Beyoncé released an album last night. Let’s let that sink in. Two days ago, most of us were not aware she was even working on anything, much less planning to put out a full 66 minutes of new music – this week. Today, Wikipedia has listed her album as a “current event” to keep up with everything that has happened in the past 24 hours. This is not Death Grips, whose recent unannounced album caused a mild stir; this is Beyoncé, an artist who could buy half of Canada with the money they chuck at her for publicity (or, at the very least, Southeast Vancouver).
This album, an album without a cover or a title or any publicity whatsoever, is a fitting end to a year that made us ask, for the first time ever, whether the music industry is finally getting it. Has the man in charge of Columbia Records finally plugged in a modem and discovered Google?
It’s hard to deny that 2013 is the beginning of something in mainstream music. In January, Justin Timberlake came out of nowhere and put ‘Suit & Tie’ up on MySpace. Granted, it was about as anachronistically forward-thinking as advertising on the remnants of the Hindenburg, but it worked. A little over a month later, the album came out and sold nearly a million copies its first week.
Kanye West went further. His album did not have any singles or an album cover. He relied on unexpected media appearances, projections of his face, and interactive videos to get Yeezus out there. And it worked. How many people do you know who do not have an opinion on Yeezus? That’s right. None. Your grandma probably has an opinion of Yeezus. The ‘Bound 2’ video was just the softcore porn icing on the cake.
Jay Z, ever the businessman (or, according to Mr Carter himself, a “business, man”), pounced on West’s controversy and success and announced that he, too, had a game-changing album in the works. It would be released in less than a month, would include a million free copies, maybe have an art exhibit, and generally be the musical equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, Magna Carta Holy Grail was the feral byproduct of what I assume happens when Jay Z consumes too much blue cheese before a recording session, but it did have the year’s fourth highest first week sales in the US and did reasonably well otherwise, too.
And now Beyoncé. Big names finally understand that guerrilla marketing these days is not just shooting fish in a barrel, it’s like taking a dead fish, smacking it with a glock, and throwing on a hashtag for good measure.
As exciting as this makes the future of mainstream releases, how many people can actually pull something like this off? The Jayoncé Timberye Dynasty can do whatever they want and get away with it successfully, but that’s mostly because they came from a background of traditional marketing. Timberlake came out of the absolute apex of manufactured teenage pop; by the time we realized he was genuinely talented, he was plastered on every teenager’s wall. How many people could upload a song onto MySpace, of all places, and sell a million copies a month later? If I projected my face onto the pyramids, I’d be arrested by the authorities and disowned by an already disappointed family. And if I released an album tomorrow without any promotion, I’d sell as many records as I do now.
This year’s trend might have little relevance to up-and-coming artists, most of whom did not wait until 2013 to find and use the Internet, but if we’re going to have big names in music, at least we can expect to be surprised from time to time. I’ve completely run the idea of 2013 as a turning point to the ground this past year, but then again, no one in in 1450 thought, “Gutenberg, we’re tired of hearing about the printing press. Let it go.” It might be slow, but the music industry is making some progress. Like the proud parents of a 125 year-old baby, we should look on with admiration as it takes it first steps in a world that has already learned to drive.