A 'leak' is an entrenched part of music. To create music is to orchestrate secrecy. Artists prefer it that way because they want to control what their fans listen to and when those fans listen to it. Sometimes, it is also about the readiness of the artist to release music at a particular time that is musically reasonable.
On the business side, music is also big business. It is the quintessential instrument of capitalism. It relies on the human tendency to love music and for the vanity of stan culture to thrive. In essence, big record labels make big bets on the potential attractiveness of an artist and his/her resonance to a particular audience who will be willing to pay for that artist's music.
An Aside: That was the old days. The process of artist discovery has now been abridged by the internet and social media. Before a lot of artists make it big, they might have amassed a huge following via freemium music platforms and social media. Thus, artists now have leverage and labels have slightly lesser work to do to introduce an artist and to generate ideas to market and brand those artists.
For example, Lil Uzi Vert's 'XO Tour Lif3' and Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road,' two of the biggest songs of the past five years were released on SoundCloud.
While the process of introducing music has also been impacted by the internet and social media, one thing has markedly remained the same; the process of making and releasing music. An artist still has to record music, edit it, mix and master before damage control and then release. These things are done in relative secrecy for the business of music and to a much lesser extent, an artist's readiness.
For those reasons, artists hate 'leaks' - at least,most of them used to hate it. A leak is one great impediment to the success of music. That is why Jay Z and Kanye West recorded their collaborative album, Watch The Throne in different hotel rooms across the world with an intimate group of people - they wanted to prevent a leak. They achieved that.
What is a leak?
Ordinarily and historically, a leak is basically anything that was released without the consent of its owner and/or before its release date. A leak doesn't just happen in music either, manufacturers of merchandise and even makers of trivial things now leak product format. Other times, it's about tech, programming or classified information - a la Wikileaks.
In the old days, a 'leak' was a terrible offence on the streets and in Law courts. Technically, it still is but the machine has slowly softened its stance on leakers of material. Meanwhile, a leak didn't just start today. Leaks have been part of music from the days of cassette tapes and vinyls.
In those days, recordings had to be meticulous because things were not as digital. Artists could not just use equipment in hotel rooms. They had to be in the studio where a lot of live instrumentation happened. Even in the 90's when things became more digital, they still had to be mostly recorded in the studio.
For that reason, DJs like Clue, Envy and Whoo Kid became master leakers of unreleased material. In fact, Whoo Kid was so notorious that rappers used to look for him for nefarious reasons. During his stint at Hot 97, New York, he leaked a Notorious B.I.G verse than Diddy hadn't even heard. In an interview, he talked about he got some of the leaks from studio workers.
With a terrible leak of an imminent album, sales can be affected as fans wouldn't want to purchase material they already have for free. Labels are then forced to rework albums to meet deadlines and usually affected the overall output.
Modern day leaks
These days, a leak is not as bad as it once looked. In fact, a leak has become a marketing/promotion tool to test reaction from fans.The idea is to control the marketability of a leak and its ability to impede the success of a product - if reception ends up being good.
In 2018, I had a discussion with Nigerian journalist and former Pulse Music Editor, Ehis Ohunyon. After seeing yet another artist describe their own song as a 'leak,' Ohunyon jokingly asked, "What the heck is a 'leak' these days? How can you release your own song and call it a 'leak'?" We laughed about it until the issue came up just weeks later.
Just a day before this article, Canadian legend, Drake released two new singles, 'Chicago' and 'When To Say When.' He tagged both songs that were released on his label's official Soundcloud page a 'leak.' In the old days, a 'leak' wouldn't have worked for this scenario. In fact, it would have been a funny tag for something an artist releases by himself.
Thus, we can then say the purport of a 'leak' has since evolved to mean, a loosie, residual songs, promotional singles or supposed unfinished versions of certain songs, released officially by artists and labels or through third-party channels. The idea of a modern leak is to either whet the appetite of an audience, test their reaction to a song or build anticipation for a release.
For that reason, leaks now take the following formats;
- Leaks as teasers
- Leaks as instruments to control an artist's anxiety
- Leaks as introduction to a new single
Leaks as teasers
When a leak is a teaser, it is usually to build anticipation for a impending release. In this case, labels or artists release the music through official or third-party channels. When the leak is a teaser, it is usually gets an official release at a later date. Sometimes, it gets a new mix or an extra layer of production. Sometimes, it gets officially released the way it was 'leaked.'
Leaks as instruments to control an artist's anxiety
Creatives get nervous when they feel the attention from the audience drifting away or when they fear the attention might drift away. In this case, 'leaks' are like bastard children in 1672 England. When they do well, they get acknowledged as singles or make it onto albums. When they tank, artists tag them as 'leaks' with no consequence.
'Leaks' are the song version of 'EP.' They are used by artists and labels who are in fear of releasing failed or underwhelming music.
Leaks as introduction
In this case, the song might be to quell an increasingly anxious audience. When this happens, it is usually a promotional single.
Should these be tagged 'leaks'?
When anything is released through an official channel, then they should not be tagged, 'leaks.' Such tags kind of make a mockery of artists. The purpose of a 'leak' is an unauthorized release of music before its release date. Thus, it cannot be a 'leak' when the release is the obvious result of a co-ordinated effort between the label and the artist.
Equally, a surprise release is not a leak. The entire purport of a leak means an artist cannot 'leak' his own song. It's a ridiculous use of words.