Local Current Blog

Is Beyonce’s surprise album a game-changer, or just another sign of these lawless times?

Late last night, minutes before the clock struck midnight on the East Coast and 11 p.m. here in the Midwest, Beyoncé dropped her fifth studio album and 17 music videos exclusively through iTunes. There was no lead-up to the release—no teaser videos, no press releases warning of its arrival, not even so much as a tweet—and then bam! Beyoncé, a “visual album” overflowing with collaborations with every top name in modern R&B, was bestowed upon the world. And to all a good night.

Oh, and did I mention this is only Part 1 of her self-titled release?

As I often do when most major news breaks, I hopped onto Twitter as soon as the Beybomb dropped and started reading people’s reactions, and I was fascinating by the contradicting responses the release was already garnering. Predictably, there was the This is the greatest thing to ever happen to pop music! camp, and I found myself gravitating toward it if only for the sheer thrill of being surprised so masterfully. But the Bey fans were going head to head with another group, who were insisting that Queen B’s actions weren’t so revolutionary because Radiohead already changed the game when they up and released In Rainbows, and those music fans—perhaps because their year-end lists have already been written, and who has the time to rearrange it all now?—gave the whole thing a resounding meh.

But a lot has changed since Radiohead’s In Rainbows coup, which happened way back in the ancient days of late 2007. And the Beyoncé release stands apart from Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want throwdown in a few significant ways—namely, it isn’t free. Fans aren’t paying what they want, they’re paying exactly $15.99 for access to all 14 tracks and 17 videos, and there’s no option to buy single songs until the end of next week. If you want to hear the new Beyoncé, you have to buy Beyoncéin the first three hours of its availability, B sold over 80,000 full-length albums, and the singles won’t even have a chance to chart until the album itself has reached #1 on Billboard.

“Now people only listen to a few seconds of song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience,” Beyoncé notes in the album’s trailer video, a proud I’m totally owning this grin sneaking across her face. “It’s all about the single, and the hype. It’s so much that gets between the music and the art and the fans. I felt like, I don’t want anybody to get the message, when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”

And yet it’s also worth noting that while it’s tempting to describe Beyoncé as a revolutionary, her actions come from a position of extreme privilege and power. When In Rainbows was released—and when Jack White released his new single via 1,000 blue helium balloons, and Arcade Fire streamed their entire record on YouTube, and David Bowie pulled his secret album out of thin air and dropped it on unsuspecting fans—there was an immediate rush to proclaim “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.” But what has changed, really? Are emerging artists able to leverage this kind of power? Or are these curveball releases just a way for the artists who were established before the game changed to stay at the top? Head over to iTunes and you’ll note that not only is Beyoncé’s new album occupying all five of the featured slots, but all of her studio releases are lined up in the first row of offerings awaiting your purchase. It takes a lot of cash to achieve that kind of saturation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the new realities of the music business apply to artists here in town. We have several artists from Minnesota who are competing for attention on a national level, and each have followed a similar path in releasing their music—a press release with a single and perhaps the title and release date come first, and the single and perhaps a video is debuted on some nationally read blog. Then tour dates come after, followed by another single, more dates, an interview or two, and then finally the album. For those following along at home, it can become downright tedious; but at some point in the last few years the industry decided a slow-drop release of information is what will make the biggest dent in our armor of overstimulation. What would happen if, say, someone like Jeremy Messersmith released his whole album in some elaborate package rather than giving us “Tourniquet” for now and making us wait until February for the full release? How many resources would that require? And would it make even a fraction of Beyoncé’s impact? So many questions!

Beyond simply the numbers game, Beyoncé achieved at least one other significant thing: Musically, it’s the biggest co-sign of the modern R&B movement by a celebrity pop artist to date. It’s clear that Bey has been paying close attention to artists like Kendrick Lamar (whose “Drank” is mimicked on the track “Flawless”), Frank Ocean (who appears beside Beyoncé on “Superpower”), and Janelle Monae (whose rapping can be felt in the delivery of… well, every song in which Beyoncé raps), and it’s resulted in her most experimental and eclectic album to date. It’s also her most overtly sexual—maybe there’s a good reason it was released at night—and most overtly feminist. After a few more listens, I’ll likely be ready to proclaim it her best work yet.

For now, I’m certain that I wasn’t intending to spend $15.99 on iTunes last night but that I don’t regret it one bit, especially considering how many high-buck videos come packaged in the release. If it was offered as a pay-what-you-want album, I’d have considered 16 bucks a steal.

What do you think? Have you watched or listened to Beyoncé? Is this a revolutionary release, or just business as usual in our new weird music market?

  • JustYourAverageCommenter

    It’s a pretty good album, and I say that as someone who was lukewarm about her previous releases. It sounds less commercial, but not anti-commercial, and I can’t really hear a radio standout (maybe the Hit-Boy produced Flawless). I’d consider it a companion to the 20/20 Experience, with the highs of the first and lows of the second, and Nothing Was The Same, and I mean that as a compliment. It sounds like a crystallization of everything happening in popular music in 2013. “Blue” is particularly endearing. As for its release, remember that Death Grips did the same thing only maybe a month ago. Short notice releases have certainly been established as being semi-commonplace in the 2010s, which might not even be a trend but rather just the name of the game. Now I’m thinking no notice might be the new short notice.

  • Ellipsis

    A very interesting thing for a modern pop artist to do, i think. I like that she states that people these days “dont listen to a song for more then a few seconds” and boy is that ever true in todays ipod-on-shuffle generation. People that are into the pop market really do only care about what the single’s are, and its a shame that a good chunk of todays generation has lost that special connection you get when you pop in your favorite artists brand new CD, one that for the most part, they have spent a lot of time and money, and poured their heart and soul into releasing something fans can connect to on an emotional level. While im not too familiar with Beyonce’s music, nor am I really a fan, I do think this is a rather revolutionary release for the genre and market she is playing to. If this kind of thing can draw fans to look past the Billboard singles and look into the whole package that’s behind it, well I say bravo to you, Miss Knowels.

  • buildsomethingeveryday

    Now, I’ll admit – I haven’t actually checked out the music and typically, I’m not one for Beyonce. That all having been said…this isn’t revolutionary, but it is interesting. The Radiohead thing was similar in that they had been working on the record for ages (Since Hail to the Thief) and there were few, if any real, concrete updates regarding its progress and when we could expect it. Then one day they said, “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days . . . We’ve called it In Rainbows.” and the rest of the “Revolutionary” nature came from the pay-what-you-want pricing model – which had people imaging buildings which housed record companies being reduced to rubble. Both aspects were interesting and the 2nd part was a pretty big deal back in 2007….but really – with the new Beyonce record, this seems to me like some really clever, inverse marketing. Where you’re just so big the fact that you didn’t market it at all draws people in towards a product which they may not have been drawn towards otherwise. (People like me, who read this article and kinda want to hear the album, even though I’m aware that that is the trick)

  • Amy Garcia

    I fail to get the “shock and awe” of Beyonce releasing an album on itunes just before midnight last night (do you see the media line by now). Period. Having music available on itunes isn’t unheard of (hello?) and neither is Beyonce. Beyond all the supposed “attention” this release has gotten, I would never have known what Beyonce was doing as I simply don’t pay attention to her or her music. The only thing interesting about any of this is that for a supposedly little-announced act, it has certainly been announced. Perhaps that was the point and intent. I am less interested in what Beyonce is doing now.

    • Leah Garaas

      I think it’s the fact that there’s 14 songs *17* (!) big budget videos and absolutely no word about the album before its release. That’s a lot of people that need to keep mum, and it’s incredible that such an elaborate release was kept a complete secret.

  • AllMediaReviews

    January 2002: Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation was interviewed and mentioned “Oh, our new album comes out next week by the way.” JANUARY OF 2002!!!!

    Marillion:
    -in 1997 had the fans fund their 1st US Tour in many years.
    -in 1999 they had fans send in photos that later were used on the cover of their record marillion.com
    -in 2000 they had the fans PREFUND their record. This was what, 8 years before Kickstarter, and 7 before Radiohead’s *revolutionary* pay-what-you-want approach. If In Rainbows was Groundbreaking?, than Anoraknophobia basically reinvented the freaking wheel, lol.

  • http://scottolstad.com/ Scott

    Wilt Chamberlain changed the game.