“In the digital world, you can’t make consumers wait” —Adrian Strain
“BEYONCÉ!” my co-worker yelled as she walked into the empty Olive Garden foyer holding an iPad the size of a Margaret Mitchell novel. “BEYONCÉ!” she yelled again, stepping toward the host-stand while pointing to the screen that displayed a music video. It’s 11 a.m., I just unlocked the doors for the day. Only a few women servers are in the building for their lunch shift, no guests. All of them—their ages ranging from 21 to 29—crowded the iPad. Together, they screamed, “BEYONCÉ, BEYONCÉ, BEYONCÉ!”
Their starry-eyed enthusiasm over 14 new, unheard songs and unseen videos by one of music’s most divine superstars is what I remember about December 13, 2013. It’s precisely six years and one week since the world awoke to a surprise album they didn’t know was coming to their iTunes store. For her self-titled, fifth studio album, Beyoncé chose to create in secrecy to make a body of work that would be massive upon release. It was a world-stopping moment too big to overlook.
A similar phenomenon happened nine months later on September 9, 2014, the day Irish rock band U2 released 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence. Unlike Beyoncé, Songs of Innocence was bought and distributed by Apple straight into the libraries of their iTunes subscribers. The two albums were both made in secret and released digitally to a wide enough audience where almost every person reacted on social media.
In response to the surprise release of Beyoncé, one Twitter user wrote, “HOW IS BEYONCE GONNA RELEASE A SUPRISE ALBUM RIGHT DURING EVERYONE’S FINALS? SHE’S TRYING TO DESTROY THE WHOLE SCHOOL SYSTEM #ILLUMINATI.” Another tweeted, “I think someone has broken into my house and is uploading U2 songs to my phone. This is horrible. Who would do such a thing?” after the release of Songs of Innocence. Of course, these messages aren’t a representation of every opinion, but they do showcase the visceral shock over the sudden appearance of albums that should’ve taken months to roll out.
I don’t remember a time in my childhood—1991 through 2009—where full-length projects just appeared. Album releases weren’t a surprise. Every artist had promotional campaigns to raise awareness of what was coming before it came. You would see the advertisements on B.E.T. or hear the single on the radio—there was always a single. And no matter what, in the United States, albums came out on Tuesday. No one ever explained why, and I never asked; Tuesday was simply the day. That changed on July 10, 2015, when the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) chose Friday as the global day of release for all retail albums.
Before July 10, albums hit shelves in the United Kingdom on Monday, Japan and Germany on Wednesday, and Australia on Friday, as reported by Wired. The IFPI, to accommodate the present-day accessibility of music’s digital landscape, was hopeful that this decision would minimize the impact album leaks and illegal downloads were having across the planet.
Although a tiny change, when paired with the advent of audio distribution platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud, ending the workweek to a plethora of new music on smartphones is vastly different than buying a physical early-week release. Today, thanks to streaming, every Friday feels like Christmas. In every stocking, there’s the latest album from a beloved superstar or an impressive newcomer.
Imagine telling your younger, music-loving self, Almost every song you could ever want will be at your fingertips. Beyoncé will drop albums whenever she feels like it, and Bono will suddenly appear like Beetlejuice on 500 million iPhones because Apple’s term of services will allow it! Doesn’t that read like science fiction?
I haven’t even mentioned Frank Ocean’s Endless or Kanye West’s Life of Pablo yet, both albums releasing in 2016. One was a surprise, 38-minute visual album that helped to orchestrate the greatest coup d'état of the 2010s, and the other a 20-track digital album that went through patch improvements as if it was updating software. This isn’t the future Hanna-Barbera predicted.
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“I was thinking about not making CDs ever again… only streaming,” Kanye West posted on Twitter after the release of Life of Pablo. “The Yeezus album packaging was an open casket to CDs. R.I.P.,” he tweeted, a nod to one of his most controversial studio albums, released three years before Pablo.
Whether you agree or disagree with his doomsday forecast, West was right in predicting a future where people consumed music predominantly via digital stream. It wasn’t a radical thought—we are living in the digital age—but no one ever said to me growing up, CDs will be on the cloud instead of in your hands.
Thanks to streaming services and the influence of the playlist, record labels are entering 2020 with control. In a digital marketplace, the more product they flood, the more money they can make. That’s why trap music is so profitable: it’s fast, infectious, and doesn’t cost a lot of money to produce. It took a village to make Kanye West’s universally acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Still, an underground rap classic like Monster only needed Future & producer Metro Boomin (plus a few co-producers).
Record labels “discovering” the next “Kanye West” or “Frank Ocean” would make for a great headline, but in reality, in the digital age of streams, signing a high-volume rapper like Future or Young Thug is more profitable.
Monster isn’t My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but releasing three classic mixtapes, a classic studio album, and a mixtape with Drake all back-to-back did more for Future’s 2015 than any one album ever could. To his credit, Future is one hell of a songwriter. Somehow, he finds the right beats to crawl into your skin, and the right melody, tone, and Auto-Tune to make his codeine musings as sweet as the highly addictive and deadly purple drank.
Future was able to make history in 2017, releasing two, No. 1 surprise albums a week apart with FUTURE and HNDRXX. With their updated tracklists, the two albums together are 39 songs and a little longer than 2 hours and 30 minutes. Commercial success aside, how does one man have so much to say?
Future will be remembered as one of the most influential artists of this decade because saturation is the name of the game now. Recording artists who want to win over the mass market must be McDonald’s—and no one goes to McDonald’s for flavor, they go because they’re hungry. That same hunger keeps them searching for new music. This benefits the career artists who are consistently producing a product for the consumer.
You can’t be a burger, though. You have to be a Big Mac or a Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich. The brand that people remember; a brand that keeps them talking. With so much music to listen to, songs and albums are easily overlooked or forgotten. No matter what the statistics say, attention spans didn’t suddenly grow shorter; there’s just more accessible content for the wandering mind.
In the 2010s, consumers of music received access to a method of consumption that abolished waiting. On any given Friday, Beyoncé, or Bono, or anyone really, could push a button and have you walking into work holding an iPad with stars in your eyes. Going into 2020, music consumers know anything is possible. Release dates are great, but they are no longer necessary. A single new album is excellent, but there’s always a chance of another, greater record.
One day, soon, I promise you, we’ll wake up inside a virtual reality version of a new Beyoncé album. Nothing will ever be the same.
By Yoh, aka Yohyoncé aka @Yoh31