The work of Kanye West beyond the age of mechanical reproduction

Stealing music in the 1970s was a scary business, especially if you were an enthusiastic Led Zeppelin fan. Any attempt to record live shows, or riskier still sell the recordings onto others, could be swiftly attended to by a giant named Peter Grant, who had one habit of carrying a wooden bat, and another of attacking people with it.

Today we consume music in a post-Napster world, where streaming is the largest way many people consume music and access is an expectation. While live bootlegging continues, the practice of illegally acquiring music has been largely overtaken (and made much easier) by ripping or pirating the studio recordings.

Kanye West’s most recent album ‘The Life of Pablo’ is one example of a mainstream album suffering at the hands of pirating, as many do, but the story is a bit more complicated than that. Not only because it was illegally downloaded a staggering 500,000 times in two days (from The Pirate Bay site alone), but because shortly after the album was officially (rush) released Kanye revealed he was still editing the album, despite it being in the public domain.

Fluidity and impermanence in artistic output is nothing new: artists like Gwilym Gold and Arcade Fire have used the audience as an additional input to create something unique for the fan and experience. But these experiments have usually been supporting actors of a stable object.

TLOP was only available (and supposedly only ever going to be available) on Tidal, which meant that any update to this set of streams became the only version. Just like Orwell’s ongoing 1984 updates there will be no mode of comparison or undo: the latest edition of The Life of Pablo will always be The Life of Pablo. Kanye’s decision to do this (and tell us that it would never be on a another streaming service) no doubt aided it to become one of the most popular downloads on The Pirate Bay torrent service.

Clearly, one point here is about windowing: a practice that involves a restricted level of access to new releases. This is becoming increasingly popular (Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the latest big name example) with larger acts as they experiment how to best generate revenue from streaming services, but can feel quite jarring with modern media expectations.

The second is about the permanence of an art in the age of digital reproduction: with no physical release Kanye was able to tinker as much as he liked (and still is up to the point of a physical release).

While the first issue might prove frustrating, it is difficult to morally support illegal downloads with the price points offered by streaming services. The second presents a trickier moral situation: could it be seen as a form of preservation? A clear object that allows you to point to it and say “I mean this part, of this version”? While a great deal of The Pirate Bays’ users will be those trying to avoid paying for content, some could be trying to ensure that a copy survives.

Ultimately the work is owned by Kanye (or at least his label) and therefore he has the say in what makes that up and how it is consumed but for all the fans trying to circumnavigate the windowing process, there will be those super fans willing to risk the cricket bat (or more likely fines today) in order to be fans.

Originally published at