Last year wasn’t defined by any particular style or genre of music coming to the fore. In fact, the biggest emerging trend was unrelated to the sound of music itself but rather the way it had been released and promoted. With several high-profile artists adopting non-conformist strategies, 2014 was the year of the unconventional album release.
Music listeners all accept that the ritual of visiting their nearest record store to buy an album from our their favourite band, is long dead. It seems now that the well-established musicians are beginning to accept it too and embracing the power of the internet.
One of the major talking points of the musical year was U2’s partnership with Apple embodied in the giveaway of their latest LP Songs of Innocence to iTunes customers at no cost. Although a myriad of disillusioned users grappled to remove the album from their iPods, it was marketed as the largest album release of all time. Ultimately, the quality of the music did not match the scale of the promotional campaign, and it will be forgotten as an album.
The trailblazer of unorthodox release tactics, Thom Yorke popped up again with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes which came out with no prior notice as a $6 BitTorrent bundle. By the end of the year, 4.4 million users had downloaded bundles, and it’s estimated that Yorke could have made 20 million from it – a remarkable achievement considering the album never appeared on a chart.
These giveaways and pay-what-you-want systems have attracted criticism with some claiming that it results in a ‘devaluation of music’. They will argue that it is all well and good for multi-millionaires like Bono and Thom Yorke to casually give away their music for free but budding musicians depend on album sales for their livelihood. However, because of music piracy, it is the reality that artists rely on tours, licensing and product promotion for income in today’s age.
As with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, a common habit among musicians is now the release of records without any promotion or notice at all. Many of us gasped in awe when D’Angelo came out of his 14-year hibernation period by suddenly dropping the neo-soul extravaganza that was Black Messiah. It came out almost exactly a year after Beyoncé had stunned the music world with her surprise eponymous visual album. If anything, this trend creates the air of excitement and unpredictability. You never know, maybe your favourite band will release an album out of the blue tomorrow
There is no single explanation for this weird and wonderful trend. However, with the slow death of the music industry, it should come no surprise that musicians are exploring innovative ways to garner attention for their records. It is also clear that for an increasing number of artists, artistic expression is found not merely in the contents of the album but also in its promotion and release. While grandiose promotional campaigns can overshadow albums, they can also give them a creative edge. After all, who could forget the footage of Aphex Twin’s Syro blimp flying through the air in Bristol?
By Adam Bielenberg