by Greg Suralik
A few minutes before midnight, in the early morning of December 13th, 2013, an album was made available for purchase on iTunes. The album was not announced with fanfare—its minimalist cover artwork, with the artist’s name in pink over a jet-black background, was unceremoniously displayed on the digital store’s front page. No advertisement and no promotional event preceded the album’s release; instead, on that early December morning, it just—appeared.
Yet that didn’t stop the album from selling over 600,000 digital copies in the first three days after its release, thus making it the fastest-selling album in iTunes history. Within moments, the surprise-release unleashed a deluge of hastily-written online news articles, enthusiastic social media posts, and water-cooler conversations that consumed the country and, quickly, the world. In an industry that relies on generating enough public hype in order to sell its products, how did a work that was entirely unadvertised prior to its release manage to move so many copies? Of course, it had to do with the name emblazoned in pink on the minimalist cover: Beyoncé.
When Beyoncé’s adoring fans purchased the pop star’s self-titled fifth album in the three days after its release, they were buying two things. First and foremost, they were buying a spectacular album—a multimedia work of art that transcended, by virtue of its videographic element (one music video for each song), traditional notions of what an album could be. But the second and unavoidable product that consumers bought into was the novelty of the release—the surprise fact. Consumers met the release with a collective, synchronous reaction of “Wow, she fooled us! We had no idea! How did she record it without us knowing?” “Well,” they reasoned, “Now I have to hear it for myself!”
The success of Beyoncé’s surprise release has catalyzed a movement within the pop landscape to capitalize on this “wow” factor. When Chance the Rapper’s band The Social Experiment released their album Surf, the Chicago rapper chose to both withhold his name from the album (primarily crediting the album to Social Experiment trumpeter Nico Segal aka Donnie Trumpet). He also chose to release the album for free, in the tradition of the online mixtape. This past August, Miley Cyrus took advantage of her gig hosting the MTV Video Music Awards by using it as a platform to drop a surprise album immediately after the show was over, again for free. The current industry mentality seems to be that every album needs a gimmick in order to sell—something that curbs or subverts the tradition mechanics of the album release cycle.
Undeniably, the old conventions have been altered, if not entirely displaced. Marketing efforts today are more focused on social media posts than on television appearances or print interviews. Paying for music used to be a requirement in order to enjoy it outside of radio; now, thanks to free streaming services, to actually spend money on music functions more like a courtesy to the artist. Innovations such as these are inevitable in the music world and should not be rejected. But these two innovations are like any change: if they’re around long enough, they become the norm. And these two norms in particular—namely, surprise releases and free downloads –are trends that lesser known artists cannot afford to adhere to.
Challenges to the conventions of music sales used to actually be countercultural. Twenty-five issues ago when this magazine was first published, it was practically unheard of for established artists to release their work for free, and those that did tended to be seen as desperate. However, these deviants from the norm were no longer seen as such when they gained an unexpected ally: Radiohead. On October 1st, 2007, Radiohead made a brief online announcement on their website:
Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days; We’ve called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. Jonny.
The music world, in turn, nearly ruptured. The album would be the first one that the band had ever released after their contract with EMI expired in 2003, meaning that the band had no safety net should the album fail. What’s more, the band released the album on a pay-what-you-want basis, the first time a popular band had utilized such a model. It was a bold move, and one that altered the landscape of the music industry. At the time, Radiohead was considered “alternative” enough for their choices to be considered rebellious, but still popular enough for their album to gain respect as opposed to criticism. Their choice to release In Rainbows exclusively as an MP3 download on their website demonstrated their embrace of the budding digital market, encouraging skeptics to embrace the inevitable change in music distribution. And because fans could pay anywhere from £0 to £99.99 (approximately $212 back in 2007), Radiohead empowered listeners, not companies, to become the ultimate judges for the monetary value of music.
But a lot has changed since 2007. Streaming services such as Spotify now exist. Fans can use their iPhones to record entire concerts and put the videos of them online for free. And with the market for such releases becoming saturated, the “surprise album” as a model is no longer such a surprise. At this point, it’s almost expected that an international superstar will release their music without prior notice. These new expectations represent a dramatic inversion of the old system: superstars use their immense popularity in order to release music for free, resulting in fans praising them for being visionary and progressive. Unknown artists, who are now forced to sell their music in an increasingly competitive market, are not able to stand up against such giants, now that pop has adopted the democratizing modalogy of the Internet. The tactics that made them stand out are now the basis on which they are judged.
The shift in music distribution that has taken place since Radiohead brought the pay-what-you-want and digital innovations to widespread attention have benefited music listeners globally, convincing both artists and labels that their audience, not their brand, is what matters. They are innovations that all music artists, from international superstars to up-and-coming indie bands, should share. But the shift has created an unprecedented amount of competition in which industry titans like Beyoncé and Chance the Rapper dwarf the lesser-known artists who used to be alone in the field of unconventional album releases. If a musician needs to sell their music in order to make a living in this new market, they must not be criticized for “selling out.” All music artists deserve a chance in the business, and now that listeners are free to pay for whatever music they want, they should judge music on qualities like composition and production value, not pricing or advertisement tactics.