Album leaks were the scourge of the music industry. Now, they have little if no impact.

The odds that the name Bennie Lydell Glover means anything to you are virtually non-existent, but if you’re old enough to remember pirating music on Kazaa or LimeWire, there’s a good chance that Glover was personally responsible for uploading a sizable portion of your MP3 library in the mid-aughts.

Working for a CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina, Glover took full advantage of his unrivaled access to a murderer’s row of high-profile releases, stealing and uploading thousands of albums to the internet, often weeks in advance of their scheduled release dates. Among the albums Glover was directly responsible for leaking were: JAY-Z’s The Blueprint, Kanye West’s The College Dropout, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin', Eminem’s Encore, Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez, and nearly everything released or distributed under the Universal Music Group banner. His unbelievable story, excerpted from the book How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, was published by The New Yorker in 2015.

By the time he was apprehended by the authorities in 2007, Glover had grown disillusioned with the thrill of leaking music. Having observed the myriad ways in which blanket accessibility had distorted the patterns of music consumption, he seized an opportunity—in the form of the heavily publicized sales battle between Kanye West and 50 Cent—to carry out an experiment. Though both Graduation and Curtis were scheduled to hit shelves on September 11, Glover’s plant had processed both discs in mid-August, placing him in the unique position to test whether he could tip the scales of the competition by leaking one before the other.

Of course, the results of this study were inherently flawed—there were far too many variables at play for it to withstand the rigor of the scientific method—but it was nonetheless fascinating to observe how inconsequential Glover’s decision to leak Graduation ahead of Curtis appeared to be. When the first-week sales totals rolled in two weeks later, it was reported that Graduation had sold 957,000 units, while Curtis had sold a similarly impressive, but comparatively modest 691,000, suggesting—at least, to some extent—that Graduation’s additional four days of online accessibility were less of a determining factor in the final sales tally than conventional wisdom might have dictated.

With the benefit of hindsight, these results now seem unremarkable, but in 2007, when the music industry had yet to fully adjust to the internet’s transformative impact on its business model, the realization that accessibility had grown too ubiquitous to drive consumer behavior may have been harder to shrug off. Though we’d already reached a point where the near-inevitability of album leaks made each individual leak less impactful, there were still stragglers in the industry who believed that every download of a leaked album was a one-to-one substitute for an album sale, effectively drawing a meaningless distinction between pirating an album a week before its release date and pirating it afterward.

With that said, leaks like the ones described above—those that occurred only after albums were sent out for physical processing—were actually the best-case scenario for artists working in the heyday of internet piracy. Sadly, not all artists were blessed with this good fortune. Take Nas, for example, whose planned 1999 release, I Am…The Autobiography, was initially slated to be a double album, but then had to be overhauled when many of its songs leaked months in advance of its release date and Nas opted to discard them. Ultimately, the resultant two albums that were salvaged from these sessions, I Am… and its follow-up, Nastradamus, proved to be largely disappointing.

Consider also Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, the eponymous rapper’s debut, which was similarly troubled by early leaks. Initially scheduled to arrive on June 27, 2006, it’s impossible to estimate how much steam this record may have lost between the time it leaked in early April and its eventual release date of September 19. It is safe to say that this was not exactly a welcome hitch in Lupe’s intricately designed rollout. A new artist’s window of hype is inherently fleeting, and even if you assume that most album sales in 2006 were driven by fans’ righteous desires to support artists and/or collect memorabilia, it’s difficult to imagine that a nearly six-month lag between online and commercial availability would not have significantly undercut the total number of purchases.

With all the information we have in 2018, it’s reasonable to suggest that perhaps a better response to these album leaks would have been to push up their release dates rather than delay them for retooling. Yet, when you consider that artists and record executives used to view these kinds of leaks as an existential threat to their livelihood, it’s not difficult to imagine why this might have prevented them from making clearheaded decisions. In the case of Lupe and Nas, this stress manifested itself as doubt, causing them to second-guess their long-term release strategies. In the case of JAY-Z, this anxiety manifested itself far more sinisterly.

You stabbed ‘Un’ over some records,” JAY-Z rapped on 4:44’s “Kill Jay Z,” admonishing himself for an altercation he was involved in 18 years earlier. The story behind this lyric, which Yoh previously detailed here, was that Hov suspected record executive Lance “Un” Rivera of leaking his fourth album, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, crossed paths with him in the middle of a crowded listening party, flew into a blinding fit of rage, and stabbed him in cold blood.

Ever so calculated, try to imagine JAY-Z risking everything he’d worked so hard for, stabbing a man in front of dozens of witnesses, all for a fleeting, solitary moment of release. The cognitive dissonance this inspires explains why there is truly no other anecdote that as effectively illustrates the frenzied and destabilizing paranoia that subsumed the music industry.

Still, if Hov hadn’t confessed to this crime so candidly, I would have had a hard time believing it happened. It’s shocking for a number of reasons, partly because it’s hard to imagine Jay behaving so recklessly, but primarily because there are so few other musicians who have adjusted to the industry’s current business model as deftly as he has. Take, for example, the way in which he and Kanye avoided a leak of their 2011 collaborative album, Watch the Throne, by pioneering the now-standard distribution strategy of releasing their album digitally before shipping physical units to stores. Consider his partnerships with tech giants Samsung and Sprint, who, for the purposes of promotional giveaways, each purchased one million copies of 2013’s Magna Carta... Holy Grail and 2017’s 4:44, respectively, effectively shielding Jay against the volatility of the consumer market.

Then, of course, there is Jay’s stake in TIDAL, the much maligned, but nonetheless shrewd business venture he invested in back in 2015. Putting aside the fact that he more than recouped his initial $56 million dollar investment in the company when he sold a 33% stake in it to Sprint for $200 million last year, his decision to purchase the company to begin with suggested a willingness on his part to stop clinging to the long outdated modes of thinking that had previously been unable to stem the scourge of piracy and album leaks for nearly two decades. Granted, subscription-based streaming is an imperfect solution that has many well-documented flaws, but there’s something to be said for how successful its widespread adoption has been at achieving this latter goal.

Zooming out a little further, the fact that music remains freely available, yet the majority of consumers now voluntarily pay for it—even if only in the form of a nominal monthly fee—suggests a baffling departure from everything we understand about economic incentives. Perhaps the only way to understand this shift, then, is to recall the lesson that Glover learned through his experiment all those years ago: physical access ceased to be viable the second Napster was invented. In other words, consumers don’t pay for streaming services because we’d be unable to access the music otherwise. We pay for streaming services for the relative user experience they afford us as compared to piracy.

For most people, piracy requires wading through sketchy internet waters to search for download links or torrents, tolerating mislabeled files of varying sound quality, and maintaining a music library across multiple devices. It’s not exactly an oppressive task, but when you consider how effectively all of these issues are addressed by DSPs (digital service providers), it’s easy to see why people have switched over to the comparative convenience of the streaming model.

Anecdotally speaking, it seems that many consumers have actually become so reliant on these services that they’ve forgotten how to pirate music altogether. Proof of this is multifold, increasingly evident whenever a high-profile artist announces a plan to release their album as an exclusive to one particular streaming service over another. In 2016, when Kanye West claimed that The Life of Pablo would reside exclusively on TIDAL, for example, over a million people consequently signed up for this service, rather than simply pirating it the way they once would have. Just a few years earlier, the mere notion of an “exclusive” album release would have been laughable, but when Beyoncé followed suit with Lemonade just a few months later, people all over the internet joked about creating alternate email addresses to scam a second trial subscription to TIDAL, rather than tapping the once-ubiquitous Zippyshare as they might have previously.

Appreciating this point goes a long way toward understanding why album leaks have all but no impact upon the music industry at present. First, virtually every artist has now adopted the aforementioned digital-before-physical distribution strategy pioneered by The Throne, meaning that leaks now occur far less frequently than they once did. Secondly, even in the rare instances when leaks do occur, most people are content to wait for their official streaming releases rather than seek them out via back-alley channels. Sure, a few rabid fans and interested parties might take it upon themselves to pirate album releases a few hours before they’re formally available in their region, but in the grand scheme of things, these leaks don’t move the needle an inch in any particular direction.

The other component of this explanatory equation is the sheer bounty of music that streaming has given rise to, the tremendous fatigue this has fostered among listeners, and the profound destruction this has wrecked on our attention spans. Consider the fact that the availability of dozens of official releases intriguing us at any given moment—potentially one click away from becoming our latest obsessions—negates the possibility that a particular leak might find its way into our listening rotation.

This applies equally to albums that leak in advance of their release dates as it does to the leaks of unreleased songs, demos, and reference tracks that still periodically pop up online to very little fanfare. Just this past September, for example, 20 unreleased songs from the TDE camp mysteriously hit the internet, generating very little awareness, and making almost no splash on the cultural conversation whatsoever. Many of these songs featured Kendrick Lamar, arguably the second most popular rapper of this generation, and yet barely anyone heard about them. In 2007, rap nerds would have voraciously consumed all of these songs, scrutinized them for meaning, and endlessly debated how they impacted Kendrick’s ultimate legacy. In 2018, we’re too overwhelmed to even hit play.

There’s a lesson in all of this about the value of scarcity. I don’t write this to romanticize the leak era or lament its natural conclusion, but when I reflect back on a period characterized by such an insatiable appetite for music, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad about the way we regard music now, often consuming it like it’s a chore rather than a passion. Once again, Glover’s story provides a neat parallel that can help us contextualize this attitudinal shift.

A fan of music before anything else, whenever Glover stole a disc from his plant to leak, he’d typically be excited by the thrill of listening to it before anyone else. By the time he’d leaked a few hundred albums, however, he found that he started to grow bored with the music progressively quicker, often discarding CDs after only one or two listens. According to the article, “when he was done with a disk, he stashed it in a black duffelbag in his bedroom closet.” 

The article ends with a gut punch that perfectly captures the sad irony of unlimited accessibility that feels so salient in the streaming era:

“On the day that Glover’s home was raided, F.B.I. agents confiscated his computers, his duplicating towers, his hard drives, and his PlayStation. They took a few pictures of the albums he’d collected over the years, but they left the duffelbag full of compact disks behind—even as evidence, they were worthless.”

Related