Highsnobiety / Ricky Lil

In May 2019, one of the biggest songs on Spotify shouldn’t have even been released. Playboi Carti’s Pi’erre Bourne-produced Young Nudy collaboration “Pissy Pamper” (also known as “Kid Cudi”) skyrocketed to the top of the streaming service’s US Viral 50 chart. But the song wasn’t credited to any of its three main creators, instead to someone named Lil Kambo, who told Genius the account only exists to post records that aren’t on Spotify.

The “Pissy Pamper” story is perhaps the biggest and best instance of the leaking trend that dominated music in the late 2010s, and it has particularly affected contemporary rap. Full album leaks are far less common than they were in the 2000s, when it seemed like every major label record found its way online weeks before its scheduled drop date. The music that finds its way online now is often much more personal; these are scraps and sketches of songs that have only been heard as teasers on Instagram, or samples of projects still in their creative infancy.

The proliferation of leaks is a direct product of the ease of recording nowadays. With artists – most notably a crop of uber prolific Atlanta MCs including Carti, Future, Young Thug (and his acolytes) – being able to record at a frenzied pace, and with no system in place for this music to be released, there’s more material than ever to mysteriously find its way online.

In some cases, as with Carti, the culture around his leaks has built up his music to mythic proportions and helped create a feverish hype around his upcoming album, Whole Lotta Red. Though for the handful of musicians whose cache benefits from leaks, the vast majority are put in compromised positions, from Sky Ferreira being forced to defend her artistry to entire records like Kanye West’s YANDHI being scrapped.

Highsnobiety / Ricky Lil

“I hate it, luckily we are talented beyond measure and can always cook up more. But I honestly hate it for the sake of making an event of a song or project,” Pusha-T wrote in response to the Kanye leaks. “It ruins all that we have in store for you guys.”

Album schedules are less meticulously planned out than they were in the past, but that often just means that the damage caused by leaks is less known, not necessarily less extensive. For the clout that a well-received leak brings an artist, it also drastically affects their plans for formal releases. Singles and even entire projects like YANDHI are often nixed due to the complications that arise from leaks.

As The FADER explored, leaks have always played a role in Kanye’s music, but never to the extent that they did with his intended ninth studio album. Its debatable how well the project would have been received, but the snippets were generally well regarded, and might have represented a path towards critical redemption after the widely maligned ye.

In some shrewd cases, as with Young Thug’s team, they actually work with leakers to stem the flow of unreleased music. That may well be the future as we move into the 2020s, the way some banks and other institutions have turned to ex-hackers as cybersecurity experts because of their technical knowledge.

Highsnobiety / Justus Dutra

Occasionally, deliberate leaking can actually be an empowering tool for artists in stagnant label situations. Lil Uzi Vert is believed to have been directly behind the critically acclaimed “Free Uzi” leaking in March, and his label Atlantic rushed to classify the song as an unofficial release. Uzi has had an acrimonious relationship with Atlantic and Generation Now, DJ Drama’s subsidiary label that he’s signed to, so leaking the song is a strategic play to reclaim some agency.

But any benefit created by leaking is outweighed by how it affects every individual and facet of the creative supply chain. For as much credibility as Whole Lotta Red now has thanks to songs like “Pissy Pamper,” “Let Me In,” and “Minute Maid,” it’s possible the whole project would be out by now under other circumstances, and the clout that Carti has achieved among diehard fans would be spreading to the mainstream.

The way music is created has changed drastically, as has the the run-up to a release from a marketing standpoint, but it’s release is relatively similar to the industry standard of the last several decades. Perhaps, as the album format continues to diminish in popularity, a method of putting music out that is direct, impromptu, and official will emerge, and allow artists like Thug to take a song fresh out of the studio and get it straight onto streaming services before it has the chance to fall into the wrong hands.

One of the more complex problems of modern music is not simply leaked songs ending up on Reddit, Discord, or other forums, but actually getting uploaded to legitimate streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. Pitchfork explored the topic in-depth this August, highlighting purported releases by superstars like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and SZA under false names. These records were submitted under false personas, and yet they could still make upwards of $60,000 in royalties due to the fervent, viral success of these tracks.

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Unlike the early 2000s when leaks were simply dispersed into the ether, there’s now significant money in the practice, which is clearly going to drive leakers until there’s a meaningful crackdown. Not only are people earning thousands of dollars uploading leaks, but people are spending significant sums to acquire rare leaks, making them into a baseball card-like commodity. Another FADER feature details the practice of sale by hackers, who go to enthusiast forums and receive a crowdfunded sum in exchange for whatever bounty they acquired.

While illicit leaks have the most public impact on the artists themselves, they have a negative effect on everyone down the chain of the industry. Recording engineer Alex Tumay, who works closely with artists like Thug, Future, and Travis Scott, has spoken about the extent of damage caused by leaked releases.

“The more you leak music, it lowers the perceived value because there’s so much free music out there. Then, the perception changes of the music that is released on albums and projects,” Tumay told FADER. “You’re hurting dudes that are getting paid hourly,” Tumay says. “Dudes who are only getting paid when the song drops. That doesn’t happen if the song leaks.”

The music industry is in an uncharted place, with streaming leading a boon in revenue over the last few years, but with a fix for the leaking issue still eluding artists and execs alike, this issue is likely to get worse before it gets better. Ultimately, fans may have to choose between whether they want “Pissy Pamper” or Whole Lotta Red, since getting the former makes the latter that much more unlikely.

Words by Grant Rindner