Cruel Summer: The Downside of Musical Piracy

I remember when I was first introduced to the game. It was somewhere around the 7th grade and a friend of mine mentioned the word “Kazaa.” My inquisitive nature got the best of me and I blurted out a phrase that I’ll forever regret.

“What’s that?!”

The onslaught of laughter and sophomoric quips that ensued could only be found inside of the venomous walls of a middle school classroom. I had been shamed.

“Never again.”

And so it began—my journey on the road of intellectual property piracy. From Kazaa to Bearshare to the countless Megaupload, Rapidshare, and Mediafire links moving across the internet, I saw the evolution of music acquisition and the subsequent destruction of the industry. I watched as countless friends downloaded and traded, steadily moving high hats and sixteens like the earliest form of structured economy. Music was our currency. And the wealth of others, those with minimal to no artistic talent (read:executives), meant absolutely nothing.

As I have grown older and inevitably developed an interest in entering the music industry myself, I have not found much empathy for those executives suffering from musical piracy, despite wholly understanding their difficulties. Instead, most of my feelings are situated amongst those who I stood with in the past—the consumer. Because as much as the executive (whom I will admit is absolutely significant in the continued financial stability of the artists we love) and most importantly, the artist (the creator of it all) is losing money, I do believe that the greatest victims of this “crime” are those who commit it themselves—the “consumer.”

What I have watched slowly unfold within commercial music is the flooding of the market with songs. Not musical products. Just songs. Allow me to elaborate.

The most recent trend in online musical consumption has been the leaking of single tracks from upcoming projects. As each day passes, we find ourselves introduced to yet another song off of a highly anticipated release. This, I believe, greatly depreciates the value of the album itself.

I have a very specific idea of what an album is, so let’s get that out of the way first. When I say “album,” I refer to the full body of work presented in packaged form. Under this idea, we can recognize that by default of an album being leaked track by track, the “album” implodes, by (my) definition. Let’s relate this to another form of art:

Imagine that you are anticipating a new book. Let’s say that you appreciate the classics and it’s the next installment of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Your excitement gets the best of you. Succumbing to the anxiety and pressures of both carnal and pseudointellectual lust, you find yourself scourging bookstores for possible leaks. Barnes and Noble drops pages 37-53. You read it. Borders (do they still even exist?) leaks pages 248-365. You read it. You’re a fan of small businesses, so you hit the mom and pops spot down the street and they’ve got you for pages 109-112. You read it. The book is finally released and you take in the remaining pages. Fin. Think about it. Now how stupid is that? I’m not mincing words here. You would never read a book that way. It’s literally absurd.

So, then, why would you listen to an album that way?

An early leak diminishes both the clarity of the work as well as the overall experience of following the album from beginning to end. Looking at a recent release, G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer could never reach its absolute potential if for nothing else than it’s steady leak into the public atmosphere. We listened to Track 3 (“Mercy”) and then Track 6 (“Cold”), right before we jumped to Track 4 (“New God Flow”), followed by Track 2 (“Clique”), which led to Track 10 “(Sleepers”), which, logically, of course, carried us over to Track 1 “To The World”), and so on and so forth. You see, instead of sitting down and listening, track by track, top to bottom, enjoying the musical journey, our listening experience has been diluted to an underwhelming ride of musical hodgepodge. The trajectory is more than simply lost. It becomes null and void. However, this brings us to a larger point that I would like to make.

Perhaps, we’re talking about a chicken and the egg scenario, but what I believe is the greatest flaw in leaking music is the way in which it has disrupted and essentially destroyed the making of an “album.” It may be a reach, but I believe that artists have strayed away from building “albums” and have instead focused on making “tracks.” These tracks are then strewn together to make something that looks sort of like an album, but isn’t exactly the same. And that’s exactly how Cruel Summer should be defined. Even if we had listened to Cruel Summer as it was intended, it still would have fallen short in the bigger picture. It’s the product of a lawless generation. The “album” that really isn’t an album. Welcome to the present.

Now, here is the point were you, the reader, and I, the author, may greatly depart in our understanding of an album. But allow me to reiterate my position nonetheless.

When I really think of an album—exactly what defines the concept—I think of the Marvin Gaye classic What’s Going On. For just a second, I ask of you the herculean task of forgetting the musicianship. Because what I believe to be the album’s greatest achievement, comes within its conceptual dynamic. What’s Going On is a narrative. Like a film, the album plays out as a well written storyboard. It tells the tale of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the United States as he attempts to navigate the sociopolitical landscape of a changing country. With each track, our protagonist explores drug abuse, violence, and the overall corrosive nature of the inner-city to which he has returned. Only further driving this point home, the album literally plays as one solid track. “The Detroit Mix,” featured on the deluxe version of the album, released roughly thirty years after the original 1971 pressing, accurately displays the way in which each track fluidly transitions into the next, never stopping the progression. This is an album.

I hate to put limits, boundaries or guidelines upon art, but I would say that when constructing an album, it should have, at the very least, some binding agent. Each album needn’t be a mechanism for storytelling, but there should be a common thread that is seen throughout the body of work, even if it means comfortable movement from track to track. It is this concept that seems to be missing from the modern musical stage. It seems as if artists of the present are taking 10-12 of their “hottest” songs recorded, throwing them on a CD and calling it an album. No. That would be a collection of songs—a literal mixtape. But even those mixtapes we all made back in high school had a purpose (Shouts to my “Slow Jamz Car Mix” circa ’05). Cruel Summer, while great in many ways, doesn’t have any sense of direction and for this, I honestly don’t blame Mr. West. If I’m Mr. West, why would I waste my time crafting something with a grand perspective, when it’s going to be valued by its individual parts? It would be more important to focus on the specificity of each track more so than the entire product’s connectivity and broader scope. Yes, artistic integrity can overwhelm this logic and lead to such conceptual masterpieces as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. No doubt. That can happen. But more than not, we have and will continue to be repetitiously living through a Cruel Summer like it’s Groundhog Day, but not as funny.

Let’s go back to the example of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Now if E.L. James believed that her work was going to be consumed in random chunks, don’t you think there would be more inexplicable, but titillating moments of unbridled eroticism and even less coherent character development and plot advancement? No longer would the overall narrative matter. It would be of greater importance to captivate the audience within each 20-30 page interval, knowing that it would inevitably leak that way regardless. And I may be alone in saying this, but I do not consider that to be a satisfying reading experience.

Above all, as much as I appreciate the movement of music within our modern society, I do believe, in the most ironic fashion imaginable, it actually hurts us all in the end. It creates the necessity for artists to change their original ideas, abdicate legitimately great pieces of work for the sake of presenting something easily consumed. Ultimately the overall creative genius is interupted because we were too impatient to wait for their potential magnum opus. And trust me, I know. It’s a double-edged sword. As a music consumer, I fully understand the insatiable hunger for more. But perhaps the next time we plan on “taking” music from our favorite black market music space, think about exactly who this is hurting.

Written By: Paul Pennington

4 comments on Cruel Summer: The Downside of Musical Piracy

  1. @IHMG says:

    Interesting thoughts on this – RT @RoyAyersProject Cruel Summer: The Downside of Musical Piracy, by @PaulPennington

  2. Cruel Summer: The Downside of Musical Piracy | Roy Ayers Project | 70/30

  3. John Waters says:

    Dear Paul,

    I’ve read your arguments a few times and I am hoping you can elaborate on some of the points that I’ve think are somewhat confusing. First, I am assuming that you are saying “Cruel Summer” the album sold poorly because of a series of leaks that caused listeners to feel less than compelled to buy the album? You attribute those leaks to musical piracy but what of the music that was legitimately leaked? What I am saying is that though the music could be “traded” via online, that does not negate the fact that the music was released as legitimate singles to drum interest in the project as whole and continued to be released when the music failed to chart.

    Furthermore, you seem to set up the argument that because Kanye West releases an album, we are expected to buy it? Now, I know you will say if we like it or are listening to it, but what of us who found the music to be wanting, unfocused, misogynistic? What I am getting at is that the argument seems to be narrowly conceived and doesn’t take in account other factors.

    Yes, we don’t read random snippets of books. However, in some cases authors have been known to publish excerpts of chapters in newspapers and magazines to drum up interest or as a way of inviting an unitiated audience. It doesn’t damage reading the entire book. Furthermore, I have been known to go to Amazon and sample whatever is available online to “preview” the work before I purchase it. While I can speak for every consumer, I am sure other consumers have done this too. Snippets have existed for years and long before the advent of musical piracy. Second, you are completely forgetting about the “snippet” technique musicians have posted on online sites like youtube. Kanye did some of this with Cruel Summer which is why I decided that I would not buy the project. Furthermore, in the past, musicians used to release snippets on “singles” cd’s back in the nineties. I can even remember some artist like Timbaland and Mystikal, having snippet of other artists (Ludacris and Petey Pablo) as the last track as a sort cross promotional tie-in.

    To your points involving Marvin Gaye, it seems strange to put that album against Kanye’s for a few reasons. Yes, it is a great album but that album has benefited from hindsight. You’ve made this grand statement about Kanye’s when the album has only been out for a few weeks. You also have set up that Marvin’s album and Kanye’s album speak to the political consciousness of it’s generation. What you’ve gone about ignoring is how Marvin’s album was recorded and under what circumstances. Marvin’s album was entropy against Motown’s manufactured idea of “crossover music,” which is it’s own political consciousness. An artist like Marvin, who is working for a record company that provides little agency is not creating in the same conditions of freedom, as Kanye who has total sense of autonomy to be able to record in Hawaii and who he gets to record with in the process. Whereas Marvin had to deal with Motown’s storied Friday meetings where quality control got to decide what was released and what wasn’t, Kanye is his own quality control, as that he is very tightly wound about what gets released from Hawaii from what I’ve heard.

    To your points about leaks. What of the countless singles Marvin released early in his career that failed to chart, that delayed albums? And to your points about albums, what of the albums musicians like Marvin released that weren’t cohesive albums but still good music? I am thinking of songs like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” that tends to be bought on greatest hits package, due to consumer hindsight?

    I don’t know if you can say that you can’t blame Kanye West. It really does allow him to not be accountable for what music he’s done on this project. I think it also ignores the cohesive work he’s done in the past in the sense of collaboration. It was possible for leaks to be prevented. Kanye already proved this with Watch The Throne which was recorded in multiple places and required a level scrutiny and going back to the drawing board when the first single (H.A.M.) did not chart. To say that Kanye doesn’t have to do anything, ignore the fact that music on the album is unfocused. What of the song that DJ Khaled originally released for his album (“Cold”) that later ended up on Cruel Summer? What of the retread of lyrics that crop up on two songs (“New God Flow”) And to say that Kanye shouldn’t care, he should. These are his artists who he has invested time and money in being viable artists. Why wouldn’t he want to give the same attentiveness and detail as he does with his personal albums?

    Finally, what of the mounting hype surrounding the album? I know some people stop waiting for the album because It was scheduled to come out in the spring and then summer and then finally three days before the beginning of fall? Am I not suppose to hold Kanye accountable for releasing an album named Cruel Summer during the summer?

    I can’t make the blanket statements about what motivates an artists to change course of album as you can in your final summation. However, Kanye could have just released the album when he was done with it. It doesn’t hurt him financially to have waited. And while I agree with your impatience point and the intersect of consumerism, I am just wondering how you ignore the flaws in your argument. Who, by the way, are we hurting? If for example, I as a black man believe that Kanye is misogynistic has lost his political and moral fiber and message spreads a sense of contempt for black women am I wrong if decided to hurt him by pirating his music? Is what you are saying the dollar is more important when it comes to black consumerists? That we should support black artists because they are black, regardless of the message they give?

    I know it may sound like I am beating down your argument but I am having hard time following the train of though and am hoping you can give me a more empathetic insight into your thoughts.

  4. Kai says:

    The Jackson’s and MJ have albums comprised of singles without a binding narrative. B’day is an almost perfect album and Beyonce’s all over the place. I agree with leaks compromising first time album listening experiences though.

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