Back in the year 2000, when Metallica took Napster to court, the concept of music piracy was very much in the public eye. But while that case eventually spelled the end for Napster, the problem has never gone away.
In September last year, a 19-year-old UK man was arrested for allegedly stealing unreleased music, apparently by accessing “world-famous recording artists’ websites and cloud-based accounts illegally.”
This last detail might sound implausibly high-tech for a teenager from Suffolk, but the fact is that the global music leaking scene is largely run by young hackers.
On communal leaking hubs like the RapLeaks subreddit or LEAKTH.IS, you can find a demographic of predominantly white male teens sharing and debating the latest unauthorised releases found on YouTube and SoundCloud. These are people who love the thrill of hunting down new music and compiling spreadsheets that painstakingly track every unreleased song in an artist’s discography.
But how do these songs get from an artist’s private server or email, and onto a platform like YouTube?
To find out, VICE News reached out to a notorious figure in the leaking community: a 17-year-old who goes by the handle propkers22. He told us over the phone how he makes thousands of dollars selling unreleased music.
VICE: Hey, so let’s start with how songs leak. What can you tell us about that?
Propkers22: There’s actually so many different ways that songs leak. If you find people that sell you unreleased music, they’re called sources—and that’s somebody who brings a song that’s never been seen before into the community. Just as an example, I know a few people in this artist’s camp, so I offered them a few hundred dollars to buy songs that they have because artists send music out to their friends like it's nothing. That's a common method.
I think some music also comes from labels because I see people selling songs that are about to come out in a week's time. If a song is going to drop in a week, who else would have that other than someone in a label? If that was safe from the leak community for months and months, and it’s only surfaced a week before it’s dropped, who else would it be?
Yeah, you also get a lot of music through hacking emails. You get into the email account, filter through emails that have attachments, and then you’ll find songs because they all send songs via email. That’s how I get most of the songs.
I used to buy songs from people on forums but it’s so pointless, trust me. I’ve spent over $10,000 on songs and all of those songs I’ve bought end up leaking, or something weird ends up happening with it.
There’s other ways songs leak but I’d rather not give light to methods that still work great to this day.
How much unreleased music would you say you’ve had access to since you've been doing this?
Over 1,000 songs probably. I have a lot of music from various artists; Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Playboi Carti, Unotheactivist, Future, Young Thug, Lil Keed—just to name some.
Once you get these leaks, what do you do with them?
Mainly I get stuff for myself. I don’t think many people get unreleased music just to straight up leak it. At one point I was buying songs for thousands of dollars and leaking them the same day just for people to enjoy. Although you can benefit a lot from just selling unreleased music.
How much does an average leak sell for?
Of course it depends on the artist, the hype for the song, and the production. For smaller underground artists, like Robb Banks, Unotheactivist, Warhol, songs go for anywhere from US$100 to $200. Then some bigger artists like Swae Lee, Lil Yachty, Offset, people like that go for $300 to $500, maybe even $600 sometimes.
Then the really hyped up artists like Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert Uzi go for more. I’d say Young Thug songs go roughly for about $700 and Lil Uzi Vert & Playboi Carti songs go for an average of like $2,000. The highest priced artist right now is Juice WRLD, for whatever reason. I guess Juice WRLD group buys have a cult following.
What about the highest amount you’ve seen them go for?
The highest I’ve ever sold a song for was “Shrooms” by Lil Uzi Vert, which I got from the Working on Dying hack earlier this year. I sold that for $1,400. In terms of general leaks, the record was broken the other week for the biggest group buy which was for a Jay Electronica album from 2012, Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) which was completed at $9,000.
Also, the other day I saw an incomplete Juice WRLD group buy for the song “Rental” which was set at $15,000. The group buy got to about $12,000 before somebody else leaked the song and the buy was cancelled with everybody refunded. That is crazy. The fact they got $12,000 is insane.
How do these sales happen?
Generally speaking, most of the sales are group-bought because not a lot of people have thousands of dollars to spend on songs. All of these sales happen on [messenger app] Discord. The links get spread through Instagram pages or LEAKTH.IS and then fans all jump in and start to put together the money for the song.
For me personally, recently I have been sharing the snippets of the leaks on Discord to tease people. Sometimes I put a price on them, sometimes I don't, and I see if anybody wants to buy them.
Discord is big for sales but in general the leaking community is pretty split. The Instagram leak community is pretty big: if someone has an unreleased Playboi Carti song they’ll get hundreds of views on their Instagram lives, but all the main source of original information comes from LEAKTH.IS.
How does someone like yourself get involved in the leaking culture?
I got into the culture through my favourite artist at the time called Trippie Redd; he had this one song “Wish” which leaked around 2018. I asked the person who uploaded the leak about it and he told me about a subreddit called RapLeaks. From there I began checking RapLeaks everyday for new leaks.
How did you go from looking at a reddit to getting deeper into the leaking community?
I only really got into the leaking culture deeply this year—before that I was just checking the reddit—and it happened when I started using LEAKTH.IS and learning more about the scene. This was right after I hacked Joey Badass’ social media because I saw someone talking about it on LEAKTH.IS. From there I found out about people buying and selling music and was like woah, that’s crazy.
So you were hacking people before you were into the leaking culture?
Okay, so how did you get into hacking?
I’ve always been interested in computers and I always thought it was cool and funny when celebrities got hacked. A few of my friends showed me the ropes of how to get into regular emails and social media accounts, but for music and stuff I pretty much taught myself everything in terms of where to look and who to attack if I want the most music.
You’re pretty infamous for this. We’ve seen you hack high-profile artists’ social media accounts numerous times. When you hack those accounts, is that for fun or to try and get information?
Both actually. You can get a bunch of information from social media accounts. When I hacked Unotheactivist I got like 600 contacts for people like Swae Lee, Trippie Redd and a bunch of other information.
Posting on their social media is just for the laughs because it’s fun to see everybody's reaction, but pretty much every time I’ve hacked a rapper I’ve found so many leads to hack other rappers. It’s just an endless cycle: I hack one, which gets me information about another rapper, hack them, and repeat.
I also gain attraction to myself. Sometimes I promote unreleased music on their social media accounts, so I definitely have gained a few customers from hacking rappers.
What are some of the artists you’ve hacked?
Joey Badass, Zillakami, Working on Dying, Horsehead, Murda Beatz, Jetsonmade. That’s not all of them. I don’t really keep track of them at this point.
Tell me: is this ethical? These artists are making music to get paid, and you’re effectively preventing them from getting paid.
Yeah but I mean, it's just music. We’re all going to die one day; we might as well have beautiful music. Some of these fans are crazy and go on as if they know the artists personally. I don’t know these rappers personally so I don’t really feel for them.
Put it this way: I won't be losing sleep over leaking an artist's music. And at the end of the day, realistically, what does a music leak do to damage an artist’s career? They lose a few streams? Reworking entire albums due to leaks barely happens, and a lot of the time they’ll still include leaks on upcoming albums.
What about for someone like Playboi Carti, who’s had entire albums leaked?
For someone like Playboi Carti I can understand it’s a bit different because his leaks get millions and millions of views. But usually your average leaks don’t get a lot of attention. Also, who is making the decision to not put out the music that leaks? Is it the artist or is it the label?
What motivates you to do this?
Music has a really big place in my heart; it’s one of the greatest things ever made. And it feels good having people know you have unreleased music. Like it feels good waking up to 20 DMs begging you for a song or playing unreleased music on Instagram live. It’s really fun when you’re playing music people have never heard before and the whole chat is just fire emojis.
The buzz you get from logging into an email and just seeing hundreds of songs is amazing. I’ve done a lot of stuff before music leaks, and music leaks probably give me the biggest buzz out of all of them.
Do artists or people from record labels ever contact you?
I’ve had a lot of contacts from artists. Usually the general response from them is they don’t really care about who has the music, just as long as it doesn’t leak.
I’ve never had a conversation with anybody from a label but I've had a few big threats. Honestly it seems like the labels get more mad than the artists. I had an email from someone at a label the other day, the title was in all caps: “WE ARE GOING TO SUE YOU!” [Laughs] It’s funny man.
Do you take their threats seriously?
It’s whatever to me. I'm still young and only 17; I don’t know, I don’t really take anything seriously right now. That’s just me though. I have gotten in legal trouble before for computer-related actions, so I don’t recommend people getting involved because eventually you’ll get caught. I’ve seen a lot of my online friends go to jail.
Interview by Dylan Raffaele. Follow him on Instagram