Let’s Stop Pretending “Accidental” Album Leaks Are Bad For Major Labels

If the artist is big enough, it's always a win-win.

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On Monday, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly found itself published on iTunes a full week ahead of its scheduled release, amidst rumours that the album’s distributor, Interscope, had accidentally pushed it live without the knowledge of Kendrick’s label Top Dawg Entertainment.

The surprise drop brought joy to hip hop heads the world over, and absolutely RUINED Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith’s day:


Though losing control of what would have been a tightly scheduled release plan was undoubtedly a blow for Top Dawg Entertainment, in pretty much every way the release was a huge success. To Pimp a Butterfly immediately rocketed to the top of iTunes’ music charts around the world, received universally ecstatic reviews, and basically took over the internet for the day:

To be fair, To Pimp a Butterfly was never in danger of flying under the radar. In the last two years Kendrick has toured with Kanye West, featured on albums by Eminem and Flying Lotus, endured what has been called one of the biggest snubs in Grammys history, signed a partnership with Reebok, and released a string of high-profile singles. Without a leak, the album would have come out as scheduled, sold well and received positive reviews — of that there is no doubt.

But by having his album appear unannounced on iTunes Monday afternoon, Kendrick put into motion a publicity frenzy far bigger than if he had followed standard music industry practice. Social media was practically falling over itself to inform the world that yes, Kendrick put his album out early and no, no one touch me.

Almost immediately the surprise release itself became the story, with journalists questioning which of Kendrick’s labels was to blame for the accident — or asking whether indeed it was an accident at all — while speculating that concerns about piracy forced their hand.

The album was pulled from iTunes 12 hours later, suggesting that the leak was accidental after all, and that someone at Interscope had finally realised their mistake and was furiously trying to stuff the toothpaste back into the tube. By that time, though, it was all over. Reviews had started surfacing and the album was uploaded onto torrent websites.

Top Dawg’s CEO, despite initially blaming Interscope for “fucking up” his release, quickly realised that he was better off embracing the leak, eventually tweeting a link to buy the album on iTunes himself and then trying to rescue it once it had been taken down.

If To Pimp a Butterfly had just turned up on the shelves of JB Hi-Fi next week as scheduled, this conversation would never have happened, and no one would have spent Monday night furiously writing reviews and thinkpieces about Kendrick Lamar, trying to beat the rush.

Combine this flurry of publicity with the convenient side effect, that pirates were unable to get their grubby hands on a full copy of the album before it became available legally, and the situation is a win-win for everyone involved. Especially Kendrick.

Kendrick is by no means the only artist ever to benefit from a timely surprise album drop. The internet has been shaking up the music industry in ways no one could have imagined even 15 years ago, and with the ever-present threat of piracy lurking, ready to spoil their well-planned release schedules, it’s becoming more important for high-profile artists to embrace the power of the internet for good, not evil.

As you’ll see, for artists well-known enough that piracy is a concern and an unexpected album would excite the press, surprise albums drops are (almost) universally a win-win. The strategy reduces the opportunity for piracy and massively increases the impact an artist can have – commercially and artistically – all while keeping everything under their control.

Beyoncé (Beyoncé) & Drake (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late)

In the year of our Lord Bey 2013, no one could have argued that Beyoncé would struggle to generate press for her self-titled “visual album” — but by releasing it to iTunes completely unannounced in December 2013, she essentially doubled her opportunity for publicity without much effort. As with Kendrick, the release of the album was as much a story as the album itself, no doubt helped in this country by the fact that one of the music videos accompanying the album was filmed in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick.

Cut through all the “surfbort” jokes streaming through the echo chamber that was the internet of early 2014, and you would have found Beyoncé again staking her claim as an innovator with unparalleled artistic cred.

In February this year, Canadian rapper Drake pulled the same stunt with his mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, which achieved the previously impossible feat of pausing Drake memes on Twitter long enough to allow actual discussion of his music.

Death Grips – No Love Deep Web

The current Undisputed Champions of Pissing Off Their Record Label are the experimental hip hop outfit Death Grips, who honed surprise album drops to a science before their “break up” late last year. After signing with Epic Records for the well-received The Money Store in early 2012, the group took to Twitter and Soundcloud to leak their own follow-up album in protest at Epic’s decision to delay its release until 2013.

The resultant album No Love Deep Web, its controversial artwork (NSFW), and the long-running feud it sparked between the band and their former label raised Death Grips’ profile to new heights, even scoring them a slot at Lollapalooza.

Which they didn’t turn up to.

D’Angelo & The Vanguard – Black Messiah

D’Angelo picked a fraught time in American history to finally make his comeback after 14 years in the wilderness, dropping Black Messiah in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson.

A neo-soul masterpiece heavy with the ghosts of black disadvantage and oppression, the album’s rushed release added D’Angelo’s voice to an important cultural conversation that was happening in real time, something never before possible for socially conscious musicians. No stranger to struggle himself, D’Angelo is well qualified to speak on the issues currently dominating the American media, and the publicity generated by his surprise return gave his voice the added heft it needed to be heard.

Counterpoint: U2 – Songs of Innocence

Always ready to identify an opportunity and then think of ways to fuck it up entirely, your Dad’s favourite band decided last year that it would be a good idea to force their album Songs of Innocence onto the iPods and iPhones of half a billion unsuspecting people.

Far from having the desired effect, the strategy – which illustrates perfectly what happens when old millionaires and their marketing departments try to get in with The Kids – blew up in Bono’s face so spectacularly that he was forced to issue an apology.

Hands up who fucked up?

Would literally anyone have been interested in a new U2 album had it not been forced onto their phone like a Trojan horse? Hard to say, but they definitely didn’t want it when it was.

Clearly it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the music industry’s ills, but major labels need not be afraid of the strategic album leak and all the good it can do for an artist’s career.

Bradley J. Dixon is a Melbourne-based writer and the editor of pop culture criticism website The Essential. You can find him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.