In the wake of a slew of articles proclaiming the death of pretty much everything (guitar music, journalism, dubstep…), I’m jumping on the bandwagon, and proclaiming that traditional single and album releases are dead. Press release writers and spin doctors, better watch your backs, the end is nigh.
In the last month alone, there have been four huge album announcements – David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake, and The Strokes – all of which deviated from the traditional early-review-release, teaser-trailer, single, single, album template which has dominated the industry for decades. Even less well-established artists are dropping the traditional pomp and ceremony, with the internet enabling many to cut out the middle-man.
The big four were all major announcements, essentially come-back records for highly-established artists with a level of anticipation that would have been strong irrespective of publicising tactics. Bowie and MBV in particular were all but guaranteed solid initial sales and a buzz of excitement around such long awaited releases. While Timberlake and The Strokes haven’t been away for quite so long, both have retained a colossal following and have iconic releases under their belts.
If it’s not likely to bring any substantial boost to their guaranteed sales, pre-release marketing is no longer worth the risk of exposing the record to leaks and downloads (which clearly would sap initial sales). If a record comes out unannounced – as with MBV – are the masses more likely to buy it in the shocked heat of the moment, rather than anticipating the release and deciding to download it for free?
Aside from sales figures, the lack of warning from these artists also frees them from the weight of built-up expectations. Kevin Shields’ follow-up to the adored Loveless, was a risky release, and for The Strokes, every record since 2001 has been received with despondency. Removing conjecture-time also removes the threat of over-hype too but at what cost? The weeks of anticipation, teaser releases and obsession that traditionally herald a key release have been an important part of the relationship between fans and artists for decades.
The trend isn’t limited to recognized artists either. As ever, the internet continues to change everything. A&Rs place increasing importance on an artist’s number of Facebook likes, and we’ve known since Arctic Monkeys that building a strong online following can break a new band. A$AP Rocky is the most recent example of this, clinching a lucrative record deal on the basis of a Tumblr-centred following.
Amongst the ocean of uploads, finding the good amongst the dire is harder than used to be, particularly using hyperbolic press releases as a filter, but it’s certainly a more-level playing field for those reaching for mainstream success. More and more artists are releasing free mixtapes alongside their official album releases, with The Weeknd being one of the few to effectively use the entire concept as a pitch for a record deal then re purpose them a year later as his ‘debut’.
The inherent risk of Tumblr is a certain shallowness. Drawing on images far more than audio, listeners are finding their introduction to a new band shaped by sepia-tinged pictures and brashly-animated GIFs rather than actually hearing tracks. It’s an extension of the “buying a Ramones shirt from Topshop, never heard any of their music” phenomenon that plagued the late noughties. Filter-altered shots of Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky dominated blogs much more than any of their songs; yet another odd dilution of pop culture.
Weighing up the lack of building excitement for a new release against the removal of any over-hype based disappointment, the new ways of breaking into the industry against the inevitable ensuing reduction, there are pros and cons to the demise of traditional campaigns. Either way, it’s unlikely to revert any time soon, as the ruthless revolutionary force of the internet marches on.
Ultimately, putting your music out there unannounced makes success much dependent on the actual merits of the release. And these surprise album drops give us all an excuse to refresh Twitter even more frequently, just in case there’s a new Outkast record out of the blue.