The Year of the Unorthodox Album Launches

2013 was a great year for pop culture fanatics like me; Miley twerked, Lily Allen didn’t twerk, the Harlem Shake happened, Justin released two identical albums, Lady Gaga sang with R Kelly, everyone swooned over Drake, there was a YouTube music awards, and Kanye reached an exceptional level of hubris.

Gifs, memes, tweets and hashtags envelop what has now redefined the purpose and availability of mainstream music, but at the same time, music consumption has never been so difficult. First we have to deal with all these internet buzz items our generation has created – which I have a continuous love/hate relationship with. But what we’ve also seen throughout the previous year is that the role of the record labels and the wider music industry has become much more unpredictable than ever before. So let’s review.

As I summarised some of last year’s musical events some of you might have already pricked pins into a Jimmy shaped Voodoo doll as I failed to mention Beyoncé. Calm down, it’s only because she plays a big part in mechanics of the new music industry and deserves a special mention. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail as some of us are still recovering from the event that happened on December 13th – her unannounced album release on iTunes. It will go down in history as one of those days where people go ‘remember what you were doing/tweeting when Beyoncé dropped that album’. All I remember was waking up to a social media frenzy out-shadowing Tom Dayley and Nigella Lawson combined.

However, a result of the radical way it was released was that I was more interested and fascinated by the hype and the media attention surrounding the release rather than the album itself. In fact, I haven’t even listened to it yet (you might want to get that Voodoo doll out again). But what did we learn from the jaw dropping means through which her fifth studio album was launched? Well, we learned that it worked. Not only did she break records but people I know who haven’t bought an album in years were suddenly paying £12.99 for an iTunes download.

Was this just a publicity stunt? And if so, will we see more of this type of stuff in the future? Would other artists be able to pull this off as successfully as Beyoncé? Lorde did attempt a similar approach by dropping her new single ‘No Better’ on YouTube completely unannounced. Unfortunately, Lorde’s attempt, however good her intentions were, was obviously overshadowed by Queen B – the concept of ‘bad timing’ had never had such validity.

I’m curious as to what the mechanisms behind these types of releases are; Beyoncé’s rhetoric suggest she wants to create a ‘raw release’ directly to her fans bypassing industry politics – but despite how much I want to believe, I still get a nasty whiff of carefully planned corporate PR behind it. It’s not like she stood by the road selling videotaped home videos, I’m not sure how ‘organic’ an iTunes release can be. I can’t shake off the fact that mainstream music is inherently corporate and her launch was simply a PR pitch made by a clever executive in a cheap suit.

The tension and distinction between artists and record labels as well as the wider corporate structures behind them has always proven to be a complicated dynamic. Beyoncé may have managed to negotiate this relationship slightly in her most recent release – but 2013 had more to contribute to expose this tenuous relationship.

Iggy Azalea has been rather open about her debut studio album The New Classic already being finished. The much anticipated release was initially due to hit the shelves on October last year, but has now been pushed back and isn’t expected until March 2014. As opposed to Beyoncé’s nuclear album launch, here we have a completed album the record label is refusing to ascend upon the masses. When asked for specific release dates Iggy has famously replied ‘F—ed if I know’ advising that marketing strategies are constantly renegotiating the parameters through which her album is to be launched – leaving her as the artist at the mercy of the label and its commercial politics. I can understand the value in creating a hype, but as it’s nearly a year after the first single ‘Work’ was launched, doesn’t it also risk losing out on sales as the first couple of singles have been played to death before any sight of the album can be spotted?

Angel Haze had a similar predicament last year, although she chose a more proactive approach to Island Record’s delay in releasing Dirty Gold. She took a slightly more ‘punk’ stance by taking the matter into her own hands and leaking the album herself on Soundcloud. Her rebellion caused the album – which was finally set for March 2014 – to be pushed forwards with an iTunes release on December 30th. It seemed like a political grass-root effort, which eventually had successful results. However, it also exposes the gravity in which record labels and artists can be so misaligned to the point where music is actually leaked intentionally. In an attempt to explain her motives Angel took a massive dig at the music industry by boldly stating; ‘If the main source of your happiness becomes the sole source of your stress, then something needs to fucking change’. Also, she elaborates her justification for leaking her album by saying; ‘I had to set an example’ – suggesting that hers is merely one instance of this type of frustration. Fair enough!

The music industry faces unavoidable challenges as physical albums become less prominent; the days of perusing music on the shelves of a store are long gone. You need more than a good MTV presence and a killer album cover to measure up these days. Releasing unannounced albums seems to have worked, but are the logistics of it too romanticised? And are other smaller scale artists being pushed aside even more to make space for spectacles like the Beyoncé launch?

Nowadays, the timeframes between a first single and the subsequent album seem to be almost a luxury entitled only for the Mileys and Britneys. Angel Haze’s example might have had more of an impact than she intended – we might start seeing more artists being vocal about the difficulties in getting a studio album to the starving fans. What we’ve learned is that anything could happen this year, and although I’m still recovering – emotionally, physically and spiritually – from the Beyoncé launch, I hope we’ll get to see some extraordinary things.