The Ordinary, Boring, Personal Truth Behind Album Leaks

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There’s an album in my ears right now that shouldn’t be. After months of anxious anticipation, I’m finally immersed in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. It came without warning, like the first kiss between strangers, or a massive pimple on picture day. I expected to hear it early, release dates are now only a naive wish – even the label whispered they expected the album leak by Wednesday. Why Wednesday? That’s the day physical copies would begin to be shipped to the retailers to be held until that mythical release date, Monday, March 23.  Ironically, despite their fear of an early leak, the album can be currently bought on iTunes. It’s possible that an intern at Interscope decided the Ides Of March would be the perfect day to shove a knife in Kendrick’s back, this could be an elaborate surprise release to coincide with Tupac’s Me Against The World 20th anniversary or just some other screw up by Interscope. Regardless, PandoraSpotify's box is open, March 23 has been obliterated.

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The album is officially out, it’s circulating like a Playboy magazine in a 1990s high school, but my mind still wonders why the label believed the retailers would bring the fall of Rome. They weren’t primarily worried about an email hack, some computer genius breaking through firewalls and illegally obtaining the album through private servers. It was the stock boys and girls at BestBuy making $8.25 an hour that they feared would be the pirates to liberator audio gold. In the internet age album leaks have become a natural occurrence. Almost every major album will surface online a week before its official release, but I never really thought about why, or how. It was simply something that just happened, like the sun rising. I always had this perception that an album leak was a huge operation, on the scale of a GTA heist or Ocean’s Eleven. That the CIA would have to be involved to catch these elusive criminals. Think Anonymous but with Robin Hood’s ethos, dedicated to taking albums from the rich and giving to the poor. The media and music industry call it piracy, and pirates are usually depicted as lawless and violent. The truth though is rarely so interesting. 

Albums must be shipped a week in advance to hit shelves on the promised release date. That means in the back of every major retailer Kendrick Lamar's opus would sit until the 23. It only takes an ambitious Joe or a staning Steve to risk sacrifice their job so the internet can feast. In the past, swiping an album early wouldn’t mean much. Only a few friends would know, they would have to come into your home just to hear this unreleased album, you'd be the man on the block for a week. No longer. I can’t imagine someone stealing To Pimp A Butterfly and keeping it for self, we are too accustomed to social media and sharing. We have to prove our existence by announcing our every waking move. All it takes is one person to upload and send, the album would travel around the net at light speeds. Ironically, you can’t proclaim the deed without incriminating yourself, there’s no fame or fortune attached, you won’t be remembered or infamous, but you’ll be pulling the metaphorical fire alarm, disrupting the peace. It can’t be that simple, these giant corporations, billion dollar operations, can’t be easily out-maneuvered, right? 

They can. 

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I have a friend that’s a former Wal-Mart employee, he gave me some insight on the protocol when handling packages that aren’t shelved immediately. A lot of electronics and miscellaneous items come packaged together in “break packs.” The items are removed and scanned, that's how they account for the inventory. A supervisor or manager usually handles this role, but not always. So if 100 Kendrick albums come in a break pack, 100 albums have to be scanned and put aside. Now, if you have a large stack of items and you’re missing one or two, it won’t be alarming. Consider it a miscount, or assume the distributor didn’t send enough. No one knows that the guy unloading the truck has snuck the missing CDs into a blind spot where the camera’s aren’t able to see his misdeed. Maybe the supervisor is a Kendrick fan; while scanning the items he decides to pocket two and double scan so that all 100 CDs are still accounted for. Getting caught is the only way that the missing album can be traced back. This isn’t a PlayStation or a high definition television, one CD isn’t going to cause an amber alert.

I also have a friend that’s a current Fed-Ex employee. Instead of taking inventory, checking each item separately, they only scan the boxes. So if the labels send albums through Fed-Ex for the smaller Mom and Pops stores, the employees can be tempted to remove items while unsupervised. Fed-Ex employees aren’t allowed to bring any electronics to work, especially cell phones. If you do accidentally enter the work area with a prohibited item, you are to tell someone or else risk being accused of stealing. Stealing is such an occurrence that management encourage snitching. You can win up to $5,000, he told me, if you simply break the honor amongst thieves. He told me a story about how an employee was caught trying to steal a smartwatch. The employee found a box full of watches, and taped one to the bottom of his shoe. When you finish your shift they wand you down and also make you turn your shoes upside down. This isn’t a rigorous search, it’s rather casual. The tape wasn’t strong enough to hold the watch and it rolled out. I try to imagine his face, a bit shocked, and his supervisor had to be stunned. He was almost free, a few steps away from getting over. For every guy who gets caught boosting a watch, it's easy to imagine 50 who pocket a CD without problem.

Think about how many hands much touch an album it reaches the purchases. From the artist to the label to the CD factory workers to the truck driver to the warehouse staff at Best Buy to the lowly employee stocking the shelves. Ordinary people that have no ties with the music industry. These are fans that likely browse blogs and spend their days not far from headphones. Their excitement for Kendrick’s album is no different than mine. Can you imagine the temptation of a box full of albums that you waited months for is sitting feet away from the break room? That’s a temptation that you can’t experience in Las Vegas. The overwhelming desire to just take one, thinking no one will miss it, no one will be harmed, it's not hard to imagine.

I always presumed album leaks were clandestine affairs, sound engineers who decide to go Snowden, inside jobs. More often than not though, it’s simply an eager fan that gave into Luci’s sweet-talk. Are these the scum of humanity? Not really. It’s almost comical that the biggest issue plaguing the music industry is so simple. If the industry ever makes a switch to strictly digital releases, there’s a high probability that leaks will disappear. Removing the middle man secures the music is delivered on time, although To Pimp a Butterfly has revealed that mistakes, accidental releases, can apparently still happen in an all-digital world. The same thing just happened to Earl Sweatshirt.    

Until then, Tyrone and Derek will be hooking us up. Pour one out for Tyrone and Derek. 

[By Yoh, YohceansEleven, aka @Yoh31]

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