How Leaked Music Has Evolved In The Streaming Age
The other week, Playboi Carti and Young Nudy made the news when their collaboration “Kid Cudi” (or “Pissy Pampers,” depending on your preference) hit number one on Spotify’s US Viral 50 chart. Though this probably doesn’t seem all that noteworthy on its own considering Carti and Nudy are both fairly popular rappers with already established fanbases, “Kid Cudi” charting is strange because it hasn’t been officially released by either artist. You won't find it on either artist's Spotify page— rather, an unfinished version of the song was leaked and subsequently uploaded by a high school sophomore so he could easily stream it from anywhere.
When it comes to the way in which music leaks on the internet and how we interact with said music, “Kid Cudi” is an interesting case study in terms of how leaks have evolved and changed with the advent of streaming. Though studio albums rarely leak anymore, leaks of demos, scrapped songs, and even potential singles (as with the case of “Kid Cudi”) remain rampant. Though the leak of a full album might seem “worse,” the frequency with which single songs leak can end up being much more devastating to an artist both creatively and monetarily (the unofficially uploaded version of “Kid Cudi” was streamed over 2 million times before it was taken down).
A$AP Rocky in Rome, 2019 - Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Back in the 2000s and early 2010s, studio albums leaking a week or more before their release dates was the norm. This was largely due to the fact that physical copies of albums were shipped to chain stores like Target and Wal-Mart long before their release date, making it common for them to be mistakenly put on the shelves early or else, for an employee to snag an advance copy and upload it to the internet. Sometimes this was particularly disastrous— for example, A$AP Rocky’s debut album Long.Live.A$AP. leaked so early that it came out in a different calendar year, almost an entire month before its slated January 15th, 2013 release date. Still, anyone who downloaded a leaked album before its official release date was probably going to pirate it when it came out anyway (and regardless, studies have shown that people who pirate albums and movies spend more money on media in the long run).
But this was before physical media essentially became memorabilia, before streaming was universal, before BEYONCÉ set a new precedent with the surprise digital drop. Streaming and surprise drops have virtually eliminated the leaking of completed studio albums, shortening album rollouts so much that artists often find themselves putting the finishing touches on their projects just hours before release. When a full album leaks today, it’s usually no more than a half day in advance. It’s been theorized that these leaks are even sometimes purposeful; calculated attempts by labels to build some last minute hype in the hours leading up to an album’s release— the idea being that the conversation surrounding the leak on social media will help streaming numbers more than it hurts them because most music listeners are passive and will wait until it hits streaming services to listen (plus, as previously mentioned, it’s likely that anyone who puts in the effort to download a pirated copy of the album was going to do so anyway).
Still, the regularity with which demos and singles leak today is worrisome. Though occasionally a leaked song ends up being beneficial to an artist—Gunna & Lil Baby’s “Sold Out Dates,” for example, only received an official release because of the overwhelmingly positive reception to the leaked version of the song— many times, this only ends up hurting their creative process. Artists often scrap songs entirely when works-in-progress leak to the internet, leaving fans disappointed when completed versions of promising demos don’t end up on finished albums (even Gunna & Lil Baby didn’t put “Sold Out Dates” on Drip Harder).
Young Thug at the 61st Grammys - Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
In addition to Playboi Carti, one artist who’s been hit particularly hard by leaks in the mid-late 2010s in Young Thug. In 2019 alone, over 75 Thugger songs have leaked and the year isn’t even half over yet (assuming an album has 10-15 songs, that’s five to seven albums worth of material that will likely never see an official release). Back in the the mid-aughts when album leaks were common, the only artist plagued by leaks of single songs in the same way Thug is today was Lil Wayne. Aside from the fact that he was the most popular rapper in the world at the time, the reason Weezy was so affected by this type of leak is likely because of one thing: almost no one else was working at the super-human pace he was during the lead-up to Tha Carter III (aside from Gucci Mane, who was putting out music faster than you could leak it anyway). Today, there’s a large number of artists who possess Wayne’s legendary work ethic from the 2000s (Thug, Uzi, Future, to name a few)— more songs being made means more producers, collaborators, and channels for the song to go through and thus, fall into the wrong hands along the way. Combine this with the “fast food” nature of music consumption and you have a recipe for disaster: no matter how often an artist releases music, fans are always clamoring for more, resulting in the demand for leaked music always being high.
Hackers and leakers used to stay more or less in the shadows, only offering up the fact that they were in possession of unreleased music to people who could be proven trustworthy or had shown that they could put their money where their mouth is. But today, if you spend enough time on twitter, reddit, and rap forums like KanyeToThe and sectioneighty, you’re bound to run into someone advertising unreleased music they’re looking to buy or sell. There are even sites, such as the r/rapleaks subreddit and leakth.is, dedicated specifically to the unreleased music trade. Sometimes, a crowdfunding approach is even taken to leaking: the person in possession of the song names their price, and a group of people pool together hundreds to thousands of dollars to all receive a copy of the song, which almost always ends with one of them leaking it to the internet. In 2019, the average 16-year-old can get their hands on an unreleased song by one of their favorite artists with a few hundred dollars saved up from their summer job.
Lil Wayne at 2019 Governors Ball - Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
All of this is to say that the leaking of unreleased songs is not only just as out in the open as leaked copies of albums were— probably even more so, considering people flaunt possession of these songs rather than quietly leaking them to a blog— but can be even more harmful to an artist’s bankroll and creative output in the long run. As a fan of many of these artists, I’m always grateful to hear unreleased material so long as it doesn’t hinder a forthcoming album— but almost no one other than the artists themselves knows if a song is slated for an album or being put in the vault. Leaked and scrapped songs can throw a wrench in an artist’s entire album rollout plan and, as a byproduct, make sure these songs are never officially uploaded to streaming services and never heard by the masses (some of Young Thug’s best albums aren’t even available to stream, let alone the dozens of fantastic leaked songs). Unfortunately, the vast majority of listeners either don't care or don't realize how much leaked songs can affect an artist creatively. We don't know if “Kid Cudi / Pissy Pampers” will even appear on Carti’s forthcoming Whole Lotta Red at this point, but if the leaks themselves can't be stopped, we can only hope that more rappers follow the lead of Gunna & Lil Baby and give some of their leaked music an official release— for the sake of fans and artists alike.