for some time. I was unable to work and withdrew from life in general”.
“To have something so long laboured over be so ignominiously ripped out of your control before its completion is more than just frustrating; it’s devastating.”
The desecration of an artist’s right to tweak, perfect, and finally release their work as fulfils their vision is distressing not only on a creative level, but on a very personal one. The leaking of an album can work in favour of big, established acts with a loyal fanbase, but can be crushing for up-and-comers needing all the support they can get, especially in the age of streaming. Indeed, the relative obsolescence of most physical formats has made such slips much more infrequent, but they are far from a thing of the past. Recent albums from Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, and American Football, to name but a few, have leaked many months in advance.
Where, then, does this leave the average fan? Undeniably, downloading and listening to a leak renders them complicit with the culprit; after all, there would be no issue if no one actually listened to them. The most potent irony of all lies in the use by many of publishing leaks as a sign of their ultimate fandom, of their desperation to hear whatever their favourite artist might be in the process of creating. However, it so often serves to devastate the creator they claim to love so much. A culture of instant gratification has formed a cohort of music fans so impatient that they cannot bear even to wait to hear a piece of art as it was intended by its maker.