How Jay-Z & Kanye West Kept Watch the Throne From Leaking Online
The kingdom is safe. The throne has been watched. In an age where albums spring leaks like baby diapers, Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne arrived on the appointed date without even as much as a drip.
For the first time in over a decade, we witnessed a major label release with no leaks. Aside from one isolated case where someone posted a few muffled snippets - and was roundly flayed in the Internet Court of Public Opinion - the album arrived intact.
The excitement that led up to its arrival was unparalleled. With no video or club single on hand, they still managed to garner enough buzz to shut down Twitter. Still more impressively Billboard reported today that first-week sales should top 500,000.
Imagine the frustration bootleggers must have felt as weeks turned to days and days turned to "Oh shit, Watch the Throne is almost here and I still don't have a copy!"
But Jay-Z and Kanye didn't leakproof their first collaborative album to spite bootleggers. Obvious economic motivation aside, they envisioned Watch the Throne as a game-changer that would restore music to the good ol' days when you rushed the record store, bought a CD, ripped the plastic seal and sank your breath in the complete body of work for the first time. How did they accomplish that?
Showing up at every listening session with burly guards didn't hurt. "Kanye and Jay are just very tight with the music," Jycorri Robinson, Def Jam director of digital markerting, told XXL. "Even so far as to where they've been, Kanye and Jay have been at every listening session, every event, that there has been and that's because they're holding that music so tight to them."
Also, recording the album the old-fashioned way helped keep digital gremlins out of the equation.
"They just took it back to the old school, man," Robinson continued. "They recorded the entire album together; no verses emailed back and forth. It's just tight eyes on it, only one or two people having access to it."
One oft-ignored key to staying leak-free is keeping your team happy, starting with your engineer. Disgruntled employees are the No. 1 source of mischief in these situations. Jay and Kanye, with admirable foresight, decided to give their soundman Young Guru a Rolex during the recording of Watch the Throne. If Jay-Z gives you a Rolex and begs you to guard his DATs with your life, would you look him in the eye and say no?
Keeping the engineer content was important, but not nearly as vital as the next step. WTT had independent stores going WTF? when the pair opted to debut the album via iTunes. Adding salt to injury, the physical copies of the deluxe edition will be limited to Best Buy through August 23.
Feeling left out, indie stores wrote a letter to The Throne (as Jay-Z and Kanye are collectively billed for this project) asking them to reconsider their digital-first approach. When asked about this, Jay explained that, while he sympathized with mom-and-pop stores, they favored iTunes to prevent leaks.
"The real reason behind it is we didn't want the music to leak," Jay told Hot 97 FM's Angie Martinez. "We wanted to present to the people in its entirety. When you send it out, once it leaves the plant and that's the end of it."
If you think that's business-guy bologna, feast your eyes on the infographic above. Albums that leak a full month before their street date usually slip out while being shipped out for pressing. The ones that turn up on the Web two weeks ahead of time are typically swiped from the warehouse where they dock briefly before being shipped to retailers. By releasing the album to iTunes, Jay and Kanye eliminated both issues.
Will this move revolutionize the music industry? Yes and no. The lust of embracing digital outlets to rake in larger online revenues is too sexy to resist, so you can expect other big-name acts to emulate the pattern laid out by The Throne.
But don't expect the entire industry, particularly independent labels, to make a habit out of digital-first projects. Indies generate most of their income from touring and merchandise. While they stand to gain a lot from ample sales, bootlegging isn't exactly high on their list of concerns.
Cash cows like Jigga and Yeezy will always sell out arenas; they figured they'd make extra change from digital revenue to temper the bootlegging that will hurt the physical sales once the music is out. For indies, new music is an incentive to shell out for show tickets.
This is still far from a major game-changer. The overall aim of this approach - to put Hulkshare Records out of business - will still remain a music-industry fantasy. People will still download music illegally; they'll just have to wait a few more days to get their bootlegging on.
But note that The Throne accomplished something that many have failed to do in recent years.
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