Leaked Tracks

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

by Noah Adaikkalam

If you were to go through my SoundCloud likes or my iTunes library you’d find pretty standard stuff for a college freshman with a preference for rap music. A lot of Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper mixtapes, a handful of odd remixes, and some songs that look obscure. There are two unreleased Childish tracks that I got from buying tickets to the This Is America tour, a remix that puts Chance’s verse from Acid Rain over the beat from Common’s “Be” and a leaked version of “Livin Single” with Chance, Big Sean, Jeremih, and Smino.

The “Living Single” leak is my jam. The beat is mixed differently than it is on the original: smoothed out, the bass hitting softer, the chords blended more. The song sounds atmospheric as opposed to concrete. Jeremih’s chorus sounds a lot less staccato than he does on the released track, keeping up with his normal sound. The most significant change is that the last verse is given to Smino, whereas on the released track, it’s Big Sean's; Smino’s verse never actually made it to the released version. I would argue this levels the song out further, Smino’s R&B background smooths it out, giving the piece more sonic contrast. Big Sean has a pretty standard voice, Chance’s with it’s high pitched almost squeaky sound, Smino bringing the track home with singing, all with Jeremih linking each verse with his chorus. The whole song comes together, sounding a bit softer and more relaxed. I love it.

It didn’t occur to me, the first couple of times that I listened, that it was a “leaked” track. Then, looking into the song more on Soundcloud, I found the specification in the title. It made me feel more included, closer to artists almost. That is until Chance tweeted this the following day:

“I didn't release a new song, one of my songs were leaked. Idk how to explain to you how that feels, but it doesn't feel good.” - July 20, 2016

This tweet came out in reference to the leaked version of “Living Single.” Before this, leaked tracks were more exciting than originals. I was a part of something hidden, and secret; it almost felt like running into the artist on the street and having a private conversation with him that only we knew about. But now, it felt more like I was listening in on an unfinished conversation not intended for me.

I would liken this to a teacher forcing me to read my first draft of a paper out loud. Drafts are created with vulnerability under the assumption that there will be time to wade through raw material and figure out how best to form the central concepts. Drafts are all about ideas, taking the space a blank page provides you with and expanding on it with the assumption that your exploration will lead you to your final idea or project. But not having a chance to find clarity and have all that vulnerability thrust out against your intentions must feel awful. Additionally, if it is a part of a bigger project of music (like “Living Single”), it is listened to out of the context of the project. Hearing the wrong song without the album surrounding it could ruin the presentation of the piece altogether. However, the worst part is that the artist does not benefit from it.

They receive no financial compensation, effectively doing the work for free. In response to leaks, some artist try and push the rest of their work out to capitalize on the popularity, but if they don’t, as Big Sean chose not to do, then you lose out on the popularity of the piece as well. There is an exchange that occurs between artists and consumer, and leaking something gives the artist little to no credit. Their livelihood depends on their success, and by robbing them of the money and popularity, it makes it nearly impossible for them to benefit from it.

Tracks have been leaked digitally since 1993, the first major leak being Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction which was shared as .wav files sent through online chat rooms. The creation of Napster in 1999/2000, which started as a peer to peer service for sharing audio files, made the task of keeping artists’ content secure much more difficult. Today it is even harder, cybersecurity being an issue people are concerned about from personal, to corporate, to government levels. Artists are not left out of this equation. The process of musical production is getting more and more digitalized, and are therefore more susceptible to leaks.

How do we as consumers handle this responsibly? There is a category of listeners that, similar to how I used to see it, view leaked tracks as a merit of fandom; “Only real fans listen to leaked songs”- that argument. A lot of them are pursuing a desire to understand the artist on a deeper level than what is presented to the public, and by finding leaked tracks they get closer to understanding the artist. I imagine the hackers who find and leak the songs have the same line of thought. To some extent, I get that. You feel the raw emotion and it’s really appealing. But since Chance’s tweet, it’s hard for me to listen to them the same way.

I picked up a CD copy of the Roots album Phrenology at a thrift store back home. The first time listening to it I read through the pamphlet that comes in the CD case. Their song, Pussy Galore, breaks the mold of their more classic rap sound. It is a lot more pop sounding than the whole album, but this is the apex of that shift in sound. The notes for this song, written by Questlove, explain that they struggled with this song a lot, they actually had three recorded versions and asked Nelly Furtado to listen to all three and tell them which one they thought worked best. She listened to them all and had mixed reactions, telling them which one was her favorite, and telling them her least favorite made her feel like “she was walking barefoot down a sketchy alley in Thailand at night.” Needless to say, that was not the version they published, but can you imagine the reaction the Roots would have faced if it was leaked?

Leaked tracks violate the exchange between artists and consumers. Living Single, a track that I love very much, is not one that I have the right to listen to. The actual version came out in December of 2016, six months after it was leaked, with the chorus and beat slightly re-structured and Smino’s verse gone. Listeners loved it, so much so that Rap Genius even has a page for both the released and leaked versions. The leaked edition now has over 582,000 plays on SoundCloud. Thankfully, after the released version came out, listeners came through, as it has 5.6 million listens on SoundCloud alone.

While there is an appeal, that feeling of greater intimacy with the artist should not take priority over granting them the credit they deserve. There is no compensation for their work, no financial benefit, no popularity for them to capitalize on, and no control over the way they are represented as an artist. They then have to face their listeners representing a release they had no control over, and I believe that we as consumers are responsible to support artists the way they want to be supported.   

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