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Taylor Swift’s new album leaked, but that’s half the story

General atmosphere of Spotify’s Taylor Swift pop-up at The Grove for her new album “The Tortured Poets Department” at The Grove on Tuesday in Los Angeles.  (Rodin Eckenroth)
By Samantha Chery, Herb Scribner and Pranshu Verma Washington Post

The frenzy surrounding Taylor Swift’s new album “The Tortured Poets Department” kicked off a day early, as the singer became one of the most recent victims of a song leak.

What was purported to be the entire album spread online Thursday, origin unknown. Some fans spent the day refusing to listen to the 17 illicit tracks. Others were fooled by artificial intelligence-generated fakes, or frustrated by social media sites that seemed to delete leaked tracks as soon as they were posted.

Countless others found and devoured the runaway songs. Premature reviews and amateur analyses of the album flooded fan sites despite pleas from devoted Swifties to wait for the official release.

Maybe they should have. Swift dropped “Tortured Poets” as planned at midnight, which confirmed that the leaked tracks were indeed real. But two hours later, she made the surprise announcement that it was actually a double album and released another 15 tracks. The leak was barely half the album.

Was this a win or loss for Swift? It’s hard to say. It was at least the fourth leak of her music in a decade, despite her efforts to quash the phenomenon. But a leak today might mean something different than it did before the advent of the streaming age.

“We’re living in the attention economy now,” said Ted Cohen, an adviser for streaming platforms. “At the end of the day, it increases awareness.”

Cohen recalled a famous industry quote: “If your artist isn’t being pirated, your artist isn’t popular.” Some managers in the early 2000s “literally would use tracking of music piracy to correlate fan interest in an artist,” he recalled.

Labels sometimes intentionally leaked music to invite public controversy, he added. But leaks don’t carry quite the same allure anymore now that listeners overwhelming stream music rather than buy albums.

Digital leaks have been around since the ’90s, when software evolved to a point where songs could be easily uploaded. In 1993, Depeche Mode’s new CD “Songs of Faith and Devotion” leaked in online chatrooms, via audio files that took about 30 minutes each to download through a dial-up connection, Pitchfork reported. In 2002, Eminem’s critically acclaimed “The Eminem Show” leaked weeks early and ended up on bootleg CDs.

“People want access to that for the novelty of the new stuff. And if they can get it, and they can get it for free because it’s been leaked, that’s something attractive to a rabid fan,” said Ali Aydar, who worked as a senior director of technology at Napster from 1999 to 2002 – the year the popular file-sharing company filed for bankruptcy amid a flood of copyright infringement lawsuits. Aydar said the first lawsuit was filed by Metallica, after the band discovered one of their demos had hit radio stations after being leaked to Napster.

But leaks had the potential to be much more disruptive then, Aydar said. During the Napster era, an uploaded track could spread across the internet to tens of millions of people within hours. Now, he said, platforms such as Spotify and YouTube have safeguards to prevent leaks from spreading – as was seen on Thursday with the “Tortured Poets” leak.

Sony reportedly sued a Swedish man for nearly a quarter-million dollars in 2013, accusing him of leaking tracks from Beyoncé’s 2011 album, “4.” In 2020, Dua Lipa moved the release date of her album “Future Nostalgia” up by one week after some of her songs leaked early online. “Songs that were never meant to come out get leaked,” she said in an interview years later. “You’re figuring it out and you’re going through all the really bad ideas and then all of a sudden people hear that and you’re like, ‘That’s not me! It’s me figuring out me.’ ”

“Friends don’t let friends listen to Harry’s House before May 20,” Sony tweeted in 2022, after the new Harry Styles album “Harry’s House” surfaced online about a month before its official release date.

City Girls rapper Yung Miami told the Washington Post she was at the wake for her son’s father when she heard the news that her album “City on Lock,” was leaked in 2020.

“You just have it preplanned in your head. You work with your team. It’s a whole creative thought process, so everything is literally flushed down the toilet,” she said. “To go and leak someone’s hard work … is always devastating.”

Swift has also experienced her fair share of song leaks over the years. She said in a 2010 Rolling Stone interview that she cried after learning “Mine,” a track from her third studio album “Speak Now,” was leaked 12 days early. Her team decided to rush the song to iTunes.

“Every day that the album doesn’t leak is a victory,” the president of Big Machine Label Group told Billboard in 2012, as the label prepared to released Swift’s fourth album, “Red.” It leaked days ahead of its release date.

So did her fifth album, “1989,” in 2014. And albums six (“Reputation”) and seven (“Lover”) spilled, too, mere hours before their official drops.

Swift has clamped down on plays of her prereleased music over the years. Dancers in her “End Game” music video had to perform choreography to “click tracks” in lieu of the actual music, she revealed in a behind-the-scenes video.

“I remember when I did a song with her for her album, I was in San Francisco and they sent someone with a locked briefcase with an iPad and one song on it,” Ed Sheeran told Brazilian media outlet Capricho in 2017. “They asked if I like it and I was like ‘Yeah’ and then they took it back.”

Swift has important allies in her war against leaks: a significant portion of her fan base not only refuses to listen to them, but they also police the internet and implore others to do the same.

“It was the first time I’ve ever had an album leak without it trending on Twitter – because my fans protected it.” Swift told NPR after the “1989” leak in 2014. “Anytime they’d see an illegal post of it, they’d comment, ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you respect the value of art? Don’t do this.’”

“Taylor’s fans are very protective of her vision,” said Georgia Carroll, a fan studies researcher who wrote her PhD thesis on Swift’s fandom. “The narrative becomes ‘real fans wouldn’t listen to leaks’ and ‘real fans will support Taylor and wait until it’s actually out,’ with critiques and attacks on those who do admit to listening.”

Some Swift-related Reddit pages limited discussions of leaked tracks and moderators threatened to ban users who attempt to share the files. On X, the search phrase “taylor swift leak” turned up without results – most likely because the site blocked the phrase.

The “Tortured Poets” leak was also novel for colliding with the new phenomenon of AI-generated audio. As news of the leak spread Thursday, many would-be pirates were tricked into downloading what sounded like machine-generated tracks posing as Swift songs.

That might have cut back on the number of downloads for the actual leak, but it also created some comparisons between the AI tracks and the real music.

“The a.i version of fortnite with post malone was so gooooooood,” one poster on Reddit said after listening to a fake version of the first track on “Tortured Poets.” “Im sad when the real version is opposite of that.


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Video: Taylor Swift’s new, double album, “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology,” dropped on April 19. It includes 31 new songs about love, loss, grief and more.© 2024 , The Washington Post

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