Can Beyoncé save the humble pop album?

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It’s become clear over the last year that the age of the mega pop album has drawn to a close. It’s probably been slowly dying for a while now, but this was the year that Lady Gaga had her ARTFLOP (her new album ARTPOP is rumoured to be on track to lose her record label $25 million in marketing costs). It was also the year Katy Perry had massive success with her juggernaut single Roar, and then failed to make any meaningful impact with her subsequent album Prism (here, the single has gone seven times platinum, which means it sold more than 490,000 copies, but the album has only gone platinum once since its October release).
Gone are the days of the iconic pop album; the ones where the fans knew every track, every emotional turn intimately. Think of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Eagles’ Hotel California, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Queen’s A Night at the Opera.
But there’s one pop star out there who suddenly seems devoted to the art of the album.
Last Friday, Beyoncé shocked the world when, out of the middle of nowhere, she dropped a brand new album to iTunes, complete with music videos for every track. Surprise! There was no lengthy promo trail. No lead single. No press interviews. No leaked tracks. Just a self-titled album with 14 tracks and 17 videos.
Was it a publicity stunt? An anti-publicity stunt? Or was it just Beyoncé playing with her superstardom? She’s reached a point in her career where her music is so hotly anticipated she really doesn’t have to do anything, apart from making the music, to reach the top of the charts (and she has been at the top of the iTunes charts in over 100 countries for the past few days).
Beyoncé said, in the single press release put out the moment the album was made available, “I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”
The move will surely be dissected for months, probably years, and whether any other pop artists will try to copy the release strategy is yet to be seen (although surely there aren’t many who could). But the most obvious point Beyoncé has made with the release is that she wants the album to be listened to as a complete, cohesive work. There’s a video for every track and though three songs have been picked as the “official” singles, audiences haven’t been pointed toward the highlights. They’ll have to listen to the album and fall for whatever tracks they fall for.
Other major pop artists have tried different strategies to sell their albums as cohesive sets, but most have failed. Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP was the most (over)hyped album of the year. The media release hilariously claimed that with the album Gaga would “venge with forte to bring the music industry into a new age”. The result? A lacklustre album which sold poorly all over the world. Here, it hasn’t even reached the 35,000 point to go gold.
Even in Australia, Delta Goodrem (who, if we have a pop star who is an “album” artist, it must be her, given that she has the most successful Australian album of the past decade) has managed to have success with singles in 2012, but didn’t manage to make a dent with the album. The single Sitting on Top of the World went two times platinum (over 140,000) but the album only went gold (over 35,000).
So why are so many pop artists struggling to get people listening to their albums? Audiences clearly aren’t disengaging with music: single sales are still strong and ticket sales for pop concerts are through the roof (Beyoncé made $40 million from her recent Australian tour). Is it just a matter of artists devoting all their energy into singles and then filling albums with filler? Perhaps. But it’s more likely to be a symptom of the way people access music nowadays.
The iTunes model allows you to purchase any song off an album, for a pretty reasonable price, at just the click of a button. Even if an artist has four major hits off their album and you want every one of those songs, it’s far cheaper to pick out those tracks than buy the whole album (remember when CD singles took up a lot of space in music stores and would cost you around $5 each?).
Beyoncé has deliberately not allowed users to download individual tracks. If you want the music, you download the entire album. She’s clearly achieved what she’s set out to with this album; people are listening to pop music in a way they so rarely do. She’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies already and received an overwhelming critical response that often eludes her.
Nobody knows whether the release strategy will have any kind of meaningful impact upon the music industry. But it does give Beyoncé the chance to have her music endure beyond her peers’. People still have copies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours that they pull out over and over again and listen to the entire album. Why? Because they discovered them as great albums in their entirety. Sure, they’ll no longer live on as hard copies in our cupboards, but they will in our iTunes libraries. And with that, Beyoncé might just join their ranks.

8 responses to “Can Beyoncé save the humble pop album?

  1. The death of the album is a wonderful progression. We, the consumers have for decades been forced to listen to boring album fillers in between a couple of good songs. I have worked with musicians and they sit in their studios going, ‘ok this one is going to be a filler’. Selling tracks rather than full albums also forces musicians to lift their game.

  2. The album had its heyday in the 1967 – 2000 period. Before 1967 the predominant delivery method for Pop/Rock was the 45 single. Disposable and focussed on the one song – although the sometimes the “B” side was of interest. There is nothing sacred about the album, except that it became a gold mine for record companies. Indeed, the history of popular music throughout the 20th century, was mainly the single song, whether in sheet music, 78RPM, 45RPM format. The period of approximately 30 years when the album ruled were an aberration.

  3. “Why? Because they discovered them as great albums in their entirety” – yes, but that does assume that after downloading the listener sits through the whole thing. Stop and start functions, sometimes remote, are way faster than getting up to change the needle on a record player or the pause button on a cassette player. I think it’s a trick to get make everyone buy all the boring songs as well.

  4. I think the idea is genuis – and dont agree with the notion of ‘fillers’ on albums. I can think of many albums where there are none or almost no fillers at all. I think if people are compaining about fillers they are listening to the wrong artists..
    And also, how many times have you bought an album – loved a couple of songs, but then had the more neglected songs grow on you as time went by? Thats actualy one of my favourite things about buying albums – waiting for the songs that will take me by surprise months or even years later.. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black did that to me, so did Californication by the Chili Peppers.. Great artists wont accept fillers..

    1. Getting right back to Beyonce here – I’ve heard the album – it sure ain’t no masterpiece. The inevitable has happened -> too much time looking in the mirror and too much coin.

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