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Experimentation is Crucial in Music's Streaming Era, but Execution is Key - DJBooth

Experimentation is Crucial in the Streaming Era, but Execution is Key

The streaming era has proven difficult for the majority of albums to stick beyond their first week, but it has also allowed artists to reshape the form, length, and method of their releases.
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Experimentation is Crucial in the Streaming Era, but Execution is Key

Blame it on Napster, leaks, plummeting album sales, the death of the CD, the mixtape, or our attention spans, but albums just don’t last like they used to. The streaming era has irreparably altered the way we listen to music, and not always for the better. I used to look forward to new release Tuesdays—back when they were still on Tuesday—when I would drive to a store and carefully pick out the albums that would occupy my headphones for the coming months. Something about waking up on Fridays to stream a slew of new albums all at once lacks the magic that Tuesdays used to hold.

That’s not to say that the digital age hasn’t created its own magic. Gone are the days when artists would announce their new album months in advance, tout a few singles, and finally reward fans for the wait. Over a decade ago, in 2007, Radiohead announced that they would release their seventh album, In Rainbows, only 10 days before its release, a move unprecedented by musicians at their level. It worked better than anyone predicted, but for years, Radiohead remained one of few major acts to employ the “surprise” release.

Six years passed before major rap artists embraced the idea: JAY-Z announced Magna Carta… Holy Grail in a Samsung commercial during the NBA Finals only two weeks before its release. Beyoncé bested him five months later by releasing her self-titled album with no warning whatsoever. The impetus for this move may have been partially attributable to leaks, which plagued and delayed albums from giants like Lil Wayne and caused JAY-Z and Kanye to take extreme measures to protect Watch the Throne, but the internet, in killing the release date announcement, gave life to a new age of speculation and surprise.

As streaming services have taken over, for better or worse, artists are still learning how to reshape album releases and even the very idea of an album. Music videos have evolved from methods to promote singles to manifestations of the artist’s work itself. Though Kanye may have been one of the first to test the limits of film, debuting a 34-minute movie to accompany My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Beyoncé perfected the art from her self-titled album to LEMONADE. Where Beyoncé was a loosely related collection of videos for each song, LEMONADE was a full-length film that debuted on HBO and connected each song with readings of Warshan Shire’s poetry like prayer as the Queen brought her audience through stages of infidelity, heartbreak, and redemption. Beyoncé turned an event into a cultural moment, bolstered through and beyond countless thinkpieces unearthing LEMONADE’s layers.

Other artists have tested the use of film to accompany their music to varying effects. While EPs are usually just a small offering for more devoted fans, Vince Staples’ Prima Donna film added narrative direction to the seven tracks that gave audiences plenty to digest as they waited for Big Fish Theory. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer featured a 45-minute “emotion picture” starring her and Tessa Thompson, which should be seen by far more people.

For the release of 4:44, JAY-Z released twelve short films to accompany the tracks, but the release of the videos, initially behind TIDAL's paywall, was scattered, and the effect is apparent. Although the first video, “The Story of O.J.,” has racked up almost 70 million views on YouTube, the next closest contender, “Bam,” isn’t even close. Two of the finer films from the set, “Family Feud” (directed by Ava DuVernay) and “Moonlight” (directed by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang) have failed to garner the views that The Carters “APESHIT” has racked up in less than a week. Numbers aren’t everything, but the sporadic release of videos for 4:44 did not garner the attention they could have if instead they were made into a single film. The videos also feature little of the album’s music—sometimes saving Hov’s voice for the credits—which may speak to the viewer’s attention span.

Cue Tierra Whack, the up-and-coming Philly rapper who recently released her 15-minute visual album Whack World featuring a new scene for each of the 15 songs, all one minute or less. Though the album is short, it risks experimentation and executes it perfectly. As fellow DJBooth scribe Dylan Green wrote, the album’s 15 minutes take advantage of listeners’ social media habits and still paint a world of color within the tight space. If Whack goes on to release full-length versions of each song, her growing fanbase will be there, because she has proved to her audience that her risks pay off nicely.

Whack’s artistic vision could have helped the G.O.O.D. Music team this month. Kanye’s announcement of five straight weeks of seven-song album releases from himself, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, Nas, and Teyana Taylor brimmed with possibility and memories of G.O.O.D. Fridays taking over our weekends. Though some critiqued the short length of the albums, the opposite move—releasing a bloated album for the sake of streaming numbers—feels more like a regression of the album than an improvement.

But while Pusha T’s DAYTONA came strong out of the gate, Kanye’s offering the following week, ye, was, as Yoh wrote, somewhere between "a masterpiece from a genius ... and the disorderly finger painting of a child." KIDS SEE GHOSTS returned strong, the fully thought-out fruition of Kanye and Cudi’s collaborative strengths, only to be followed by NASIR, a nice-sounding album from Nas that lacks depth and could have used a fact check before going to print. With NASIR’s almost 24-hour delay in arriving on streaming services, the album found little time for consumption before the world was swept away by the surprise release of The Carters EVERYTHING IS LOVE. And with Kanye and Nas both in the spotlight for harmful stances and abuse allegations, respectively, audiences desired more from two legends standing on shaky ground.

For Kanye's Wyoming collective, the creative spirit is admirable, but the final product has been hit-or-miss. Add to that frustrating listening parties, which have included waiting hours after the promised start time to hear around 20 minutes of music, only to have the WAV app freeze and crash in some cases. Imagine if G.O.O.D. made short films out of these albums, or even just shown footage of the recording process instead of celebrities just hanging around. They could have turned their parties into an actual treat for fans at home, who would want to revisit the videos later.

Would it have been so bad for Kanye to forego the arbitrary release dates and spend more time on albums with higher stakes than just Pusha and KSG? Would a few weeks between releases have given the artists time to recoup? Maybe, but Kanye’s recent vision hasn’t been to work out songs to perfection. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was the worst album rollout of all time, but I was still excited to hear that Kanye would be updating songs as the weeks passed, part of what he described as a “living breathing changing creative expression.” While “Wolves” got the update it deserved, adding verses from Sia and Vic Mensa, most of the revisions to the album were minor and seemed pointless.

In contrast, Frank Ocean stated after the release of Endless and Blonde that he might never release another album. What followed was BLONDED Radio, where Frank would debut new tracks alongside songs he liked. In several instances, Frank tested out versions of songs before landing on a final one or denied the need to have a final one altogether. He released two versions of “Biking,” one with JAY-Z and Tyler, The Creator, the other solo. He played two versions of “Lens,” with and without Travis Scott. Frank rejected the need for resolution and perfection, free from the constraint of an album.

Frank’s lead may have inspired Tyler, the Creator to return to Odd Future’s free-wheeling days, as Tyler is one of few major artists unafraid to test out songs unattached to any release. Following in the path he set in his take on “Feedback,” Tyler has spent the year since Flower Boy rapping over beats from 4:44 and Kids See Ghosts, giving fans alternative versions of Flower Boy cuts and demos that didn’t make the album, and releasing music videos for quality “throwaways” like “OKRA.” And while Tyler cut loose, Flower Boy still went Gold. Even if the mixtape is dead, more artists should feel free to try sounds out without the pressure of an album looming overhead, but few do.

The streaming era has proven difficult for the majority of albums to stick beyond their first week, but it has also allowed artists to reshape the form, length, and method of their releases. Experimentation is crucial to getting listeners engaged, but execution is key to keeping listeners around. 

When the listening party is over and all that’s left is the music, who’s there when the room clears?

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