Recordings Artists and the Problem of Leaked and Bootlegged Music

Leaked songs and bootleg music are a huge problem for the music industry and have been for decades. The birth of the Internet has made it an even bigger problem. Songs by big name artists are regularly leaked soon before their official release date. Lady Gaga had to move up the release of her song Applause when it leaked early. These early leaks are problematic, since the only way to get a song is to download it illegally. Many people who would have bought a song may not bother once they get their hands on a pirated version.

Another problem is the leaking of unreleased songs. Many artists record more songs than they can put on albums. If leaked, artists may not want to use them on future albums and they may be unable to sell them to others. Record labels are also concerned that leaks compete with official recordings. Bruce Springsteen did a re-release of his album Darkness On the Edge of Town that included several previously unreleased songs. He may have been unwilling to do this if the songs had already leaked.

While recording songs at concerts is commonplace, many singers dislike the practice because bootleggers will often sell the recordings and the artists and their labels make no money from the sales.

Bob Dylan is the most bootlegged artist
Bob Dylan is the most bootlegged artist
Great White Wonder Album Cover
Great White Wonder Album Cover

Famous Leaks

Leaking songs is a risky activity because those involved can be charged with a crime. Despite the risks involved many leakers aren't making money off of it. They'll get songs illegally by hacking, or from a source within a record label or radio station. Many times unreleased songs are traded among stans (serious fans) of a particular artist. Eventually someone will leak them onto the Internet.

Sometimes leaking is very profitable. Singer Prince decided to pull the release of The Black Album one week before it's official release in 1987. It's unknown what led to the decision. Some promotional versions of the album were available that bootleggers were able to copy. It's believed hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. The album was officially released in 1994.

Another major leak was the underground Bob Dylan album Great White Wonder, which had several unreleased songs. The album was packaged in a plain white cover in an attempt to escape the notice of Dylan's record label. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, it was the:

"first commercially available bootleg. Great White Wonder flew off shelves, kicking off the age of the rock & roll bootleg. In the four decades since, Dylan has been bootlegged more than any other artist."
-- Andy Greene, Rolling Stone, The 10 Best Bob Dylan Bootlegs

Pearl Jam's live shows are often sold as bootlegs

The Loss from Bootlegging

In the mid 1990s, Bruce Springsteen filed a lawsuit against bootleggers in Bristol in the UK. At that time the financial loss to record labels and artists in Britain was estimated at 15 million pounds. More than 1 million CDs and cassettes were sold featuring live concert performances and live broadcasts in the UK alone per year.

According to a 2000 Las Vegas Sun article, Pearl Jam fans were paying $50 for bootlegged live recordings of the group's concerts. In an attempt to beat the bootleggers, the band put out live CDs from 25 of their shows for just $17. Not surprisingly, many music retailers were unwilling to carry all 25. Since Pearl Jam varies the material they play at every concert, bootleggers can profit from selling recordings of each one. Pearl Jam even considered bootlegging the bootleggers' recordings.

Virtually every Pearl Jam concert is made available on disc by bootleggers...the band has collected most of them.

The musicians rather wickedly considered releasing a compilation of the best live recordings from those discs. After all, what were the bootleggers going to do -- sue Pearl Jam for stealing their unauthorized recordings of the band's music?
-- David Bauder, Las Vegas Sun, Pearl Jam goes live to fight bootleggers

The band has continued to release these live recordings with a new batch as recently as 2012. They've sold more than 3.5 million copies. There's clearly a lot of money to be made by bootleggers who sell works from big name artists even when they offer low quality live recordings (although sales have declined due to the ease of obtaining live performances for free online).

Bob Dylan attempted to beat the bootleggers with the three-CD set The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. He followed that up with six more volumes. However, it failed the stem the tide of underground Dylan recordings.

Prince's Reaction to Leakers

Prince is one artist who has very aggressively pursued leakers. Many artists are unhappy about leaks but they often don't do much about them. YouTube is full of both official and unreleased material from all big name artists. Prince is one artist who takes it very seriously.

In January 2013, an anonymous leaker 3rd Eye Girl leaked some Prince songs. Prince's lawyer issued a cease and desist order and pointed out in a letter aimed at the leaker that she could have to pay damages of up to $150,000 per song as well as attorney's fees if caught. Leaked Prince material is usually removed quickly from YouTube by Prince's lawyers.

The UK newspaper The Guardian has an article on their website called "The 20 best Prince songs you've never heard." All of the embedded videos are broken links because they've been removed due to copyright claims. It's hard to find either released or unreleased Prince material online because it's removed so quickly.

A blog post on the website City Pages, that covers the Minneapolis and St. Paul music scene said:

Earlier this year someone uploaded to YouTube old rehearsal footage from around the time of Purple Rain--pretty revealing and interesting stuff. It's long gone, thanks to Prince's lawyers.

In 2007, Prince announced a lawsuit against YouTube and other outlets that host illegal music and videos. According to a statement from a Prince representative:

YouTube...are clearly able (to) filter porn and pedophile material but appear to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success.

The suggestion is that YouTube was deliberately allowing the illegal posting of copyrighted material because it's business model depended on it. YouTube has since implemented a system called Content ID that copyright owners can use to prevent illegal content from showing up on the site from the moment it's uploaded.

It's completely understandable that Prince wants to protect the copyright on his creations. But some may question if he takes it a bit too far. In 2007, Stephanie Lenz, sued Universal for sending her a "take down" request to remove a YouTube video of her toddler dancing to Let's Go Crazy by Prince. The clip was only 29 seconds long. Lenz argued that the video was fair use. The case is ongoing.

Oddly Prince also went after fan sites and seems to be trying to protect everything related to his image. This included asking for the removal of album covers, photos of him in concert and lyrics. The particular fan sites in question weren't even commercial websites profiting off his work. A group of these fan sites joined together and became Prince Fans United in an effort to counter the legal threats. Salon criticized Prince for his behavior:

And how else is the purple wonder preparing for the millennium? Why, by suing his fans. Not just the fans who buy his music. But the fans who love him so much they actually took the time to create Web site shrines to his greatness. The little litigator has accused these devotees of infringing his copyright by using that nifty symbol he now goes by. But here’s a catch: He not only gave them permission years ago to use the symbol, he e-mailed it to them and said, “Here, please use it.”
-- David Rubien, Salon, The Artist you better not call Prince

In a rather odd incident, Prince did a cover of the Radiohead song Creep during a concert. Someone filmed it and uploaded the video to YouTube. Prince ordered it taken down. Radiohead's Thom Yorke responded by saying:

Really? He's blocked it?...Well, tell him to unblock it. It's our...song.

Billboard pointed out that:

The dispute was an interesting twist in debates over digital ownership, held between two major acts with differing views on music and the Internet.

Most recently he filed a lawsuit seeking damages of $1 million each from 22 different people, mostly fans, who posted links to bootlegs of live shows. These are not people who uploaded illegal material. They simply linked to it. Most of the links were on Facebook. The lawsuit has since been dropped possibly because linking to pirated material isn't an illegal activity.

Ke$ha's Reaction to Leakers

Ke$ha, who made her songs freely available on MySpace before she got a record deal, has a very different attitude when it comes to leaks. When asked about fans leaking her songs:

They're so crazy; I love them. I live for them!" she laughed. "I have songs leak all the time, because I've written like, hundreds and hundreds of songs, and my fans somehow find them on the Internet, somewhere — I don't even have them — and they put them around. I love them for that; I'm excited the world gets to hear things that didn't make the record.
-- James Montgomery, MTV, Ke$ha On Fan-Leaked Demos

Ke$ha asks fans to get out their cameras and record Last Goodbye, a song on her Warrior album

A journalist with the Lincoln Journal Star was surprised when he attended a Ke$ha concert in Nebraska because she encouraged fans to record her performing her unreleased song Machine Gun Love. Her label refused to let her put the song on her Warrior album because it was rock n' roll rather than pop. She has also encouraged the recording of live performances of album tracks like Last Goodbye. Rock groups like The Grateful Dead, Phish, and Nine Inch Nails encourage their fans to record their concerts. But it's generally unheard of in pop music.

Ke$ha said “I’d get out your phone and press record now. You’re not going to get this anyplace else.” That’s right -- Ke$ha was inviting recording of her unreleased song. That’s not unusual at some jam band concerts where the band encourages and supports fan recordings. But a pop artist telling the audience to push record is rare to say the least and was more than a little surprising...harkening back to the old days of “bootleg” concert recordings.
-- L. Kent Wolgamott, Lincoln Journal Star, On the Beat: Ke$ha encourages in-concert recording

Several songs Ke$ha wanted on Warrior were rejected and she had to write and record songs like Die Young that her label wanted. While much of Warrior did have the rock, country, folk and retro 70's/80's influences she wanted she was still frustrated that her overall vision for the album was ruined by label interference. Some reviewers picked up on this struggle pointing out that the album sounded like a compromise between what Ke$ha wanted and what her label wanted. Billboard gave the album 81 out of 100 but noted that:

Ke$ha seems to be fighting desperately to make another record entirely..."Warrior" is a pure pop album with rock influences, despite Ke$ha's attempts to make it the inverse.

Ke$ha herself seems to be the one behind leaks of demos of rejected Warrior songs that are currently in the hands of some of her stans. A few have already leaked online. Ke$ha's mother is the one who seems to have originally passed on the demos to trusted fans who have since passed them onto others. According to these fans, Ke$ha and her mother (country music songwriter Pebe Sebert) wanted fans to know what Warrior was supposed to sound like.

Ke$ha also recently had someone on her team scour YouTube for lyric videos of her released songs. A list of these lyric videos was then posted on her Facebook page. Ke$ha herself pointed fans to illegally posted versions of her work that's available for purchase. So, why does she seem so willing to allow this?

Ke$ha was apparently behind the leak of Meet Me In Space, a song she wasn't allowed to put on her Warrior album

Prince Vs. Ke$ha

Prince and Ke$ha are two singer-songwriters with diametrically opposed views on the issue of leaks of their unreleased music. Both artists are very prolific and are said to have large amounts of it. Prince actively fights it. Ke$ha actively supports it and allegedly participated in leaks of songs her label wouldn't let her put on her current album Warrior.

Whose response to dealing with leaks of unreleased music do you agree with?

  • Prince
  • Ke$ha
See results without voting

I suspect it may be because she's so badly marketed by her record label. Ke$ha desperately wants to be a respected artist. She is respected by many critics and many people in the music industry. But her label will only let her release party type songs to the radio, so most of the general public think she's a one trick pony who can only make dance and club music.

She said in an interview that she didn't think her label would let her release an emotional song. There's a fan recording of her complaining about her label not releasing her ballads. When Tik Tok was a smash hit, she told an interviewer that people would see her differently when her serious songs were released. Four years later that still hasn't happened.

Ke$ha's best songs are either on her albums or unreleased. At this point, you haven't heard them on the radio. I think she wants people to hear her best work. The more people who are filming her concerts, posting her released work on YouTube or leaking unreleased tracks, the more potential listeners she gets. Sure, she likely loses money. But I think she wants respect more.

Ke$ha is also such a prolific artist, she could never realistically officially release the huge amounts of material she writes and records. She had already recorded 200 songs by the time she got a recording contract at the age of 22.

This comment from an illegal version of Ke$ha's Warrior album on YouTube shows how freely available material benefits her
This comment from an illegal version of Ke$ha's Warrior album on YouTube shows how freely available material benefits her

The War that Will Never End

The illegal leaking of unreleased music and the unauthorized sharing of released music will be a never ending war. Devoted fans want to hear as much material as possible from their favorites, so they'll leak and spread music for free. Most artists would be uncomfortable going after devoted fans who aren't even profiting from the material they leak. Artists will have opposing views on the issue with some actively fighting to protect their copyright and others who are eager to share music that they weren't going to sell anyway.

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Comments 12 comments

GoForTheJuggler profile image

GoForTheJuggler 3 years ago from Texas

The biggest problem with the music industry is that it is using the same business model they were using 50 years ago. TV and film have adjusted for the technological age (begrudgingly, of course) and are continuing to flourish, but the music industry insists on preying on its artists and paying them as little as possible.

In most cases, it's the label who makes most of the money on record/digital sales, leaving the artists to make its money via concerts and merchandising. The technology exists for musicians to break free from this archaic model, but so many of them are afraid to, or would rather roll the dice with the big boys.

Voted up and shared!


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California Author

GoForTheJuggler, That's very true. And I've never understood why labels didn't find a way to profit from concert recordings and unreleased songs rather than trying to fight a losing war. I came across an interesting debate a while back on whether labels will disappear at some point and artists will start going it alone. The technology is definitely on their side now if they want to.


Kate 3 years ago

The recording industry is incredibly corrupt. The contracts can be so oppressive and like most people who sign contracts, I think few singers fully grasp what they're agreeing to. Btw I don't know if you've seen it but Rolling Stone published an interview with Kesha and she's finally speaking out about her label controlling her and making her release the same kinds of songs over and over.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California Author

Kate,

I saw her very careful comments. She had to say something because the media seemed to think her fans were delusional. Now, it's clear she really is in the situation fans are saying she's in. I don't understand why labels sign talented people and then tell them they can't use their talent.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

Prince's attitude is counterpructive and probably driven completely by his ego. When the British comedy troupe Monty Python gave away its material for free on the Internet the sale of its legitimate DVDs skyrocketed. I don't promote piracy but it often benefits the artists. Great hub!


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California Author

Mel, That's true. Offering things for free serves as a promotional tool. I think something like YouTube can have benefits. Sure, people can get music for free but if people really love something, they'll often buy it.


Terry 2 years ago

I wonder how much Prince has spent trying to fight leaks and live performances of material he wouldn't have profited from anyway. It's got to be purely about ego and not money. I used to be a big fan but I've turned against him to the point I can't stand hearing his songs. It's nice to see someone like Ke$ha caring more about sharing music than how she profit from it. She's one of the few big artists with that kind of carefree attitude.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author

Terry,

I used to love Prince's music as well but his behavior has been a real turn off. I haven't listened to him in years.


Michael 2 years ago

Encouraging live concert recordings isn't just rare in pop music. Most well known groups in rock and country don't like it because of bootleggers. I don't see how bootlegs or unreleased compete with pro recordings. Fans want as much music as they can get so it's not like they won't buy an album because of a free live concert performance on YouTube. Kesha who's looked down on for making "commercial" music is willing to spread it around while "real musicians" who are making music "for the love of it" fight to protect their copyrights. I think groups like Phish who encourage live recordings treat it as promo and aren't threatened it.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author

Michael,

Bootlegs of concerts might not compete with albums or singles sales. But even if the labels would never have made that money themselves because they would never have put that particular product up for sale, they still think of it as a loss because it's someone else profiting off material they have the rights to. I agree that material posted for free can be great promo though.


PJ 2 years ago

Some indie singers are offering their music for free now in the hopes the promo will build an audience that will come to shows and buy CDs or merchandise. It seems risky but it'll be interesting to see if anyone makes it even biggish this way.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 years ago from California Author

PJ,

I have heard about that. I don't know if these are artists signed to indie labels or completely independent though.

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