May 23, 2011, was a small landmark for pop music. Lady Gaga had announced on New Year’s Eve that her new album Born This Way would be released on that date, and the drumbeats heralding it kept building; it sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week (partly thanks to massive discounting). It wasn’t the biggest release date for any album ever, and it’s not the last release date that will ever be important. But it may have signaled the twilight of the album release as a pillar of music culture.
In the middle of the run-up to Born This Way, Radiohead let it be known on Valentine’s Day that their new album The King of Limbs would be coming soon – five days later, in fact. (They ended up releasing it a day early.) Then they kept offhandedly rolling out new material over the rest of the year: the non-album “Supercollider” single, a bunch of remix 12-inches and an album collecting them, a series of YouTube videos of performances and a DVD collecting them. That’s the new paradigm: not a single monolithic album release date, but a never-ending string of little gestures to fans. Or, rather, that’s the old paradigm, to which pop music is returning after a long dalliance with the album as the center of all things.
For artists and labels, of course, “album release date” very often means “payday”: If all the fans rush to buy a bundle of music on a single piece of plastic (or download package) in a particular week, that’s a big deal, especially since these days subsequent sales tend to trail off quickly for anyone who’s not named Adele or Aldean. So for the past 40 years or so – and even more over the past 20 – the pattern for major musicians has been to write a batch of songs, then record them, release them as an album, and spend a while touring, repeating that cycle every year or two or three.
That’s meant that albums have had to have as huge a push as possible leading up to the date they appear, because it’s artists’ one big chance to reach their audience. The peak of the phenomenon may have been Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, in 1995, whose imminent appearance was announced by nine enormous statues of Jackson being plunked into various settings across Europe, as if he was some kind of returning culture hero.
The longer and more focused on a single day of reckoning the write-record-promote-tour cycle gets, though, the less creatively healthy it becomes. Pop musicians’ natural inclination – and the way the business tended to work before albums became the center of the industry – seems to be to add to their repertoire a song or two at a time. A few bands, like New Order and the Smiths, kept doing that as late as the ’80s, releasing a single every few months and letting albums appear when enough material piled up. (That’s the way hip-hop worked for a long time, too, and in a few ways still does: it’s no surprise that a lot of its most successful current artists, like Lil Wayne, are also some of its most prolific.)
Thanks to single-song downloads supplanting the physical album as the only way to hear new material – and, honestly, the rise of advance leaks – pop music obviously has been shifting from an album economy to a song economy. But a lot of the smart artists in the pop underground, both familiar and up-and-coming, are also careful to maintain their cultural presence by trickling out a steady flow of new stuff. If the Flaming Lips’ last release had been 2009′s Embryonic, for instance, they’d be very old news right now. Instead, this year they’ve been scattering little experimental projects around: a YouTube-only song, split releases with Lightning Bolt, Neon Indian and Prefuse 73, and toys and objects d’art containing USB sticks with new music (including a human skull with a 24-hour song inside it). Most of those are particularly lucrative, but they’re new music; they keep the band closer to their fans’ hearts than just banking songs for the next album would. Azealia Banks, similarly, announced in November that she was planning to spend the next few months releasing four singles, then a tour, then an album: “Boom, boom, boom, boom, bam, bam!”
The shift from a music culture built around albums as the Big Event to one built around a string of little booms and bams is a significant one, and it’s been tough for parts of the industry to negotiate; for that matter, albums are still a crucial source of fans’ money. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of artists dropping an album and then trying to repurpose it once it’s hit the ground: lyric videos followed by regular videos, floundering singles propped up with remixes and guest verses, the curious phenomenon of “deluxe editions” of albums that have just been released. It’s clearer than ever now, though, that the particular day on which a big batch of new songs officially comes out is becoming less important for artists’ careers than their ongoing connection with listeners. To put it a different way, if people like a song, they’ll listen to it, but if they have a relationship with an artist’s work, they’ll buy it.