This year, music’s elite set out to change the course of history with the release of their albums. First, Kanye West released his album with no lead-up single and no album cover. He made his Yeezus album one of the first contemporary albums to ever really sell off of word of mouth and love for the artist, instead of traditional promo. He had listening sessions and video screening session strategically placed in major cities around the globe, so that fans could become part of the experience, instead of just another customer. Those of us not fortunate enough to take part in the sessions were in awe of the sheer genius of it all, via the Internet. NEW RULES. Jay Z then followed suit with his Magna Carta Holy Grail album, which saw him partner with electronics giant Samsung and pre-sale a million copies of his album to owners of Samsung Galaxy devices. A genius move for Samsung, and for Jay Z; he went platinum before the album even came out. And again, he really didn’t promote the album beforehand. The album didn’t even leak because he released digitally first, which allowed manufacturing of the CD’s to be delayed (workers at manufacturing plants are typically the cause of album leaks). NEW RULES. Then of course, his wife had to one-up him this past weekend. The moves of these three artists have left journalists and label executives both wondering whether no promo is the new promo. But, is it?
Let’s be honest. No promo is not the new promo. There’s no way Ciara, Brandy, J. Cole, Big Sean, Ariana Grande, Pitbull, etc. could pull of this type of monumental feat. Only for the most elite of artists out right now will make this new structure work. There’s no worldwide word-of-mouth factor for these types of artists. There’s not going to be ‘Breaking News: Ciara Releases Surprise Album’ flashing on CNN and FOX News and ABC. News anchors on local stations won’t be talking about these artists, like they did this past weekend with Beyonce. It’s BEYONCE. The world hasn’t been this thirsty for a new album from an artist in such a long time. That’s really why this surprise release made such an impact.
We all knew Beyonce was working on an album. Way back in 2012, when it was announced Beyonce was going to perform at the Super Bowl this year, everybody thought that obviously she would use the platform to launch into her new album. In January, it was rumored she was releasing two new singles to precede the Super Bowl halftime performance. But she didn’t. Then she performed at President Obama’s Inauguration; and was the headline of that event. She performed at the Super Bowl; again, the headline of that event. Then she went on tour across Europe and America. Then there was the hair cut; a monumental move for someone who’s had long hair for the past 20 years. We saw news stories of her filming new music videos in Brazil and Houston and New York and L.A. and Puerto Rico, etc. But we never knew when anything was coming out. We knew it was on the way, but we didn’t know when. There were no high expectations. There were no expectations at all. So when Beyonce released her album early Friday morning, everyone went into a frenzy and immediately bought the album. We had no choice. It was a very in-the-moment, impulsive thing. Everyone was freaking out, everyone wanted to be part of an experience. The word-of-mouth spread like wildfire in California. It was as if the album had just leaked, except it didn’t. You had to pay for it. And you didn’t mind paying for it because you needed to be part of history. No one else could have pulled this off, except for Kanye West or Jay Z. And even still, those two wouldn’t have had the same success, in my opinion, because Beyonce is much more of a cross-generational, cross-cultural, pop icon.
So what does this mean going forward? We’ve seen tweets from record label executives praising the launch, saying “no promo is the new promo.” But it’s stupid to think that way. Not every artist signed to a label can do such as Beyonce and Jay Z and Kanye have done this year. People still need promotional outlets if they aren’t already considered world-renown. People are going to buy a Beyonce album or an Adele album or a Drake album because they know the level of quality they’ll receive is superior, regardless of if they’ve heard the material beforehand. You can’t say that for most artists. For more artists, there’s a need to prove ones’ self in order to be remembered in the consumer’s mind. There’s a need to have a hit single in order to make the consumer want to hear more because their not sure about you as an artist. You may be established, but you’re not known for the quality of your music. And what about new artist? Artists that we aren’t too familiar with? How does “no promo” work for their future and their pending success? It doesn’t. Labels are still going to have fork out budgets to get certain artists in magazines, on TV, on billboards, on tour, etc. Only the elite class of musicians can afford to do what Bey has done: Eminem, Jay Z, Kanye, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and the legends (Madonna, Prince,etc.).
What we do think is the wave of the future; however, is the exclusive iTunes release model. Beyonce is a genius for that. Her album wasn’t allowed to leak because it hadn’t been manufactured yet. It isn’t available for streaming on apps like Spotify, which would cut it’s sales down. You’re not even allowed to buy individual songs, yet. You have to buy the entire album if you want to hear it. The new album is the single. So that’s driving up sales numbers because people don’t want to wait a week or two to be able to hear the album. They want to hear it at the same time everybody else is hearing. We’re neglecting to mention Beyonce probably has the best Internet legal team in the history of music (next to Prince). So finding songs on YouTube, and rips on other sites would also prove to be difficult. Expect to see this new model implied with Rihanna’s album release next year (her label may now have a way to mold her into an albums artist instead of a singles artist), as well as on albums by Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and other big pop stars. The little guys like a Elle Varner or a Big Sean will still be using the old model, no doubt.
Also, in the future, expect to see a lot of the bigger names in music release albums independently. Let’s be honest, if Beyonce had the money to shoot all 17 of her music videos (which she did thanks to endorsements), and she had all the connections to get big media coverage (which she does), what does she need the label for? For distribution, most likely, but Beyonce could go the indie route if she wanted. I’m sure she has an ample amount of people at her own Parkwood Entertainment with know-how of PR, legalities, and releasing an album. She’s proven that she can sell 600,000 copies of an album in 4 days, without the help of a record label promoting her. So why not go indie and keep all of that money for yourself? Jay Z could do the same thing. Look at Mac Miller: his debut album sold 130,000 first week, as an indie artist with no big single beforehand. He sold 100,000 with his latest album, again with no big single or promo. And he did it all independently. And he’s not even considered a “popular” artist. Look at Macklemore, the biggest Hip Hop artist of 2013 with multiple platinum singles (“Thrift Shop”, “Can’t Hold Us”, “Same Love”, “White Walls”), multiple Grammy nominations, and a platinum album. He’s independent, ladies and gentlemen. Times are changing.
Chance The Rapper also had a huge year and sold out shows (as a rookie in the game) with no label help. His Acid Rap mixtape has millions of downloads and has wound up at the top of countless ‘Best of 2013’ lists. If you’re willing to build your fanbase from the ground up and you aren’t as dumb as a bag of rocks, being independent isn’t as bad as it used to be. And if you’re an artist that already has a fanbase — a supportive one — there’s no need for a major label anymore. Digital media has ridded the need of the “machine” to push your album for you, if you have a supportive fanbase. But most people don’t have that support, as we mentioned, above which is why this will be a long transitioning period. But once people like Drake and Nicki Minaj and J. Cole have fulfilled their label contracts, expect them to make the same moves.