Last week, I was all about the experience of reading with the publication of J.J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s experimental book S. It must be the time for rude awakenings because Beyoncé’s surprise release of her eponymous album last Friday, might have just changed how we experience music in the future. And I’m all about this too.
Friday morning at 12 A.M., Beyoncé released Beyoncé on iTunes; a 14-track, self-described “visual album” with 17 accompanying videos including a video for every song on the album and three bonus videos – and until Dec. 20, it’s only available digitally and as a full-album purchase (vs. individual song purchases). An Instagram post captioned only “Surprise” – was the first most fans had heard of the new album, Beyoncé’s first since 2011’s 4.
The music industry has been rife with issues for years – most recently since the late 90s when file-sharing behemoth Napster opened up a massive hole in the industry for digital music. Since then — and with the brisk evolution of iTunes (& other digital music retailers) and portable media players – the industry hasn’t been able to adequately anticipate digital media trends, which proved a crushing blow to the industry. As consumers of music, we’re well-versed in media plans for our favorite artists. We’re along for the ride from inception – from the moment two songwriters meet, to their songwriting session, to the selling of the song, to its recording by an artist, to its performance in a smoky bar, it’s digital streaming release, it’s performance on a talk show months before an album is slated to come out – if it ever does, music videos are released, followed by a week or two of TV and magazine heavy apperances, covers of magazines. And that’s not a plan simply for the well-established, that’s for beginners. And Beyoncé, who released her first album with Destiny’s child in 1998 – evolved right in the middle of this change.
“I feel like right now, people experience music differently,” Beyoncé says in a video about the album. “I remember seeing ‘Thriller’ on the TV with my family. It was an event…I miss that immersive experience”
So, it’s no wonder that it’s Beyoncé, who has grown up in this mass-marketing machine, who is potentially breaking the mold – without the months of pre-production, without critics panning or praising the album before it’s release on a day more typical of movie releases than music, with the partnership of collaborators who understood the mission (& check the track info, there were a lot of people involved in the production of 14 music tracks and 17 accompanying music videos). Since it’s release, Beyoncé has sold 613k in the US and 828k worldwide making it both the largest single week ever in the US and on iTunes, and the fastest-selling album worldwide in the iTunes store*.
It’s a pretty incredible feat. And there’s no doubt that the album was marketed. It may not have been a traditional stream, with the usual suspects doing what they usually do — but there was a plan. It’s been clear that something was being teased in Beyoncé’s social media streams – clips of tracks, lyrics, makeovers that seemed to reflect her life (& in a way, did) but more accurately reflected someone in the role of a music video. Eventually, the evolution of this album will be known and analyzed and duplicated and maybe it will help us to appreciate artists in new + different ways. Maybe it will allow artists to appreciate their fans in new + different ways. It’s exciting to know that despite some negative effects — like Target refusing the sell the album because though Beyoncé has produced exclusive-to-Target albums in the past with bonus songs you could only hear on Target-branded versions, even after that, Target thinks they won’t sell as many hard copies of the album since it had an earlier digital release – that even with that negativity, this album will still succeed. That it has succeeded.
That it’s a good album is hardly the point – it’s a bonus, and it’s getting great reviews. It’s pop music that works. You can see :30 preview clips of each music video on Beyoncé’s YouTube page – worth a watch if you’re not sold on the album yet, including a track called “Flawless” which features excerpts from one of my favorite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk entitled: “We Should All Be Feminists.”
Artists of all different levels, of all different cultures and places in the world have been pushing the music industry in this direction for years. It’s exciting to see this major success story – and to hope for what’s to come and how we experience music from now on.