For years now, media companies such as NPR, Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Consequence Of Sound have been promoting early-access album streams for fans to get a full preview of new music from the bands they love. This is beneficial for artists and the blogs; the artists get more exposure and the blogs get pageviews. Then, in December 2013 Beyonce came in and disrupted the whole system with a surprise album release.
We’re getting used to it now. Artists such as J Cole, D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Wilco have all released albums on a surprise date this year, with more likely to come from Kanye West and Rihanna. This has been a great marketing strategy for most of these artists—it builds a ton of hype and sends fans and new listeners alike flocking to Spotify to hear what all the talk is about. However, it’s also shaking the music industry and forcing us to rethink how we consume music and how it should be promoted.
Friday, July 17 was a perfect example of those two worlds colliding. It was supposed to be Tame Impala’s big day. The band’s highly anticipated album Currents was set to come out after what seemed like an endless media frenzy including three early released singles, a number of long-form features trying to explain the perfectionism behind frontman Kevin Parker, and the group’s album going up for streaming a week ahead of time on NPR. Yet, when Friday came around, the headlines shifted. Seemingly out of nowhere, Wilco dropped their ninth studio album, Star Wars, for free download, stealing the attention for themselves.
Both strategies are totally legitimate, but Wilco’s approach was more convenient for the consumer and gets it out to as many people as possible.
The music industry is just shooting itself in the foot with these media wars. Taylor Swift still makes headlines about how her music isn’t on Spotify. Tidal and Apple Music are trying to gather up exclusive artists when all that really does is exclude people searching for new music. Neil Young is pulling his catalog from nearly all streaming services over some misguided mission about audio quality when he could be reaching a younger audience. We can argue about whether or not all music should be free, but there’s no doubt it should be available.
Music is more available than ever before, but it used to be so simple. A widely talked about album could be picked up at any store, more obscure CDs could be picked up at your local record store or online. Now that the expectation is instant access to all music, it’s frustrating when the artist you input into the search bar doesn’t show up immediately. We bicker over which store pays the most, has the best sound quality, has the best mobile interface or the best radio service, and we should, but access should not be the issue. All it’s doing is hurting the artists and the fans who just want to hear good music.
From now on, can’t we just release an album everywhere? Why bother putting it up on NPR First Listen a week in advance? It just stands to shut out those who don’t listen to music on their laptops and confuses the whole timing of the release. Plus, NPR’s media player frustrated me because I can’t see what track I’m on.
Drake, I know you signed a deal with Apple, but your “Energy” video would get so many more hits on YouTube and spread your music to more ears. Apple Music touched 11 million subscribers in less than a month, but Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” music video touts 184 million views on YouTube.
“We consider ourselves lucky to be in the position to give you this music free of charge, but we do so knowing not every band, label or studio can do the same. Much of the ‘music business’ relies on physical sales to keep the lights on and the mics up. Without that support, well, it gets tougher and tougher to make it all work.”
The band went on to list some of its recent favorite albums and encourage fans to buy them. That’s a move that understands how to grow an audience rather than corner it off, and I wish artists with that level of influence would do it more.
Let’s do away with early access to streaming albums. Let’s do away with fights over exclusive content. I know everyone is worried about how all of these new streaming services are paying artists (and they should be worried), but the most important question should be how many people are listening. Everything else will fall into place.
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Images courtesy of Consequence of Sound and Vulture. Arranged on befunky.com.