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 Beyoncé; in 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.