If you’re not on a social media site like Twitter right now, there’s a pretty decent chance that you have no idea that Beyoncé has released her new self-titled album tonight. She put a full 67 minutes of music (with every song accompanied by a music video) onto iTunes with no fanfare, no early promotion announcing it, no thought that a lot of people who typically care about this kind of thing are out at the bar or, you know, SLEEPING.
By any conventional standard, that’s insane. I shouldn’t have to explain why, but here it is anyway.
This is a woman who’s halftime performance overshadowed the 2013 Super Bowl. The YouTube ad for her H&M summer collection has been viewed over 5 million times since May because there was a snippet of a new song in it. She’s sung at multiple presidential inauguration events, grossed over $100M this year alone from her “Mrs. Carter Show World Tour”, and is included in Time‘s 100 Most Influential People list for 2013. It’s pretty much impossible to be more famous than Jay Z…unless you’re his wife.
What I’m trying to say is that Beyoncé has the credentials to do pretty much whatever she wants, so when she drops an album out of the blue (ivy) it’s a great indicator of where the music business is going. Critics have been trying to typecast the year 2013 as the year of the throwback single (no offense to “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”) or the year of endless controversy. To me, this is the year when the way you release your music has finally caught up to the endless possibilities on the Internet.
I’m sure there have been other predecessors, but to me the first big digital “event” in music that I can remember is for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne project. The rappers decided to avoid having their albums leak early by selling the digital copy first, holding the physical album from stores for an extra two weeks. Record stores rebelled, but the move to digital led to something that had been lost for a while: everybody listening to the album at the same time. I remember watching new song titles trend sequentially on Twitter every few minutes as the world’s iTunes moved through the album together. Since then, they’ve moved on to even more inventive strategies (see the P.S.), and your album release date no longer has to just be the day it appears shrink-wrapped in a record store.
There have been all kinds of new release strategies, from Childish Gambino coming up with an entire screenplay/multimedia experience for his new project Because The Internet to Lady Gaga integrating her newest album ARTPOP with an interactive app. It’s all about adding value to your project, making people play it (and play with it) longer so that it remains in the public consciousness. Many albums thrive on a shorter time frame between doing press for the album and releasing it. This year alone, artists as disparate as Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West have announced their albums within a month or even a few weeks of release. It’s a great way to build immediate hype in our constantly moving cultural zeitgeist (pop a wheelie, as it were).
There’s major social media marketing incentives for “creating a moment” like this. Obviously, you’ve got to be a big enough name (or make jaw-droppingly good music) to have Twitter trending at your beck and call. But as most mixtape rappers will tell you, it’s hard to quantify the amount of goodwill and free publicity you get for releasing an album so suddenly. I found out about this new Beyoncé album from a friend’s tweet and immediately broadcast it to my social network. You can’t buy interested listeners like that (hey Lady Gaga), especially if the product is already available.
The traditional album cycle isn’t dead yet. I’m sure this new Beyoncé album will be express pressed and available in stores by Christmas so she can rack up some holiday sales. But in a world where it seems like we spend a lot of time decrying the way that technology has “ruined” the music industry, it’s important to point out when the Internet brings us some new musical joy. And it’s nice to randomly jam some new Beyoncé at midnight on a Thursday.
Note to self: I need a footnotes addition for this blog. Here’s some extra thoughts.
P.S. After the Watch The Throne team split, they came up with groundbreaking release strategies that are so delightfully in character that I’m surprised I only made the connection now: Kanye West projected his ego on buildings all over the world, while Jay Z released an album that will forever be tied to Samsung.
P.S.S. On the cynical side, it also renders questions like “how’s the album?” moot (at least in the short term), as we’re so busy participating in the “moment” that everything sounds great. We’re just happy that new Beyoncé music is in the world. (Honestly, I’m so overwhelmed by the craziness that I have no idea how BEYONCÉ fits into my End Of The Year list, if it’s even allowed to be there. “Yoncé/Partition”, “Rocket”, and “Blow” are early favorites, but I’m sure I’ll have a full Impressions post in the next few days.)