It’s not hard to posit the exact moment the paradigm shift in the music industry that welcomed the era of the “surprise album release” occurred.
David Bowie was the first to do it when he released “The Next Day” with zero advance fanfare on his birthday, Jan. 8, 2013, catching the entire music-loving world off guard. It ended what most had assumed was a full-blown retirement and withdrawal from the music industry, with one of his strongest latter-period albums.
Bowie beat Beyonce by almost a year. The pop diva dropped her self-titled album on Dec. 12, 2013. Thanks to Bowie, this should have been old news, but Beyonce is more star than she is musician, and as such, she has fully permeated the mainstream, meaning teenagers and grandparents alike love her by the millions, and many of them likely have no clue what a David Bowie is, or at least, they didn’t at the time.
By now, it is accepted that the unannounced arrival of “Beyonce” in 2013 was the watershed moment. Myriad music critics and fashionistas at the time gushed profusely about what a groundbreaking action this was, what a giant leap for female empowerment, what a game-changer for popular music. And they just kept on gushing.
Here’s an example, from a piece that ran on MusicMic.com a full year after the album’s release: “It wasn’t just an album release — it was a paradigm shift for the music industry. Since ‘Beyoncé’s’ release, nothing has been the same.”
Hyperbole? Yes, embarrassingly so. Plenty has been the same since, to be honest. However, this fan-boy-slash-journalist has a point. Beyonce – love her or find her overrated – wields an immense amount of power in the music business. What she does, others will imitate. And the rather slavish acceptance by the music media of anything she deems to consider worth doing means that we’re all going to have to hear about it. Over and over and over again. Case in point – the column you’re reading.
Beyonce changed the game with her 2013 surprise release in two significant ways.
First, she made it de rigueur for pop, R&B and hip-hop superstars to drop their latest creations whenever they felt like it, turning the long-accepted music industry advance hype machine on its head. Most recently, Kanye West and Drake have followed the lead of Beyonce and bowie, though they probably didn’t realize it.
Less significantly for Joe and Jane Public, she spat in the face of the industry’s traditional release day – Tuesday in the U.S., for a little more than a quarter century – by releasing her album on a Friday. Within 18 months, the entire industry had capitulated to the Queen’s whim. In July of 2015, Friday officially became new release day for music and not just for the U.S., but for the whole world.
This wasn’t a big deal for consumers. In the digital world, when a U2 album can automatically end up in your iTunes collection without you even asking for it (bet you wish you could have that one back, Bono), and only serious music lovers go to a storefront to purchase a new album on the day of its release, it doesn’t really matter what day of the week the musical product hits the ether.
But music retailers, who plan their weekly advertising, schedule employee shifts,and keep the flow of their weekly product ordering around the Tuesday release, were decidedly nonplussed. No matter. Beyonce had spoken, or at least, her actions had.
When “Lemonade” showed up on April 22, Beyonce was simply following the paradigm shift she’d spurred in the first place. In truth, the album wasn’t a complete surprise – she and her PR team had been dropping cryptic hints about it for months, she’d performed a new song from it at the Super Bowl and a world tour was already on the docket. However, no one knew the exact date the thing would drop. And no one knew there would be a corresponding film.
“Lemonade” is being widely hailed as another mold-breaker. “She did it again,” ran the lede in a New York Times piece published over the weekend, suggesting that “Lemonade” furthered Beyonce’s reputation as a boundary-pushing music businesswoman. This is a bit disingenuous, since long-form music videos made to promote and/or complement albums are as old as Michael Jackson’s “Bad” is, and Beyonce already did the surprise release thing.
What makes “Lemonade” a story is in part its strength as a fairly unified artistic statement, one that comes with a visually stunning bit of film accompaniment. The fact that the album seems to be detailing some serious trouble in Beyonce’s marriage to Jay Z is also, rather perversely, a masterful bit of marketing, intended or otherwise. That “Lemonade,” the visual album and the plain old album, are currently available solely through Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service is both ironic and creepy.
But game changing? Not for any artist who doesn’t live in Beyonce’s tax bracket. The rest of us might miss the excitement that came with knowing a favorite artist was going to be releasing a new album and going to the store to purchase it on the day of release. Beyonce has indeed changed the game. But is it a change for the better? The jury’s still out.
Story topics: Beyonce