Sorry, Bjork: Album Leaks Are Just Part of the Process Now
It’s almost never a good idea to consider Bjork to be representative of anything. After all, none of the usual rules really apply to the eccentric Icelandic singer anymore – not the usual mechanisms of the music industry, the traditional role of the artist or the accepted laws of nature (potentially).
But following the surprising leak of her ninth album, ‘Vulnicura,’ just days after its announcement and a staggering two months before its scheduled March release, Bjork sure looks a lot like the cherubic new face of an industry-wide epidemic.
While album leaks are nothing new (pre-dating even the internet), they’ve become all but unavoidable for musicians during the past decade – so much so that having an album from a relatively well-known band not leak is the exception to the norm. But – just as Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz told EntertainmentWise after a poor quality version of his band’s latest, ‘American Beauty/American Psycho,’ surfaced online early – “10 years ago, a leak was deadly for a record,” whereas it’s now just another form of pre-release promotion.
It’s all in how musicians and their labels respond to suddenly losing control of their product rollout. Because, although an album from a major artist is technically a work of art (obviously using the term loosely in the case of Iggy Azalea), it’s also the centerpiece of an entire mini-industry. It’s not just the band’s vision that’s being compromised, it’s also months of advance work done by marketing directors, artist management and label reps.
In the case of Fall Out Boy, upon learning about the leak, the band and their backers decided to abruptly alter their extensive launch plan and instead post the entire album online one song at a time. “They leaked [the album] and it was really terrible quality, so we were like, ‘OK, let’s leak it ourselves,” Wentz said. “I think it makes sense – if people like the record, then it’ll help it.”
Album leaks are no longer just for hacker-types with pirated software and a working knowledge of C++.
That, however, apparently wasn’t a sentiment shared by Bjork or her label, One Little Indian Records. It had been three years since Bjork released her last album, 'Biophilia,' and there was still a lot of hype to build. The original March drop date for 'Vulnicura' -- which was worked on largely in secret during the past few several years -- was chosen to coincide with the release of an anthology book about Bjork's career and an upcoming exhibit about her at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Details of the album including the cover art and the fact that Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons appears on a song had yet to be revealed, and it's difficult to believe there wasn't an elaborate and theatrical plan in place to make those announcements.
But almost as quickly as the album leaked, it was made available for purchase on iTunes in an effort to make whatever cash could be made. Considering how difficult it is to convince anyone to pay for albums when they're actually on sale, the reasoning is at least a little sound. Conspiracy theorists and cynics are speculating that the leak was intentional -- a clever way to drum up publicity. But although it's certainly within the realm of possibility, it's a lot more likely Bjork simply got caught up in the inevitable.
Album leaks are no longer just for hacker-types with pirated software and a working knowledge of C++. There are countless semi-reputable websites dedicated to nothing more than letting you know when an album leaks and where you can instantly download it. And it's not like it takes someone from Anonymous to start the whole process: There are at least about a half dozen different ways an album gets leaked:
- THE STUDIO: From producers and engineers to part-time custodial employees or the band members themselves, a lot of different people can get their hands on an early or mastered version of a record. Sometimes just e-mailing a track to a friend can open the floodgates.
- THE LABEL: Depending on the size of the company and the significance of the artist, there are a lot of steps to take with an album long before anyone is supposed to hear it. All it takes is one shady character.
- THE PRESS: Although physical promotional copies are becoming increasingly rare in favor of online streams -- and companies like Sonic Arts add encryption codes that can be used to trace the source of a leak -- that doesn't always stop unscrupulous individuals who take pride in sharing something nobody else has yet.
- THE PLANT/WAREHOUSE: While copies are being manufactured and then waiting for shipment, it's almost certain someone who can't easily be identified will snag one.
- RETAIL STORES: Good luck stopping a minimum wage Best Buy employee somewhere along the line from uploading the music to their phone and becoming a legend on their message board of choice.
Of course, Bjork's album was probably still a few weeks away from even making it to the press and most leaks happen just about a week or two ahead of their release. Still, all bets are off when you're talking about a record of this possible magnitude. Add that it's often next to impossible to track down the culprit behind a leak (except in the case of the Israeli singing competition reality show contestant who released songs from Madonna's upcoming album, 'Rebel Heart'), and you've got a practice that probably won't be stopping anytime soon.
There's also evidence that a leak doesn't actually hurt album sales at all. Obviously, that doesn't apply to smaller acts who can only count on, say, 30,000 copies being purchased and need every potential cent. But bands make such a tiny fraction on each album sold or streamed legally anyway that an early leak won't change much at all. Back in 2012, economist Robert Hammond published a study saying that leaked albums actually sell better because of it. Even so, Hammond said he was looking at a small sample size and the results of such a study depend on the honesty of those polled -- which is never something you can depend on. But considering bands like the Decemberists have been streaming their albums for free in full via services like iTunes Play in the days leading up their releases, it's difficult to say the entire debate doesn't reside in a huge gray area.
These days, album leaks aren't the end of the world and, although it's difficult (and probably dangerous) to get inside Bjork's head, it's something most artists seem to be coming to terms with; she posted on Facebook, “I am so grateful you are interested in my work!! I appreciate every little bit!”
Because even she knows it's not time to worry when people are clamoring to hear your music as soon as they can -- it's time to worry when they stop.