In 2013, less than two weeks before Christmas, Beyoncé did something that was considered unthinkable and dropped an album – and accompanying collection of videos for every song on the release – from completely out of the blue.
And it worked. In fact, it didn’t just work: it broke sales records and made it look easy.
The response on Twitter alone was enough to make the attention-seeking likes of Kim Kardashian think they should probably have a go at ‘breaking the Internet’ some day.
The necessary pinch of salt here is, of course, that this was Beyoncé and, when it comes to cultural (and media) swinging power, there aren’t many that pack quite the same punch as her. Not many could pull this off, but that frankly didn’t matter for the simple fact that she had pulled it off.
(It could also be argued, not unreasonably, that the Super Bowl performance, Pepsi commercials and months of touring that had already been ticked off in Beyoncé’s calendar that year would equate to a marketing campaign in and of themselves. But the fact does remain that none of these were necessarily geared directly towards the songs on her fifth album, as they would have been if part of a traditional album campaign.)
Since then, and particularly over the past few weeks, we’ve seen others taking their own stab at this strategy, casting off the traditional ‘single, single, press, album, tour’ promo cycle.
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James Blake had played a few tracks from his third album, ‘The Colour In Anything’, on the radio and there was a bit of buzz in the days running up to the release as a couple of Quentin Blake-illustrated billboards went up in London and New York. But that was pretty much it.
Radiohead, who have form when it comes to subversive release strategies (the pay-what-you-want approach for ‘In Rainbows’ remains as a standout), in the space of a few days stripped bare their Web presence, put out a few teasers, an ambiguous animated music video, and then dropped the full load like a flour bomb. The stage had perhaps already been set with the announcement of a series of live dates earlier in the year, but the album’s actual release process was carried out just as quickly as the tickets for those shows were snapped up.
Getting hold of an advanced copy of Skepta’s long-awaited ‘Konnichiwa’ for review ahead of release was nigh-on impossible (trust us). He gave just one interview, to Time Out, which was published in the week following the album’s release, and previewed just one of the new tracks before the full set became available. Admittedly, in Skepta’s case, the album features plenty of already-heard (and, in some cases, already-released tunes) – but the anticipation for the full piece still generated a further catapult effect.
Earlier this year, Kendrick Lamar – who most fans would have been content with still riding the wave of last year’s drooled-over ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – sent critics scrambling when he released a compilation of unheard cuts and off-cuts without warning.
Beyoncé too, of course, re-jigged her 2013 approach for her sixth album-cum-mini-film-cum-family-soap-opera, ‘Lemonade’. This time, she had the press digging out months-old missed clues and drawing thematic links like a GCSE student making a first encounter with Shakespeare.
The list goes on. And it will.
It doesn’t take a genius to point out that digital saturation and the increasingly vast swathes of crud to cut through has made the task of promoting an album (or pretty much anything, for that matter) a more difficult one – and that some distinct creativity will often pay off in pursuit of this.
Controversy can work too. Just this week, YACHT pretended to have had a sex tape leaked in a bid to promote their new music video (a move they argued was exploring “the intersection of privacy, media, and celebrity”, whether your level of cynicism will allow you to believe that of not).
It could be argued, though, that there’s more to these evermore-outlandish approaches than PR stunts and ‘disruptive’ marketing mantras.
The result, as well as a boxful of great new records, is arguably evidence of a newfound – or renewed – valuation of the long-playing format.
In the mid-noughties, when iTunes was really hitting its stride, the album format reached something of a crisis point as fans increasingly could pick and choose individual tracks with greater ease, effectively reducing the concept of the album as a body of work to something closer to an itemised compilation. Streaming services, Spotify in particular, took this further with their flexible and innumerable playlisting features.
Besides stitching in skits to the beginning and end of songs – a technique that Jamie T notable adopted for his debut, ‘Panic Prevention’, and Skepta has also used on ‘Konnichiwa’ – rather than including them as separate, skip-able tracks as hip-hop albums in particular had done in the past, there wasn’t apparently a huge amount that could be done.
This trend towards the bite-sized and easily digestible has continued to weed its way through the vast majority of media since: clickbait headlines, GIFs, micro-length TV shows on Snapchat and Instagram.
However, much like the content that defines it, this period of the 15-second attention span will shortly come to an end.
In a fascinating study of the phenomenon, Tony Hailes – founder and former CEO of Chartbeat, which “measures and monetises audience attention for content creators” – has argued that we are moving towards a Web on which quality will begin to triumph over quantity and immediacy.
The increasing popularity of so-called ‘long reads’ and podcasts support Hailes’ hypothesis. It’s in this environment that the album, then, may thrive again, and artists are beginning to realise that they can encourage and embody this change by refusing the drip-feed mechanics of the traditional album cycle.
In many ways, since listener figures for all of the records mentioned above are proving more than healthy, it doesn’t appear that our capacity for content has ever really changed. It’s more that we’re beginning to feel the effects of malnourishment.
Eat three meals a day at a fast food restaurant and you’ll likely feel pretty full for a while. But sooner or later, your body will start to feel the effects of the resultant lack of nutrition and you’ll likely find yourself craving a decent three course sitting.
But if you thought that, after all this, we were going to end with an Instagram-worthy quote about music being food for the soul then you’re very much mistaken…
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Words: Will Pritchard (@Hedmuk)