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How artists learned to stop worrying and love the album leak

Singer Lights poses for a portrait in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Lights’ third album Little Machines leaked before its September release, which she said was disappointing.

Hannah Yoon/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When Caribou's Dan Snaith found out people loved Our Love, it was months before anyone was supposed to have heard the record.

The Dundas, Ont., electronic composer's follow-up to Swim had leaked. It was June and the album was due out in October.

As is often the case, news of the leak swept in to Snaith with an inflow of congratulations.

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"Right from when it leaked, people [left] totally blatant messages on Twitter, Facebook, whatever," he recalled in a recent interview. " 'Hey man. Your album leaked. I really like it. Maybe I'll buy it or come to the show or whatever.' They're not shy. It's just a fact."

Snaith was far from devastated by the news, in part because this scenario has played out before.

"Every single one of my records has leaked ages in advance," he conceded with a sheepish laugh. "In some way, it's gotta mean somebody's excited about hearing them."

Leaks have indeed become a fact of life in the music industry, just another indignance of the Internet era: artists can't control how much you pay for their music, and they can no longer control when you hear it.

The anticipated album that doesn't find its way onto the Internet prior to release is now the exception, usually the result either of tactical strategizing worthy of a Tom Clancy novel or, much worse, audience indifference.

"What doesn't leak?" mused David Bakula, senior vice-president of industry insights with Nielsen Entertainment, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

"You can go onto a site somewhere almost every day and find something the minute it's recorded."

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Record companies initially reacted to the scourge of leaks with hysterical urgency, and still they continue to fight back with clever security measures and swifter counter-gestures. Their reaction time honed by experience, they usually counter a leak quickly now by putting up a clean and clear stream.

Leaks, to be sure, are still generally regarded as a negative force (several major record labels declined to comment on this story). But increasingly, some involved in the industry are admitting to the unexpected benefits of a record meeting the public prematurely.

"It's evolved over the years from people looking at it like it's just bad," Bakula said. "These things are leaking. We weren't ready to put it out. But it's a pretty good indicator of what's going to happen.

"We can't track leaks per se, but you can track the impact of the leaks. And that's where you really get a good sense of 'Yeah, what is the early demand for a new song?'" Even artists have learned to find the cloud's silver lining.

"I don't really worry about it no more," Atlanta rapper T.I. said recently in Toronto, reclining in his hotel room before a show. "You kind of have it down to a science."

Long-time purveyor of slinky-smooth southern-rap bangers that he is, T.I. is speaking as both chart-topping artist as well as the label boss who signed lucrative pop-rap sensation Iggy Azalea. Both her recent album, The New Classic, and his most-recent effort, Paperwork, leaked.

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"If something leaks, there's two things you can do: you can try to stop it, which you never can really; or you sit back and you notice how much attention the leak garners."

When that happens, the album leak becomes simultaneously a tool of publicity (given that the premature release of prominent albums still merits news stories and social media chatter) and an opportunity for free focus-group testing.

"Sometimes a leak can tell you whether or not you have something," said the 34-year-old What You Know rapper.

"Sometimes if something leaks and it doesn't make a huge splash, then imagine if you would have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out that it didn't make a huge splash?"

And thus a theory, from Bakula: "I get the sense – and I don't think anyone will necessarily admit it – that there are a lot more 'Oops, this leaked!' wink-wink, nudge-nudge things going on."

Leaks are most commonly pinned on careless journalists, insecurities in the manufacturing or recording process or virtual thieves. Artists who do manage to keep their work under wraps tend to require plots more complicated than the second season of The Wire.

As documented in a Billboard feature, Kanye West and Jay-Z went to endless lengths to prevent the leaking of their 2011 smash Watch the Throne. With West still stinging from the premature release of his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the pair forced anyone collaborating on the album to contribute in-person, rather than via the e-mail-swapping norm. They recorded in hotel rooms instead of studios.

Beyonce's celebrated 2013 "video" album, which halted productivity around the world with its surprise – and leak-proof – release, showed how buzz could be amplified when everyone heard an album at the same time.

But for most artists, it's not worth the conspiratorial manoeuvring.

"I feel like everyone gets music before it comes out now and even when it's out, they probably get it without having to pay," reasoned Nick Jonas, whose sensual solo debut leaked before being funnelled through a legal stream.

In the face of having their work spotlighted ahead of schedule, most musicians can react only with shrugging, begrudging tolerance.

Drake's studio debut Thank Me Later leaked, then sold nearly 450,000 copies in its first week in 2010. A Time magazine study at the time found that songs from the album were shifted online between 135,000 and 580,000 times per day prior to the record coming out.

He still handled the situation gracefully, tweeting: "I gave away free music for years so we're good over here." Other artists have responded less calmly. Lady Gaga went notably berserk when portions of her 2013 setback Artpop leaked, tweeting grandly: "Lord, in HEAVEN WHY."

Lights's latest record, Little Machines, leaked before its September release. The Toronto-based synth-pop songwriter had been fretting for months over the record leaking, trying unsuccessfully to prepare for the inevitable.

"Every day [I'd say]: 'I know it's going to leak and when it leaks I'm not going to be upset,'" she recalled recently.

Then, over the summer, the record leaked. She sighs.

"I was still so bummed," she reflected. "It takes away the excitement basically of the first time people hearing it. People are tweeting you, saying: 'Oh, this song's my favourite.' And I'm like: 'Why do you have that song?'" Artists who want to monitor their upcoming record's water level, so to speak, can use hasitleaked.com, which keeps meticulous tabs on which hotly awaited new albums have dribbled into public ears.

Editor-in-chief Staffan Ulmert says he has a primarily positive relationship with record labels and artists, many of whom look at his site as a useful tool. And he believes labels have gradually become wiser in their response to record leaks.

"When an album leaks, they counter it by putting out the album as a stream," he said. "Instead of having news publications tell fans that the album has leaked, they instead tell them there's a stream available. I think that's a very good alternative.

Where leaks are particularly troublesome, then, is simply when the album is bad. Ulmert's website encourages early discussion of the leaked records, and he's seen debut artists "die before being born." Their albums are dismissed before they're even officially released.

"If something leaks and the sentiment around it is generally negatively slanted, then certainly it could hurt," Bakula said.

Ulmert, meanwhile, says the industry's middle-class are most often affected, since record companies still exert much energy to keep their biggest bets bottled. "Caribou is not a big name but in the indie world, like Pitchfork and so forth, he's a big name," he said.

To some extent it is a problem, but Snaith, who has a mathematics PhD, is more solution-oriented. Though each of his records has met the masses earlier than he intended, it hasn't slowed his career climb. He's won the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award. Our Love opened at No. 19 on the Canadian albums chart and No. 46 in the U.S., both career pinnacles. According to Metacritic, it's the sixth-best reviewed album by any artist in 2014.

"It's definitely not necessarily a bad thing that people are hearing it – even if it's early and it's not what the PR campaign and the record labels would want.

"I enjoy releasing control, feeding control to everybody else," he added. "It's my music until it's released, then it's only partly mine. It's also everybody's."

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