Pirates! At the Disco


I have a confession to make.

As a teenager, I used a YouTube to MP3 converter to pirate music.

There, I said it! But it turns out that my confession is not very unique. In 2019, 27% of music consumers listened to pirated music. This statistic is down dramatically thanks to services like Spotify and Apple Music, but one form of piracy that is still going just as strong as ever is the album leak.

Rather than stealing someone else’s intellectual property to use in their own creation, hackers who leak albums fully acknowledge the artists’ ownership of a work and simply do it to either harm sales, make a profit, or make the music they love freely available. In her book This is Not a Remix: Piracy, Authenticity and Popular Music, Margie Borschke writes that internet platforms such as Napster have given rise to “the expectation that all music should be accessible by anyone at any time” (Borschke 2017, 115). There is almost always a way through the internet to access a song, regardless of whether the artist has made it available or not. This expectation could either come from a frugal standpoint or some moral belief that the public domain should be expanded. I am interested in discovering the perspectives of the different parties involved in album leaks and what motivations are behind them. This discussion will also raise some broad questions of the morality behind album leaks. While album leaks are only a small part of the ongoing issue that is music piracy, it is one that is generally easy to quantify and research because it often involves media attention and public statements, whereas other types of piracy frequently fly under the radar.

When speaking about “the music industry(ies),” I am referring to a collection of companies that work together to create this industry. In his book The Music Industries: From Conception to Consumption, Michael L. Jones defines the music industry as “a process — a continually active process that allows demand to be met by supply” (Jones 2012, 3). Some of the main companies working with artists in that process include: Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Group, BMG, EMI, Warner Music Group, the International Federation of the Phonograph Industry (IFPI), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS), and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

As could be expected from an industry comprised of so many different parts, the music industry’s perspectives and reactions to album leaks are complex. It is no secret that the music industry in general found album leaks to be problematic. The RIAA responded with lawsuits, both large and small. However, this proved ineffective for two reasons. Their biggest lawsuit when they joined A&M Records (among sixteen other record companies) did succeed in shutting down Napster, but users simply turned to Napster copycats like Kazaa and Limewire. Additionally lawsuits of individual file-sharers were a “public-relations disaster” (Witt 2015). James Boyle in The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind wrote that it was difficult to feel sorry for “the record company executives who moralistically denounce the downloading in the name of the poor, suffering artists, when they preside over a system of contracts with those same artists that makes feudal indenture look benign.”

According to Robert Hammond’s research in the Southern Economic Journal, individual artists should not expect album leaks to harm their profit even though the industry as a whole does suffer a loss in profits. If an artist does not have a good relationship with their label and they know their profits will not be harmed, why not do something to excite the fans? Hammond also points out that established popular artists benefit from album leaks more than new artists with a small fanbase. This is consistent with some of the case studies I have investigated. The artists who leaked their own music — such as Panic! At the Disco, Lady Gaga, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore — were all big name famous artists who did not need to be concerned about profit.

Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco is an example of an artist who has leaked his own music multiple times out of pure excitement. He has garnered a reputation for sharing his music with his fans as soon as possible on Twitch or Instagram Live, where he explains that if it were up to him and not his label, he would share everything online with his fans. Fall Out Boy, on the other hand, leaked three songs off of their 2018 album Mania as an apology to fans for their record company delaying the release, and Hayley Williams of the band Paramore followed suit early in 2021 as a promotional stunt.

Two other notable album leaks of the 2010s were done by Lady Gaga and Radiohead. Radiohead’s (third!) album leak was their own decision when hackers attempted to hold the album demos for ransom in 2019. Rather than pay the $150,000 that the hackers demanded in exchange for not leaking the demos, Radiohead posted the demos online to stream for free or purchase with proceeds going to charity (Wills 2021). Lady Gaga also leaked her own music for practical reasons. Unhappy with her label’s decision to release the song “Applause” as her 2013 album’s promotional single, she created a fake fan account online and leaked the song “Aura” instead (Wills 2021). While he did not actually follow through, rapper TYGA threatened to leak his entire album in 2014 over disagreements with his label. Although Jones argues that consumers should not separate the musicians from the music industry (Jones 2012, 9), there is a growing concern regarding the conflict between musicians and the music industry.

In 2004 PhD candidate Jack Bishop published a scathing article in Popular Music and Society where he highlighted the greed and corruption of the music industry. He begins with the following declaration that echoes Boyle’s exact concerns: “If [piracy] were not such a serious issue, their position might be laughable as the record industry uses the media to cry foul and plead for public support after years of raking artists and consumers over the financial coals.” He goes on to discuss the specific ways in which he believes the music industry has abused artists and taken advantage of consumers. A few examples of the corruption he discusses are pressure tactics on music retailers to keep CD costs high, the payola scandal, and unilateral pricing across nations throughout the world as a form of “neocolonialism and economic oppression.” This issue of unilateral pricing has led to a huge increase in piracy. The article “Rampant Reproduction and Digital Democracy: Shifting Landscapes of Music Production and ‘Piracy’ in Bolivia” by Henry Stobart explains how this increase in piracy has toppled the large-scale record industry in Bolivia and replaced it with many small-scale producers. However, this has not put a damper on the consumption of music in Bolivia. Rather, since the demise of the record industry in Bolivia, “the overall number of recordings being released has increased, as have the sectors of the population now consuming such media” (Stobart 2010, 49). These recordings are all low-budget, and high-quality recordings created for the middle class have been much fewer than when there was a large-scale record industry. Because of this, “the longer-term implications of this situation for musicians’ livelihoods and particular musical genres remain unclear, as does state policy with regard to the protection of cultural resources and copyright” (Stobart 2012, 27). Bishop’s article speaks to similar situations in the rest of Latin America, specifically Brazil, where he lived for a period of time and found his inspiration for this article which laid the foundation for his research throughout his academic career. These circumstances highlight such a degree of inequality within the music industry that has led consumers to feel they have no alternative but to turn to piracy.

Now I have talked about the different perspectives surrounding album leaks and the motivations behind artists leaking their own albums, but what about the motivations of hackers? Shannon Lee Dawdy and Joe Bonni published “Towards a General Theory of Piracy” in 2012 where they drew connections between pirates like Blackbeard and Jack Sparrow and modern day pirates of intellectual property. Through this, they “urge that anthropologists take pirates seriously (whether real or cinematic) as cultural archetypes who colorfully embody currents in today’s tense political economy” (Dawdy 2012, 674). Classic pirate tales “fuel not only competing, but contradictory economic fantasies — as the ideal rational-choice individualist (a consumer of monstrous proportions) or as a profit-sharing, utopian socialist” (Dawdy 2012, 675). Kate Crawford writes similarly that either “thieves are downloading music and thereby exploiting struggling artists and the companies that foster their talent, or peer-to-peer services are beneficiently taking profits from corrupt infotainment industries to give back to overcharged consumers” (Crawford 2005, 30). Stephen Witt wrote a New Yorker article to promote his new book The Man Who Broke the Music Business. In both the article and the book, Witt tells the story of Bennie Lydell Glover, a PolyGram employee who leaked CDs and eventually MP3 files for a group of pirates called The Scene. Witt’s research revealed that Glover’s motivations to participate in The Scene were purely to supplement his income rather than to protest capitalism (Witt 2015). But according to an article in Psychomusicology, fans who listen to pirated music also spend the most money on music and are in fact the greatest consumers of culture (Brown 2016, 80). He further explains that “though in legal terms they are breaching copyright, in economic terms they may be contributing more money to the recorded music industry than those who do not engage in piracy” (Brown 2016, 80). This suggests that perhaps consumers of pirated music are not simply being cheap, but may instead be using piracy as a means to make an educated decision about how they will spend their money. Why would they spend money on an entire album if they were uncertain if they would even like it? These are only a handful of examples of the variety of motivations behind pirating and consuming pirated music. With such a complex topic, it is likely that there are many other perspectives to be considered in future research. What I have discovered here has worked to assuage some of my guilt from pirating as a teenager!

Album leaks make up only a small fraction of piracy, but even within this fraction it is clear that there are a multitude of motivations and perspectives regarding piracy. The purpose of this paper is to act as a case study showing that the negative stereotype of piracy is not always true. Crawford, Stobart, Dawdy, and Bonni all posed the question of whether pirates are heroes or villains. Bishop takes this idea even further, closing his article by saying:

Therefore, it is not necessary to be an economist to see that if we abandon the mind washing we received while growing up that taught us that the normal order of society was for a small faction of the population to control the majority of resources, and for the masses to struggle to obtain them and we apply a trickle-up rather than a trickle-down theory, it becomes quite clear who the pirates actually are (Bishop 2004, 106).

This paper cannot fully answer the question of whether pirates are heroes or villains, but it does reveal several important points to consider. Album leaks are unlikely to hurt the artist, especially if they already have well-established, successful careers. In fact, not all artists think of album leaks as a bad thing. Some are ambivalent, and some participate in piracy themselves. Additionally, the recording industry is not necessarily a victim, but perhaps they are ultimately the culprit. And finally, there are a variety of motivations behind piracy other than money. Future research should examine even more of these motivations as well as how new technology and streaming platforms have affected piracy.


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Apt. 6/8 is the work of Chloe Smith and Anna Williams, who are current graduate students studying musicology at Yale and Arizona State respectively.