Game Theory: How Early Album Releases Fight Music Piracy

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Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a record-breaking, genre-defying album that released a week early and managed to be a smash hit. The Internet is crazy about it: Butterfly broke Spotify album streaming records on its first day with 9.6 million streams, and actually broke that record on its second day out with 9.8 million streams. His success was largely due to word of mouth, following the path of surprise album drops blazed by hip-hop giants Drake (via February’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late mixtape), Kanye West, and Jay-Z.

But my question is: is hype a legit marketing tactic or does it only work because Kendrick Lamar just won a couple of Grammys and is the most notable rapper of my generation? Like most things, the probably lies somewhere in the middle. The way I see it, the early release tactic works so well because it perfectly illustrates game theory:

Building anticipation for an album leading to an ultimate release date is good. It will generates buzz and discussion about the release among fans and looks great on social media. But it’s become somewhat of an unspoken fact of life for music fans to expect new albums to leak and become available days if not weeks before their official release dates (HasItLeaked.com – most honest website title of our times?).

When that happens, internet piracy rewards illegal downloaders and punishes fans who’d have waited for launch day to buy or stream the album. Since the “good guys” were planning on hearing the album anyway, why wouldn’t they download the album along with everyone else and allow themselves to be swept up in the tidal wave of hype that accompanies big album releases?

On the other hand, when artists release their albums unexpectedly, buying the music rather than pirating it is the quickest way to listen to the new songs. It gives a slight advantage to legitimate consumers, who can access to the music as soon as they hear about it, as opposed to waiting for someone else to download it and put it up on The Pirate Bay.

Personally, using Spotify has greatly reduced my record buying over the years, but I ended up buying To Pimp A Butterfly as soon as I saw it available and, yes, I bought Drake’s mixtape.  At least I’m not a Tidal subscriber.

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I'm a Dallas-based copywriter, blogger, and content marketer paying close attention to the human side of Big Data.

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