What’s the motivation in leaking an album?
From hackers to hustlers, clout chasers, and superfans, we take a glimpse into the bizarre culture of fans sabotaging their favourite artists.
A few posts on Twitter. WhatsApp messages. “Someone link me that new J Hus.” Screenshots of zip folders uploaded to Dropbox. Then a dashboard video of someone driving through London playing the new songs, captioned: “It’s a glorious day.” Chancers attempted to make a quick buck – “£10 and j hus album is urs I swear” read one reply.
By this point, threads about J Hus on leaker forums, subreddits, and the dedicated Discord groups where unreleased tracks get shared are pages long – the messages a mixture of hands-in-prayer emojis, praise for the “plug” who posted the leak, and first impression reviews of the new music.
Eventually the Big Conspiracy leak was acknowledged, albeit cryptically, in tweets from J Hus and his production partner JAE5. The album’s release was announced, with a knowing nod to the leaks, just two days before it arrived on streaming services on 24th January. The fact that Big Conspiracy still has a shot at topping the UK album chart is testament to the strength of J Hus’ fanbase, as well as his obvious talents. But an early leak like this can deal a significant financial and emotional blow.
Of course, leaks and piracy are no new threat to the music industry; they’ve been part and parcel since the days of wax cylinders. And from smuggling CDs out of pressing plants, to sharing files on Internet Relay Chat networks, then the arrival of peer-to-peer platforms like Limewire, torrenting and more, the process has only grown in ease and prominence with the shift to digital formats. Knowing the enormous disruption leaks cause promo campaigns, tour planning, and press announcements, labels, PRs, and artist managers still go to extreme lengths to avoid leaks – even while accepting that it’s often more a case of “when” rather than “if” the tracks will surface early.
“Leaks do happen. It’s inevitable,” an industry source with direct knowledge of the J Hus campaign explains. “Regardless of when they happen there is always an immediate plan of action to ensure you are getting the music out there as quick as possible. That’s definitely an advantage of streaming services and consumption across digital outlets, versus physical CD sales.”
While streaming subscriptions have made listening to music cheap and easy, claims that this has dealt a decisive blow to online pirates fall down in the face of the increasingly well-oiled operations in the leaking community. Ripping official streams is child’s play.
Email and cloud drive hacks, SIM swapping, pay-offs to members of an artist’s inner circle, and studio burglaries are all methods employed by leakers. In other cases, an artist might leak the tunes themselves. Not content with leaking more than 200 tracks in 2010, in 2013 Wiley dished out his ninth album two weeks ahead of its release date. Labels can also manufacture a leak as a way of creating a buzz, or cutting ties with an act on the decline.
Last year, music journalist Ben Dandridge-Lemco reported on the growing community of leakers and rap superfans congregating online at leakth.is. Dandridge-Lemco observed how the site evolved out of leaking communities on Reddit that flocked around contemporary rappers like Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, Kanye West, and Young Thug, and how it’s since become a busy destination for people wanting to trade in unreleased music.
Despite the murky legal territory in which leaker community members operate (the 2014 leak of Madonna’s Rebel Heart resulted in criminal proceedings), most speak candidly about their involvement and their motivations. For some, there’s a clear financial incentive. Unreleased tracks sell for eye-watering sums on sites like songshop.biz, meanwhile forums like leakth.is and artist-specific group chats on Discord allow fans to organise “group buys” in which money (often traded in cryptocurrencies) is pooled in order to unlock access to new tracks.
Others leak for clout. Leaker forums and subreddits operate like any other social community, with their etiquettes and hierarchies. Unreliable rumour-mongers are shunned. The clown emoji is used to take the piss out of other users on leakth.is with ruthless frequency. High quality uploads are showered with praise: the most prominent leakers gather their own followers and fans, encouraging the cocky tone of their posts.
This social status can be traded in offline too. “My friends don’t really know about the leakth.is website, but they know about leaked music,” says “beatsbyzain”, a teenage leakth.is member from Bradford. “I’d say I’m the most up-to-date friend who ‘plugs’ all my friends with new release dates of music and also music itself. They always think I’m some sort of superhuman as I get music early in some cases.”
Adam, a 20-year-old leaker from Yorkshire, says he’s currently in the process of purchasing a J Hus, MoStack, and Dave collaboration that he claims was recorded shortly after Hus’ release from prison last year. “Everyone wants it,” he says, with a mixed sense of pride and responsibility, “and hopefully I can deliver.”
When Adam secures leaked tracks, he uploads them to file-sharing sites like Dropbox or MEGA – then uses forums and social media to share them out. He describes himself as a fan and claims his motivation for leaking unreleased tracks is “to support the music I listen to”. Though this isn’t necessarily clear in the way he goes about sharing the music. He spent the week of the J Hus leak tweeting Dropbox links to fans, as well as replying to posts from Hus and his team with copies of the leaked tracks. The folder on his Dropbox account containing the music was titled “FUCK J HUS”. He says he was frustrated because he thought the new tracks were being held back by Hus and his team.
This sentiment seems common among the leaking community. While “beatsbyzain” admits that fans can be impatient, he also argues that “[leaks can] also be the artists’ fault too. If they’ve started blowing up they should keep up a good work rate to stay relevant. If they keep their fans waiting then impatience grows – hence the leaks.” He suggests that leaks occur because of artists “starving” their fans, and that musicians should be putting out two mixtapes per year. Record labels are spared little sympathy too, with leakers characterising them as imposing arbitrary release schedules and stifling artists’ creativity.
While social media has given fans insight into the day-to-day lives of the musicians they obsess over, in general the internet hasn’t really strengthened a healthy bond between the two parties. In fact, artists sharing studio clips of new tracks can have an unintended consequence of infuriating fans who, simply by knowing the music exists, feel entitled to own it.
It’s a difficult thing to square. For the most part, the community is a positive, welcoming one, and there’s a depth of passion and knowledge that would outstrip the vast majority of others identifying as fans. Rare tracks are described as “grail” and genuine excitement trails the prospect of new music. Yet the expectations that come with this level of fandom seem unsustainably high – and wilfully ignorant to the realities of their idols’ lives too.
Last year, Jai Paul opened up about the “trauma and grief“ he experienced after unfinished demos for his debut album were leaked in 2013. J Hus, who’s coming back with Big Conspiracy after his career was stalled by a prison sentence, has spoken of his mental health struggles and takes a great deal of pride in his work. “Musicians have told us how important their creative output through making music is to them, not just to make a living but also in terms of their identity and self-worth,” Joe Hastings from the mental health charity Help Musicians UK told The Guardian last year. But despite an increase in awareness around mental health in the music industry, the leakers’ demands appear unbowed.
“It’s definitely a massive shame when certain individuals get a hold of music early,” the industry source tells me. “A lot of time, resources and dedication goes into someone’s art form – and for someone to come along and just put it out there, taking away the creator’s control… it’s disappointing.”
But could the relentless enthusiasm for music among the leaker community be harnessed in some way that benefits both fans and artists? Among the leakers who spoke to me for this story, they all mentioned the appeal of exclusivity and access – one described it as a “placebo effect” that makes the listening experience better. There is also a genuine sense of a collective, cooperative community on these sites. Perhaps direct artist-to-listener systems, giving hardcore fans material first, will generate more income than the shockingly low royalties that streaming services provide. But responses to the idea of Patreon-style, direct-to-fan subscription services among the leakers I spoke were mixed. Most of them pointed out that any exclusive tracks bought from a subscription service would inevitably be leaked anyway.
The culture of leaking shows no signs of slowing down. Ideally, the industry will find a way to welcome the leakers into the fold, rather than existing in opposition. But before that happens, this minority of hackers, hustlers, clout chasers, and superfans might have to feel more empathy for how leaks impact the artists they love.