Is music piracy all bad for Katy Perry and Lady Gaga?

Pop stars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were due to release their anticipated new singles a week apart this August. However, when both Perry’s Roar and Gaga’s Applause leaked online this weekend, two days and 10 days early respectively, the pair united in shouting back at the “hackers” responsible on Twitter. Both have now released their tracks early in the same week, causing a fan war in the race for chart success.

The leaks come in the midst of the stars’ promotion for their forthcoming albums. Last week Perry unveiled her new album’s title, Prism, on a giant gold truck and there have been a string of highly-produced short films showing the Russell Brand divorcee preparing for her pop reinvention. Gaga has chosen a more esoteric route for the launch of her album ARTPOP with an app release and nude collaborations with artist Marina Abramovic. Neither of these leaks were intentional on either management’s side.

Pre-release leaks are just one aspect of music piracy, but they’re certainly not new – stretching back to taping tracks off the radio before they were available to buy. Leaks are similarly motivated now: a generation of listeners wanting music ever sooner. They will lap up a track, or part of in Gaga’s case, which has been posted online from inside the music industry’s promo cds and digital tracks. Those who oppose it compare it to “organised crime”.

Increasingly digitised music means fewer CDs are passed out to radio stations and journalists, and an illegal copy of an unreleased single can become global property in minutes as an MP3: “It is so easy to share and distribute just by the click of a mouse button,” says Matt Grimes, senior lecturer in music industries at Birmingham City University. This makes leaked tracks easier to find too, no longer located in closed file sharing groups which existed online a decade ago when piracy was more inpenetrable, but on services like SoundCloud and YouTube. David Price, director of piracy at NetNames says: “you’re no longer waiting for your favourite track to come on the radio, you can find it on Google”.

Musicians and brands are waking up to the inevitable pre-release leak with a “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. While Gaga and Perry were understandably angered at changing their release dates, other musicians are collaborating with brands to deliberately release early, says industry insider Jack Horner, Founder and Executive Creative Director of FRUKT. If there’s a way fans can get their new music for free in a way the musician controls, they won’t try to steal it, he says. Jay-Z’s free release of Magna Carta Holy Grail, his latest album, through a free Samsung app is a case in point. However, Price adds that there were illegal versions of the album online the minute the app was released.

Price does stress, however, that an artist’s branding and promotion comes before chart success in the wake of the internet. “It matters more now if your artist is getting good placement on services like Spotify or iTunes than where they rank in the Top 40,” he says. Swedish pop duo Icona Pop topped charts this summer with I Love It, a single originally released 14 months earlier, during which they were dropped by their label but featured in HBO series Girls and covered on teen musical show Glee. Their online prowess eventually paid off in chart success.

Grimes says the music industry is tightening up its control over pre-released music, but fans will always want to hear the latest from their favourite stars sooner. As Horner puts it: “There has always been a tension between fans who will do anything to hear new music, and having your tracks illegally released. You can’t prosecute your own fans.”

As of 3:00pm eastern time Katy Perry is effortlessly still dragging Gaga without doing the most
Katy Perry's "Roar" is #1 in 52 countries around the world, Lady Gaga's "Applause" is #1 in 0 countries.