Music/Features

Has the internet made surprise albums a necessity for musicians?

The ability to download music has opened the floodgates to a never-ending flow of new artists to discover. The adverse result is that it's now more difficult than ever to hold our attention.

June 12, 2018

Although it isn’t the norm for most people today, I still love going to a record store to buy a physical copy of an album the day it comes out. As a high school student, I used to ditch class and head to my local record store every week to pick up new albums that I’d been waiting months to get my hands on. Math and science weren’t nearly as interesting to me as buying The Dillinger Escape Plan’s One Of Us Is The Killer, M.I.A.’s Matangi or Protest The Hero’s Volition. Now that streaming services have taken over how music is released, purchased and consumed, buying physical copies of albums is little more than an act of nostalgia.

The buildup of excitement musicians create when they’re putting out a new album doesn’t bring the same results it used to. Artists used to be able to make a decent amount of money from album sales, but streaming services have made it so we receive new music the very second it goes public and, we hardly pay anything for it. When new albums are delivered directly to our phones while we’re sleeping, how can musicians really grab people’s attention? Surprise them.

Who can forget Beyonce’s surprise drop of both Lemonade and Beyonce? This year has already seen a number of releases arrive completely out of the blue from high-profile artists like The Weeknd, J. Cole and even A$AP Rocky to a degree, often with record-breaking success. But why exactly are musicians deciding to release new material without building anticipation? Simply put, the state of the music industry has been drastically altered in the digital age.

There’s no denying that the ability to download music instead of buying a physical copy of everything we listen to has opened the floodgates to a never-ending flow of new artists to discover. The adverse result is that it’s now more difficult than ever to gain and hold our attention. New bands and artists are a dime a dozen and even when the public latches on to a breakthrough musician, they are often forgotten as quickly as they were brought up, only to be replaced by the next one-hit wonder. It’s easy to forget how huge Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci” was considering she faded into obscurity after one album, or how Trinidad James gained and lost major label support in the span of a year. This isn’t a new facet of the music industry, but the speed it happens at is increasing.

While the internet has made it difficult for some new artists to break out and hold their popularity, it’s also made it possible for others to be whisked into stardom before their album even drops.

While the internet has made it difficult for some new artists to break out and hold their popularity, it’s also made it possible for others to be whisked into stardom before their album even drops. In the early days of downloading music, leaked releases were viewed by many musicians as harmful to album sales (most famously in the Metallica v. Napster Inc. lawsuit), but when albums leak nowadays it seems to help boost sales and status. Much like surprise albums, leaked records often give artists a ton of publicity from the way the public got their hands on it forcing the media to stop what they’re doing and discuss that artist.

Another route that musicians have gone to make people care is to manufacture the idea that people care. With streaming services changing how albums are ranked on charts, musicians are now packaging albums differently to raise their status. Atlanta rap trio Migos released their bloated double album Culture II earlier in the year, featuring 24 tracks across 105 minutes without enough hits to justify the length, and pinned a playlist to their Spotify profile that was just the album back-to-back three times. This tactic helped boost their sales numbers by increasing the number of streams they received, but it also resulted in a lot of forgettable material being dumped on listeners.

This doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of music fans though. A 2016 study conducted by the Music Business Association found that playlists accounted for 31 percent of the total listening time in all demographics as opposed to just 22 percent for full albums. Spotify has even made the decision to stop displaying track numbers next to song titles, replacing numbers with a simple music note.

Despite the growing trend of singles being more popular than albums, I’ll always be excited to hold a physical album, flip through the liner notes and listen to it from the first song to the last. If music consumers continue in the direction they’ve been going, surprise releases could become an increasingly common distribution method.

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