Why Death Grips sold drama instead of a copy of NO LOVE DEEP WEB

Photo by Jonny Magowan
The Music Industry is a weekly column that dissects local and national music-business headlines with the help of local industry professionals and music fanatics.

This month, dark lords of alt-hip-hop Death Grips emerged from the shadows to thrill believers by leaking their latest album, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, online. The album's cover features a very NSFW shot of male genitalia  with the title scrawled on it in Sharpie, and inside, the record follows a sweaty band of punks from Sacramento as they commandeer the rap format and wipe the floor with their more commercial counterparts in the process.

Supposedly, their label Epic Records wasn't in on the decision, and they retaliated by pulling the band's website. Now, I'm a marketer by trade, and I can smell strategy a mile away. So, when casually interested bloggers and journos wondered timidly whether the Death Grips leak may have been a setup, I had to laugh.

Soon after, writers began to suspect the leak was a publicity stunt. They considered the obvious points, such as the legal ramifications of leaking an album against a label's wishes, the incessant promotional tweets after the leak, the announcement days later of an international tour, and the band's history of making their music available for free. (Note: The band's website is back online. It is still hosting the free album.) Stream it here, too:

Minneapolis rapper P.O.S., whose latest album We Don't Even Live Here hit stores last week, showed love for the act, saying, "I feel like Death Grips is going for and achieving something that I aimed at on a couple records and never really hit the way I wanted to hit. They hit so raw. There's nothing like that in rap. That's something that I strive for. "

I asked P.O.S. what he thought about this being an intentional leak. "You don't usually have an international tour without something that you're going to be supporting. But they already did put out another record this year [The Money Store], and then they canceled the tour, so that was pretty believable for me."

But what about the consequences?

"I imagine that if they put out that record without Epic's permission without having another record ready that had been Epic-approved, there would probably be some litigation right away. From what I know of majors, they're pretty sue-happy, especially when artists leak their own stuff."

For me, it's about expectations. I recall an episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper, when asked whether a colleague should make amends with his estranged wife, replied, "Is that what you want, or is that what people expect of you?"

Death Grips surely want to sell some albums, and who wouldn't? But that was the model of the '80s and '90s, when MTV and radio were still the gatekeepers and almost everybody was listening. Though comparatively few artists made it, those who did were virtually guaranteed reasonable sales figures and healthy name recognition. It was a time when distribution depended upon physical media, and cheap plastic cassettes and discs could be sold at high markups.

Today, those traditional gatekeepers are gone, impressive sales figures are more often in the hundreds of thousands than the millions, tracks are transferred digitally, and we enjoy instant access and more choice than ever before. The background noise is staggering.

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