A week before the release of their album “Watch the Throne”, Jay-Z and Kanye West threw a star-studded listening session at the Hayden Planetarium in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
The most striking aspect of the event wasn’t the stars like Beyoncé, Q-Tip and Jada Pinkett Smith who turned out to hear one of the year’s most hotly anticipated albums.
Rather, it was that almost none of the guests had heard it yet.
“Watch the Throne” (Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam) is one of the first major hip-hop releases in years to avoid significant prerelease leaks–something that seemed virtually unavoidable in the digital age.
Cracking down on pirates and freeloaders wasn’t the primary motivation. Instead, according to a Roc Nation executive, the anti-leak strategy was born out of a desire to ensure that all fans would have access to the album at the same time, in a nostalgic attempt to emulate the pre-Internet days when leaks didn’t give Web-savvy fans an advantage over others.
“That was the driving force of it–to create that moment of unwrapping the CD and listening to it for the first time,” says the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was a very old-school way for things to happen. People really were anticipating an album on a certain day and everyone got to experience it simultaneously.”
How did West and Jay-Z do it? By taking extraordinary precautions from the very start of the recording process.
The sessions themselves didn’t even take place in proper recording studios. Instead, the two hip-hop stars laid down tracks in hotel rooms in Sydney, Paris and New York. And Def Jam ordered the project’s engineers Mike Dean, Anthony Kilhoffer and Noah Goldstein to keep the album literally under lock and key.
The impetus for the added security measures can be traced back to the unsanctioned leaks from West’s chart-topping 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After cuts like “Power” and “Lost in the World” prematurely hit the Web, West–who was eagerly posting non-album tracks through his “G.O.O.D. Music Fridays” campaign–focused his energies on solving the anti-leak riddle.
“During Dark Twisted, we realized that no one’s email was secure, whether it was Gmail or .mac or iDisk,” says Kilhoffer, who suspects that tracks leaked after visitors recorded audio from studio show-and-tell sessions.
“These songs are showing up on the Internet,” he says. “You hear people talking in the background. It was at a crazy level.”
To eliminate such risks, Jay-Z and West implemented an Internet-free recording space. While travel schedules had reduced much of the creation of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to a series of emailed session tracks, Watch the Throne was recorded in-person in makeshift setups. Tracks were saved directly to password-protected external hard drives that remained locked in Goldstein’s Pelican briefcase. At no point during the album’s creation did works-in-progress reside on laptop hard drives.
“The boss asked for it not to be leaked,” says Kilhoffer, referring to West, “so there you go.” Kilhoffer, who received Grammy Awards for his work on West’s “Graduation” and John Legend’s “Get Lifted,” now travels with hard drives that can only be accessed by biometric fingerprint readers. “Kanye was just like, ‘Man, we can’t let anyone get this. It’s a piece of art that just can’t be unveiled until it’s completed.’ It was . . . a test to us. We wanted to prove it could be done.”
Outside producers for the project, such as Q-Tip, the RZA, the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Hit-Boy and No I.D., were asked to appear in person to preview and submit potential beats. Email wasn’t an option to send mixes; when West wanted to hear a track, he would demand that producers travel to his location to work on a track.
“He and I spoke through email, because he still doesn’t have a phone,” says 88-Keys, who co-produced album opener “No Church in the Wild” with West. “Some of the engineers said that there were some times where he’d be in London or whatever and he was like, ‘I need to hear it. Come out here.’ Back in the day, that’s how we did everything.”
The process was exhausting, especially for the engineers, but the crew successfully avoided leaks. Once Dean mastered the tracks at the Mercer Hotel in New York, the final recording was sent to Apple on the Friday before its exclusive advance release on iTunes on Monday, Aug. 8. It was then delivered to a secured CD manufacturing plant ahead of its Aug. 12 physical release to U.S. retailers, including Best Buy, which is also selling an exclusive deluxe version of the album.
Then, finally, the outside world was gradually allowed in–with predictable results. A journalist was ejected from an intimate listening session with Jay-Z at the Mercer on July 11 after flouting a request not to tweet about the music. And during the event at the Hayden Planetarium, a blogger named DDot Omen somehow acquired low-quality snippets of the entire album and posted them to his site.
“Anytime that it leaks,” the Roc Nation executive says, “certainly in that situation where you’ve been invited to hear something and clearly you’re instructed not to bring a cell phone, it makes you sick to your stomach that someone would think that’s OK. But it’s not as bad as a quality version of the album leaking and being all over the Internet.”
As release day approached, “Watch the Throne”–known as #WTT on Twitter–still hadn’t surfaced online in complete form. Those in Jay-Z and West’s inner circles teased the Twitterverse. “It is not going to leak,” boasted Jay-Z’s manager and business partner, John Meneilly (who has only ever tweeted three times as @JMeneilly). “Shouts out to Noah for sleeping with the hard drives for like 10 months straight,” taunted Virgil Abloh (@virgilabloh), the album’s art director. “#WTT-still-aint-leaked-yet.”
While the iTunes and Best Buy exclusives rankled many independent and chain retailers (Billboard, Aug. 6), Island Def Jam president/COO Steve Bartels says the album will reap dividends by going to digital first.
“It is similar a bit to the ’90s model of direct-response TV marketing in advance of actual physical release,” Bartels says. “Today, Internet and digital sales marketing can get the word out, efficiently selling a project in advance, eliminate people who steal music and bootleg, and drive the exposure for consumers to visit the stores when it is released.”
The security measures surrounding “Watch the Throne” aren’t likely to become standard practice, given the publicity value that many artists and even labels see in leaks. But some acts tired of being pre-empted by sneak peeks of their work may be paying close attention to what Jay-Z and West have accomplished.
“Jay and Kanye were both really strongly advocating to do it the way that it was done,” the Roc Nation executive says. “I’d be surprised if many other artists don’t use this strategy as well.”