Nicki Minaj might turn out to be the last major pop figure whose album leaked the old-fashioned way. On December 11, four days before The Pinkprint was supposed to be released in the United States, the Beyoncé collaboration “Feeling Myself” surfaced online. It quickly turned out that the entire iTunes deluxe version of the rap/pop royal’s new album was floating around on YouTube.
At that point, there was little Minaj could do. When Run the Jewels’ Run the Jewels 2 leaked, several weeks earlier, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P followed by sharing their own free download a few days early. On a more extravagant scale, after Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories leaked in 2013, an official stream was available on iTunes almost immediately. Minaj didn’t stream The Pinkprint until its release date, when you could hear it on Spotify, in a decision that meant those streams would count toward her first-week album chart performance.
Why stream when you could sell? Yes, streaming is growing while download sales are dwindling, but Björk and Madonna have recently tested new ways of responding to leaks — and in their cases the leaks were especially early. The Icelandic auteur’s Vulnicura wasn’t scheduled for release until March, but after the music surfaced this week, her label hurried to make it available through digital retailers. The first single from Madonna’s upcoming Rebel Heart wasn’t supposed to premiere until February 14, but after an album’s worth of demos leaked last month, she responded within days by releasing a six-song digital EP.
Labels do what they can to block copyrighted material from escaping early, but once the genie is out of the online bottle, it’s all but impossible to get it back in completely. The Björk example shows on an indie scale and the Madonna case illustrates for a major how labels can at least try to make the best of a bad situation; Vulnicura cracked the U.K. top 20 in its first day of release, amid rave reviews, while the six Madonna songs sold a total of 146,000 downloads as of earlier this week, according to Nielsen Music data reported in The New York Times. But these two instances also demonstrate some of the challenges that can be expected with the next big album leak.
Derek Birkett, founder of Björk’s label One Little Indian, told Billboard the decision to release the entire album rather than do an iTunes pre-sale with two or three instant song downloads was a “mostly artistic” one by Björk, who wanted the album heard as a whole. But making Vulnicura available for sale early on iTunes hurt its chances with other retailers. Rough Trade Germany reportedly told Birkett it would stop working with Björk if the whole album became available early. Amazon, which had agreed to release a free download of Vulnicura with pre-orders of physical copies, reversed course after the iTunes release, as Billboard reports.
“Basically what happened is I panicked and gave it to iTunes because I told them, ‘All these deals are going down and we’re losing a lot of money,’” Birkett told Billboard. “I told them to put it on the cover and we’d give them the exclusive. Then I realized the political implications of giving iTunes the exclusive.”
All of this suggests any independent labels hoping to “pull a Björk” in cases of early album leaks will have their work out for them.
If an early release is the carrot, another option is the stick. Madonna, signed to corporate subsidiary Interscope, turned to private investigators and law enforcement to track the leakers, as the Times reports. Earlier this week, Israeli police arrested a man whose suspected crimes match those of the leak, though Madonna wasn’t identified in officials’ confirmation. One Little Indian opted not to pursue culprits through law enforcement, the Times and Billboard report.
The biggest artists, such as Taylor Swift, have been known to take extreme security precautions to prevent leaks (ultimately, her 1989 surfaced only a few days early). And not everyone pull off Beyoncé- or even D’Angelo-level surprise release.
Responding to an album leak by selling music? It’s an idea so crazy it just might work.
At the very least, it’s a novel approach. “Madonna is the first big artist I’ve seen try to make money off of it by going to iTunes,” HasItLeaked.com founder Staffan Ulmert told the Times.
Will all releases be big enough to warrant all the ensuing trouble? Certainly not. Just this week, Aphex Twin‘s new Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 EP leaked, but it wasn’t available for an official stream until its release today as scheduled.
Still, album releases on a par with Björk, Madonna or, yes, Minaj now have a new template for handling albums that get out ahead of schedule. Whatever the results, it can’t be worse than seeing an iTunes exclusives the likes of Pinkprint‘s “Truffle Butter” leak early, with no way to buy it on iTunes.