This column originally appeared in the Georgetown Voice. The online version can be found here.
There are few things I enjoy more than counting down the days until one of my favorite bands releases their next full-length album. An album is a snapshot of an artist’s musical talent and style at a specific the time. A good album carefully orders its tracks from top to bottom to present a band’s new ideas in the best possible way.
Sometimes I get scared when a band is putting out new music. I fear they won’t live up to my expectations. I want a band to do something new and exciting that’s also familiar: the worst thing a band can do is put out a new set of songs that imitate concepts from earlier albums.
All these hopes and fears make waiting for an album nerve-wracking, and I eagerly follow a group’s updates about the upcoming release. Hyping an LP months ahead of time is an inevitable part of making successful music releases.
Then, minutes before midnight on Dec. 12, Beyoncé dropped a full-length album straight onto iTunes with no prior advertising or announcements.
The immediate reaction by fans was tremendous. I saw dozens of Facebook statuses about the album that night. According to Billboard, Twitter recorded 1.2 million tweets about the album in less than 12 hours. Impressively, the album went on to debut at the top of the Billboard 200, with over 600,000 sales in an three days.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Beyoncé’s sneak attack album release. My gut reaction was to scorn her move as pretentious and unfair to fans. If one of my favorite bands pulled a move like that, I would feel cheated out of weeks of anticipation and speculation, even if I did like the album.
Fans deserve the opportunity to judge the album based on prereleased singles. Artists typically answer questions or post videos about their songwriting process to give fans some idea of how much time and love they put into their music making. Following the procedure is a part of the fun.
I thought Beyoncé was being unfair to her own work by putting it out to the public without so much as a Facebook page post to go along with it. That album represents months of planning and thousands of dollars of production value, and Beyoncé didn’t want to get fans excited about it.
But the more I thought about Beyoncé’s marketing decision, the more I realized its brilliance. For one thing, by spending no money on advertising and making no announcements about the album, Beyoncé implicitly relied on her most loyal fans to spread the word about the LP. Imagine the excitement felt by the first people to see the album debut on iTunes. Due to the lack of hype and announcements, fans did all of the press work Beyoncé needed.
The entire plan has such a do-it-yourself attitude to it that it feels more like an independent band’s first release on Bandcamp than a pop icon’s fifth release on iTunes. The excitement surrounding the release didn’t rely on the conventional system but instead drew on fans’ discovering something new and unexpected on their own. I imagine Beyoncé fans felt the same way I feel after I dig up an unknown band’s early discography and love it.
I don’t think there’s ever been a time that an album got mass, near-hysterical attention from my generation. It’s an accepted, albeit sad, truth of the music industry that the only way to make real money and attention is with singles. But Beyoncé broke the mold once again by proving that an album in its entirety still can receive widespread support.
Compare that to Pitbull’s Meltdown EP that featured hit single “Timber,” which completely stole the show and overshadowed the albums it is contained in. Of course, that may have been Pitbull’s intention all along and he may not care at all if no one pays attention to his EP or LP releases, but I think that’s the problem. Something is lost when an artist cares most about writing a catchy four-minute song as opposed to a creative 45-minute album.
Apparently, keeping attention on the album was Beyoncé’s intention all along. “I miss that immersive experience, now people only listen to a few seconds of song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience,” Beyoncé said, according to Billboard.
The greatest success of her bold release is that it preserves the integrity of the entire album. With no singles released ahead of time, anyone who bought or listened to the album the night it came out had to go from track one to track 14, the way the LP is meant to be heard. That gives life back to the experience of giving an album a full listen. That’s awesome.
Photo: Asterio Tecson via Flickr