Like mixtapes, which are now almost never mixed by a DJ and definitely aren't on tape, the term "leak" has become almost meaningless in 2014. Or more specifically, it's come to mean so many things in so many different situations, it means nothing. Eskimos have over 100 words for snow, but hip-hop still only has one word to describe it:
Noun: a song/album that's now on the internet that wasn't [maybe] intended to be on the internet except when an artist 'leaks' a song/album on purpose to piss off their label or a label 'leaks' a song to test audience response or an artist/label just puts out an official single but calls it a 'leak' for reasons that are unclear other than maybe it sounds cool and dangerous etc etc etc."
As a site that traffics (figuratively and literally) in digital music, it's becoming increasingly hard to navigate these leaky waters; posting a song has become a David Bowie worthy labyrinth of questions, contingencies and competing interests. Let's say for a moment that we don't care about pageviews and only want to do the right thing. When an artist "leaks" their own song or album, as in the case of Angel Haze, what should we do? It's obviously an artist's intention for that song to be out; we should honor that. But the label (aka the legal copyright holder) doesn't want the song out; should we also honor that? Or what if the song leaks, but the artist later gives it their blessing, usually under 'fuck it, it's out, might as well make the best of it' mentality? If it now OK to post? Frankly, by that time it probably isn't even worth it; less cautious/scrupulous sites have already posted the song hours ago, which in internet speed terms might as well be a millenium.
And I haven't even gotten to perhaps the most important factor, the fans (aka you), who can muddy the waters even more. Take Kanye's recently leaked "All Day":
We decided not to post "All Day" since it was so obviously not intended to be released and was such low quality - it sounded like Fonzworth Bentley had recorded it through the wall of the studio next door on this phone. At the same time, I can't even begin to count how many people asked me what I thought of "All Day" within 24 hours of the leak. As with all things Kanye West, there was massive interest around even a snippet of music, people were listening to the song in massive numbers, and those people weren't "pirates" lurking through the dark corners of the internet. Listening to "All Day" was a simple as going on YouTube and searching (see above), an act of digital maneuvering that even my mother could handle.
Knowing how perfectionist he is, I can't imagine Kanye would have wanted us to post "All Day," but the larger hip-hop community was clearly dying to hear the song and discuss it. Full disclosure, behind the scenes I was listening to "All Day" and talking about it too. I'm also a fan, and these leaks can be a fascinating glimpse of how an artist puts a song together. How does our obligation to artists weigh against our obligation to that community? Should we have posted "All Day"? Frankly, I'm still not sure.
And then, while I was trying to unravel the implications of Ye's leakage*, the interwebs blew up with the news that the title track off Drake's upcoming "Views From the 6" album had also leaked. Again, it clearly wasn't Drake-approved and wasn't complete, containing a mediocre verse from a rapper named E Batt who may or may not have leaked the song but definitely won't be on the finished version.
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Drizzy's usual internet-blowing-up abilities paired with rumors that "Views From the 6" was about his one-time relationship with Rihanna meant that if you cared about hip-hop, you had probably listened to the song; if only so you could keep up with all the conversation flooding your time lines. Again, we chose not to post the record for "do the right thing" reasons, and again, in retrospect, I'm not sure it was the right call. It may not have been a "song", but it was certainly a story (as I'm making it now).
I wish we could even fall back on the "well, is it helping or hurting the artists?" test because, believe it or not, while I do have to pay the rent with this here interwebs thing, I'm also very conscious of not cannibalizing the music, and artists, I love and depend on for that rent. But even then things get hazy. It's pretty clearly no bueno to post a free download link to an album that's otherwise for sale, but to keep things Drake consistent, take when "Nothing Was the Same" leaked. It was all anyone was talking about; I was literally hearing it out of people's cars that same day. While there were certainly some stalwart hold outs who refused to listen, it seemed like the vast majority of people, even those who were 100% planning on buying the album, had already heard it; again, if ony so they could join in on the conversation. In that case, wouldn't it be better for the artist, and those people, if they could stream the album, without downloading it, in a place that also contained a pre-order link? I thought so, I did it.
Is that logic self-serving? To some degree yes, I won't pretend that it was some purely altruistic endeavor. But the logic seems to actually be sound. It's why so many artists and labels are now proactively streaming albums about a week before the official release, to give people an official place to listen to it when it inevitably leaks.
While the stakes aren't as high for songs, the same negative/positive balance might seem to be true. For example, I remember talking to Aftermath producer Dawaun Parker, who produced Eminem's "Crack a Bottle." It was uncertain if the song probably was going to be placed on "Relapse," but once it leaked and the public response was positive, Em convinced Dr. Dre it had to be on the album and boom, Parker's now got a platinum single and a Grammy. In the case of "Views from the 6," while Drake certainly doesn't need any help getting people to listen to his songs, I think hearing an unfinished version of the track will deepen my interest in it even further. Hooray for the leak!
On the other hand, while only Yeezy knows what Yeezy is thinking - and even then Yeezy might not know what Yeezy is thinking - it now seems clear that the leak of "Mama's Boyfriend" was at least part of the reason he abandoned the song, a song that seemed like it could have been amazing in finished and released form. Regardless, leaks can certainly cheapen the listening experience. It's not hard to imagine how upset I'd be if a rough draft of an article got posted and I was being judged on Twitter for it. Boo for leaks.
So now, more than 1,000 words after I first started this article, what have we learned? Honestly, not a god damn thing. I still have no idea if we should post the next "All Day" when it happens; make no mistake, it will happen. Listening to leaks are no longer the black market item they once were, they're as mainstream as ice bucket challenges and Drake memes. And if we do post that leak, will it help or hurt the artist? Help or hurt the label? Help or hurt the fans? Help or hurt ourselves?
There may just not be a clear answer anymore, if there ever was one. Just like fans, artists and labels, we're constantly trying to figure out the internet's constant seismic shifts too. The only thing I know for sure is that "All Day" sounds like it will be fucking fire. Hopefully we'll hear the full leak song soon.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]