No New Friends, Some New Trends

How pop's biggest names are evolving to keep their hold on a changing industry

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The ax has swung. The rug has been pulled out. The changing nature of the music industry is forcing artists bred by old philosophies to adapt to new realities. As the streaming model grows, the way in which artists create, market and sell their work is changing rapidly to keep pace with the Internet age. Despite artists’ and activists’ criticism of the cheap, consumer-oriented streaming model, which places financial pressure on the artist, audiences have readily embraced streaming. The only question that remains is who will survive the fallout.

Streaming Exclusives

Changing business models force many major artists to make exclusive deals with streaming services to write and release music or accompanying visuals solely on their platform. These deals are an attempt to get ahead in the industry, using the neoteric influence of streaming as a way to feed their own hype, and to draw in more money than they could from basic streams. Exclusive deals are mutually beneficial, opening an opportunity for streaming platforms to create leverage, setting their services above those of competitors which might otherwise seem equally attractive to a nonchalant consumer.

In 2015, rapper Drake debuted the music video for his popular song, “Hotline Bling,” with Apple Music. Immediately, people rushed to subscribe to Apple Music and see it, and Apple in turn sent Drake a neat paycheck for 19 million dollars.

To sign exclusive deals, artists require a certain amount of influence in the industry’s older form in order to fluidly transition into this new one, because they rely heavily on the their fans’ reactions to be successful. They choose to maximize on upfront pay, leveraging their hype through social media and advertisement. Many initial customers are people who subscribe to the service on a whim because of the music’s apparent rarity. They are drawn in by the notion that listening to less accessible songs is equivalent to being in an elite fan base.

But for many other fans, exclusive deals lead to frustration. By subscribing to one streaming service, you sacrifice the chance to listen to tracks which only competing companies offer. But if you switch, you lose access to some songs available on your old service. Many are not willing to change services for a single piece of music or media. Thus, artists lose their offended fans, as well as casual ones who only listen to their music when it is publicly available. These fans instead turn to pirated internet sources to get the same content illegally.

In Drake’s case, an initial sales boom did occur. But the hype may not have been enough to compensate for their decreased accessibility. The deal, in the end, cost Drake a #1 spot on the Billboard Top 100 charts.

Fans aren’t the only ones who have issues with single-platform releases; the record labels which artists are signed to do as well. Just recently, singer Frank Ocean debuted both a visual album titled “Endless” and a traditional album, “Blonde,” with Apple Music. Ocean did so partially with his label Universal Music Group (UMG), but also as part of his own label Boys Don’t Cry. Subsequently, UMG head Lucian Grainge announced their label was placing a contractual ban on artists under their record working with streaming platforms on exclusive deals. UMG, which accounts for more than one-third of signed artists in the industry, will make a major dent in the forthcomings of streaming exclusives.

Financial entitlements are tearing the music industry apart, making everyone involved hyper-aware of their role in its administration. As a streaming user or company, are you costing your favorite artists more than they can afford? Or as a musician, are you actually harming your profits by choosing to make the big dollars upfront? The issue between consumer, company,and artist is one which has yet to be resolved.

The way that artists create, market and sell their work is changing to keep pace with the Internet age.”

Surprise Releases

The clock struck midnight one chilly December night in 2013; the children were peacefully asleep and the townspeople were all tucked in bed checking Facebook. Suddenly, a mass stirring of gasps and clicks, followed by a gravelly male voice: “Ms. Third Ward, your first question,” then Beyoncé’s familiar honeyed voice. In the depths of that watercolor night, Beyoncé, the queen of that great kingdom, had bestowed a self-titled album, unannounced, upon the mere mortals of her realm.

“Beyoncé” was just the start of Queen B’s surprise release streak. More recently, her album “Lemonade” premiered with minimal ad-and-billboard promotion prior to its release. The Queen herself, though undisputably influential, is somewhat unoriginal in her newly acquired model of the surprise album release. Her predecessors include Radiohead, “with King of Limbs” in 2011, and Frank Ocean, with “Channel Orange” in 2012.

Surprise releases co-opt the idea of a “viral” trend, attempting to garner an extraordinary amount of popularity in a condensed time period. Though this flame is short-lived, it burns bright and far, and will certainly reach listeners beyond the scope of the artist’s fandom alone. Social media, the newest revolution in human communication, has caught artists and labels alike in an arms race to optimize their use of such platforms. The business model of a surprise release is entirely a product of the digital era — logistically, physical albums would have been nearly impossible to mass-release all at once.

Financially, surprise releases produce a huge short term profit, though the long term is still largely based upon the originality and quality of the content itself. Album sales are becoming less and less valuable as full albums are ignored in favor of singles, and surprise releases generally produce a spike in sales near their release date. For example, Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled unmastered” garnered 142,000 album sales in its first week in March, with a 78 percent drop off to 38,402 sales in its second week. Thus, the entertainment industry has garnered some faith in its novel, spontaneous business model.

However, some argue against the merits of the surprise release: though album sales spike, so do piracy rates, particularly for single-platform releases. In addition, the model is primarily advantageous to larger artists, with detriment to the up-and-comers. A small, lesser-known artist dropping a surprise album is akin to a tree falling in a forest — if no one is waiting to hear it, it is utterly insignificant.

Regardless of their benefit or detriment, surprise album releases are a product of the digital universe we’ve become. Business models will continue to fluctuate as this technology further impacts the way we communicate. The pop genre seems to be shifting away from its traditional ad and billboard promo, placing us in an exciting era of dynamic modern marketing.

Visual Albums

The explosive rise of the visual album in the past few months has ushered us into a new era — one where it might be more common to “see” an album than listen to it.

Popular artists have brought visual albums into the spotlight in recent months, and the new albums have been met with positive reviews from both critics and consumers alike.

Perhaps most notably, Beyoncé’s new visual album, “Lemonade,” has taken the world by storm. Beyoncé’s lyrics are enhanced by compelling images, a continuous narrative that meshes with the music’s. “Lemonade” has a powerful message of infidelity and frustration, and the album’s cinematography enhances these themes.

The visual album could be seen as a natural progression from previous trends of adding visuals to music, rather than a completely new endeavor. Artists have been making music videos for decades and many of these videos incorporate storylines.

But previous artists have viewed videos as supplemental, a way to further promote music on websites such as YouTube that garner billions of views a month. Albums like “Lemonade” use music and visuals to tell fascinating stories without the restriction of keeping a narrative under four minutes.

In Beyoncé’s case, her album is made up of intimate moments from her life — questioning whether her husband is cheating on her, anger at his betrayal and her eventual forgiveness. The cinematography accentuates this; scenes from her film, like “Hold Up,” show visuals of her underwater, accompanying spoken word in illustrating her confusion.

When she comes out and asks, “Are you cheating on me?” the change of visuals is equally dramatic. Contrasting colors and scenery allow for the viewer to experience the album through sight and sound, creating a multidimensional experience.

It may be obvious why Beyoncé’s album is vastly different from current music videos, but it becomes confusing compared to past visual albums — namely, ones from popular artists like The Beatles, Bon Iver and Michael Jackson.

Critical differences between the visual albums of the past and the visual albums of now come down to a difference in storylines and keeping a cohesive theme. While albums of the past have had success with their films, not all have found the balance between expressing ideas in music lyrics and in film.

Beyoncé allows her music and her film to express her thoughts, rather than focusing on videos that are complicated or incorporating lyrics that are too detailed. The elements build upon each other without serving as unnecessary distractions.

Furthermore, not all albums are suited for visuals, especially since most shy away from creating albums that rely on all of the songs to tell story rather than having multiple stand alones. That is what makes “Lemonade” so compelling; Beyoncé draws the viewer into her life through a musical memoir, and visuals enhance her emotions.

The unique opportunity to see her body language and facial expressions throughout the film allows viewers to understand her story, one that embodies the struggle of infidelity and inequality that many women face. The combination of powerful and cryptic visuals and music allow her viewers to see and relate to her emotions.

Dynamic performances like Beyoncé’s exhibit the ability of viewers to connect with each individual chapter of her overarching story. The combination of spoken poetry and music make albums like hers unique, and some believe that Beyoncé has “perfected” the visual album.

But, given that the world of visual albums has been relatively unexplored, music fans can expect changes in the way that multidimensional art forms such as this are viewed in the industry and by the public over the next few years. “Lemonade” has jump started the trend towards visual albums, and its popularity is only going to increase as more artists begin following in Beyoncé’s footsteps.