Ten days before release, Tyler, the Creator’s fourth studio album, ‘Flower Boy’, was leaked to the Internet in its entirety. Instead of going into panic mode and bringing up the release date, the American artist barely even acknowledged the leak, continuing with his rollout as though every step of his plan had remained intact. Usually, when a leak occurs, artists and their teams become reactive in order to retain some control, however, Tyler and his team didn’t react, and later on when the music dropped, it proved to be a positive decision.
Following on the heels of his lukewarmly received third LP, ‘Cherry Bomb’, anticipation for ‘Flower Boy’ was quite high amongst his dedicated fan base and within hip-hop listener circles. Due to the stakes, a leak should have meant reduced sales, but instead, the album managed to still gross Tyler’s highest opening week sales and Billboard Chart position at that point in his career. In the post-digital era where digital bootlegging has advanced beyond buggy LimeWire links and severely limited internet bandwidth, Tyler’s achievement was quite remarkable, and he would go on brag about it on the freestyle cut, “ZIPLOC”.
While the success of ‘Flower Boy’, despite leaking, can be regarded as an anomaly, it’s also indicative of the continued shift in listening habits, especially with the rise of streaming as the primary means of music consumption, over the last few years. At the turn of the millennium, music piracy was the major epidemic for the global music industry, and prior to that, CD bootlegs were the main issue when. This, however, wasn’t enough preparation for the rampant format of digital piracy that would follow, with the ever-evolving Internet as the enabler to this issue.
For the whole of the noughties and half of the 2010s, illegal music downloads were the major bane for artists and record labels. The Internet had helped many young people realise that they could get a lot of music without paying, and it showed piracy to be the post-release version of leaks—anyone with a CD could simply rip and upload to a website for thousands and millions more to download. Armed with technological advancements, listeners clearly wanted immediate access to all of their favourite music without having to pay as much (or even anything at all) for it.
In an interesting twist, the same Internet managed to provide the strongest combative measure, through the advent and adoption of music streaming. According to reports, music piracy was declining due to the easy, legal access streaming provides, and that phenomenon has had its effects on leaks. In addition, streaming has provided a savvier avenue for artists and labels to contend with leaks, allowing them control the narrative and spread of their releases, and that’s probably why you’ll find that even though leaks are still prevalent these days, it’s not uncommon for listeners to wait for the official version of the song and wait for the intended listening experience.
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In the wee hours of October 30, 2020, Wizkid finally dropped the highly anticipated ‘Made In Lagos’, an album that was becoming something of a speculative myth with each shifted release date. After pushing it back to mid-November from its original October 15 date in solidarity with the #EndSARS protests, the revered afropop artist brought ‘MIL’ forward to October 29, possibly under the duress of an impending leak. At its allotted time, 11:11pm, the album was still nowhere to be found on streaming platforms, much to the chagrin of thousands of fans who had stayed up to catch the release as soon as it dropped.
A few minutes later, ‘MIL’ dropped relatively unceremoniously but to the same level of expected fanfare. As chaotic as they were, this sequence of events effectively combatted the leak, ensuring that a large bulk of listeners experienced the album for the first time through legitimate channels. The afternoon before its release, the Dropbox link containing the album’s pre-release version, sent to several music industry insiders and media platforms, was already being passed around and it was only a matter of how soon the entire public would lay their hands on this leaked version.
We at the NATIVE had been given legitimate access to a pre-release link, I had already listened to ‘’MIL’ for our 1-listen review column, so I didn’t listen to the content of the leaked Dropbox link, even though I wanted to. Part of that was for confirmation and curiosity: Was it the same? Was this album really going to come out? Were there going to be any changes made? Although I drifted off to sleep after it seemed like Wizkid had flouted another release date, ‘MIL’ had managed to get back-to-back spins immediately I found out it was available to stream, early the next morning. The album was really out, and even though the changes weren’t drastic, there were notable changes in the mixes of a few songs. Rather than simply holding on to the Dropbox link, I was much more comfortable listening to the officially released version of the album.
Unlike much of the larger world, the adoption rate of music streaming in Nigeria is still fledgeling. Due to high cost of data in addition to the recurring monthly cost of streaming, the idea (albeit slowly receding) that streaming is a luxury makes it such that a significant portion of listeners still rely on illegal music downloads. Regardless, the impact of the growing population music streamers, both through freemium and premium streaming platforms, has become impossible to ignore. Earlier this week, TurnTable charts reported that ‘MIL’ had raked in the biggest debut week for an album on YouTube NG, and the Burna Boy-assisted “Ginger” made history as the first number one song on the newly minted Top 50 charts, which is meant to be a reflection of the biggest songs in the country.
With these commercial achievements, it seems pertinent to wonder if ‘MIL’ would have gained this much early success if it had actually fully leaked. There’s no definite answer since it’s a hypothetic situation, however, it feels important to interrogate the consequence of leaks within the bigger picture of Nigeria’s evolving music industry. While gathering talking points for this piece, it dawned on me that our local music scene has been built on the back of piracy which is a form of intentional leaks, if you will. In the late ‘90s when eLDee pretty much instituted the Alaba model, starting with the Trybesmen, it was essentially a format where informal distributors paid a one-off price for the rights to pirate and sell an artist’s work.
The Alaba model was the dominant format for music distribution until the early to mid-2010s, with the internet and peer-to-peer sharing technology (e.g. Bluetooth) becoming more popular amongst young people. Powered by a rise in the use of Blackberry phones and other internet-enabled phones, that was basically the beginning of Nigeria’s own Limewire era, instigated by popular blogs such as Notjustok, Tooexclusive, 360nobs and more. In this period, CD sales began to decline and several artists even suffered leaks. I remember receiving M.I’s feverishly anticipated sophomore album, ‘M.I 2: The Movie’, a day before official release from a friend who had downloaded the entire album from some blog to his blackberry. While I would go on to buy the CD on the day it dropped, the ease of playing the album on my phone meant the CD didn’t get that many spins.
While artists and labels continued to sell CDs with the Alaba format, because the Internet use was still very low around here, many people decided to take advantage of these blogs, intentionally leaking their music to them in order to get as many ears as possible. Considering that live performances have always been the more lucrative revenue stream, allowing their songs to roam freely was a strategy to gain people’s attention so they would get more performance gigs. It’s still a commonly deployed strategy, and as a great example, it continues to be instrumental in the infiltration of street-bred music into mainstream afropop—the Shaku Shaku and Zanku waves were carried on the backs of intentional leaks and rampant piracy.
At the moment, there’s no tangible information about the effect of streaming on illegal music downloads in Nigeria. At the risk of being a little too optimistic, it’s clear that there’s a rise in streaming culture, even though it might be taking longer than it is in the rest of the world. The positive implication of this is that artists know that there’s a demographic who are ready to access their music through legal, revenue generating channels. On the consumer side, streaming comes with a double combination of ease and access, which becomes a habit that makes it tedious to go around searching for download links and leaks (in the case of soon-to-be-released music).
Over the weekend, one of the songs off Davido’s anticipated ‘A Better Time’, out this Friday, was leaked to social media, through no affiliations to the artist or his camp. The Nicki Minaj-assisted song has been trailed by its fair share of hype, and its leak definitely got thumbs tapping away on social media. As much as there was adequate chatter on the quality of the song, much of it still centred on its chances for commercial success when it finally saw official release. While there’s very likely unchecked proliferation going on, it’s telling that a leak doesn’t seem to be hampering a potentially huge international collaborations.
On his path, Davido hasn’t done as much as react to leak, going on with the rollout for ‘ABT’ with the recent release of “So Crazy”, the Lil Baby-assisted single that had already been scheduled. In the blog-dominated era, there’s a high possibility Davido would have run with the leak as a single, since it would already be on millions of phones. With streaming, however, it seems as though there’s a confidence that there’s a dedicated audience waiting to listen when the song is officially out, so there’s nothing to sweat.
Using situations involving Davido and Wizkid to determine the implications of leaks and piracy might seem a bit idealistic, since they’re two of the biggest superstars and so many people would naturally be paying attention and waiting for their new releases. However, that’s also exactly why they are perfect examples, because this means the stakes are really high for them. Their different approach to handling leaks shows that artists have increased agency in controlling how they want their work to be received. As I’ve been told by many artists, the process doesn’t stop until the music is out—and even in some cases, after it’s out. No artist wants their process to be disrupted by leaks and affected by piracy, and it should be a bit comforting that these factors seem to be getting less grave with each passing day.
The common trope is that Nigerians would rather not pay for music, but the truth is, music is more or less free these days. While it isn’t entirely ideal from a creator’s point of view, listeners can access music for free through multiple freemium streaming platforms, as well as premium ones for a relatively inexpensive rate. Getting the double positive of ease and instant access to official for next-to-nothing, depending on spending power, is obviously more alluring than surfing the web for illegal downloads. As more people lean into this route, the hunt for leaks and appetite for digital piracy will continue to dwindle, hopefully, up to the point where a Nigerian artist’s album can leak for days in advance and it won’t have much bearing on its potential for commercial success.
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter