When Radiohead were held to ransom by hackers, they shrugged and put 18 hours of unheard material online for free. But for other artists, having music leaked can be devastating
In 1997, Radiohead imagined a future in which technological dependency and out-of-control consumerism had merged to form a dark, digital void. OK Computer, the bands third album, painted prescient pictures of riot police at political rallies and anxious lives lived in suburbs surrounded by endless motorways. The digital advances promising to bring us together, it seemed to warn, would instead corrode and cause chaos.
Last weeks big Radiohead news wouldnt have sounded out of place on that albums technosceptic vision of tomorrow. The band had been hacked, guitarist Jonny Greenwood revealed on Tuesday, and 18 hours of unreleased music from their OK Computer sessions stolen. Pay $150,000, they were warned, or this archive would be uploaded to the internet for free. The only thing more frustrating to frontman Thom Yorke than the situation, fans joked, was the fact he hadnt thought to mention sinister cybercriminals holding people to ransom on OK Computer in the first place.
The group responded to the threats with a shrug. Instead of complaining much or ignoring it, Greenwood wrote on social media, were releasing all 18 hours on Bandcamp in aid of Extinction Rebellion. Minutes later, a waking days worth of untitled, unedited offcuts and demos appeared on the streaming service for fans to sift through. The move was heralded as a victory for artists and a middle finger to pirates, who for two decades have derailed album release campaigns by uploading illegally obtained music, often months in advance.
A lot has been written about the financial cost of leaks since the advent of sites such as Napster. One report by the Institute for Policy Innovation, an American thinktank, estimated that internet users have downloaded $12.5bn worth of pirated music every year since 1999. Less has been made of the emotional trauma of the artists whove seen music, often unfinished, stolen from their private vaults and uploaded without consent.
This month, Madonna said she felt raped after her 2015 album Rebel Heart leaked online before shed even announced it. There are no words to describe how devastated I was, she told the New York Times. Jai Paul, the influential R&B star in the making, was similarly distressed after his debut album was hacked and posted in full online, and he disappeared from public view for six years. Returning with his first music since 2013 this month, he told of how he suffered a breakdown of sorts and withdrew from life, consumed by trauma and grief.