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When Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s collaborative album Watch the Throne hit iTunes earlier this week, many expressed amazement that the album hadn’t leaked, as nearly every hip-hip album in recent memory has.
What they didn’t realize was the months of near-military-scale planning required to keep the album under wraps.
Taking C.I.A.-like precautions to ensure that the album was released on their own terms, the duo successfully staved off hackers with a leak-proof strategy — an anomaly for an industry consistently brought to its knees by web-savvy individuals eager to share unreleased material with the world.
“It was really important to [Jay] that people experienced this album in its entirety when they first listened to it,” says a Roc Nation executive, who asked to remain anonymous. “That was really the driving force of it, to create that nostalgic moment of unwrapping the CD and listening to it for the first time.”
Conceived during three iterations in Australia, New York City and Paris, Watch the Throne was kept secure by three core engineers — Mike Dean, Anthony Kilhoffer and Noah Goldstein — who disabled their computers’ Wi-Fi at pop-up studios constructed in hotel rooms. Due to compromising hacker attempts for West’s 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, outside producers such as the RZA and Swizz Beatz were asked to appear in-person for works-in-progress — no emailed song drafts were allowed.
To combat pre-release piracy, Kilhoffer, Grammy Award-winner for West’s Graduation and John Legend‘s Get Lifted, claims that all sessions were saved offsite to hard drives in Goldstein’s locked Pelican briefcase over the course of nine months. “Everywhere we went in hotels, we were locking hard drives and Noah took them with him,” says Kilhoffer, who now travels with external memory units that can only be accessed by biometric fingerprints.
The technology, which Kilhoffer implements while traveling on West’s current European tour, takes a live scan of one’s finger to serve as key to access protected material. For less than $100, devices such as the Eikon Digital Privacy Manager and Zvetco Fingerprint Reader measure the finger’s ridges and valleys with conductor plates, transmitting imprints through a USB cord to safeguard hard drive contents. While on the road, Kilhoffer and Dean are the sole gatekeepers to unlock the digital safes.
Sent to a manufacturing plant days ahead of its digital unveiling on August 8, Watch the Throne was later shipped to major retail outlets like Best Buy, serviced with exclusive deluxe edition, in time for the album’s physical release today. Only two New York City listening sessions — one at the Mercer Hotel, the other at Hayden Planetarium — invited the outside world to hear the completed work.
While Jay-Z and Kanye West managed to record one of hip-hop’s most hotly anticipated albums without compromise, some label executives agree that the method could set an example for an industry still struggling to adapt to the digital renaissance.
“I think there are a lot of people looking at this and saying, ‘Wow, maybe these guys are onto something. That might be the way to go,'” says the Roc Nation executive. “I’d be surprised if many other artists don’t use this strategy as well.”
(This is an abridged version of Steven J. Horowitz’s article in the August 20 issue of Billboard titled “Protecting the ‘Throne’.” For the full article, head here to purchase the issue, and here for a subscription, which gets you the magazine, charts, bulletins and much more.)
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