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Summary:

Beyonce has scored a major coup with her newest album, which was released exclusively on iTunes and sold nearly 830,000 copies in three days. It also is a sign of the times and an apt epitaph of the physical media.

Beyonce Getty MUST REDOWNLOAD
photo: Getty Images

Like pretty much everyone else who is a Beyonce fan, I have been fascinated and bamboozled by the surprise debut of Beyonce’s new album on the iTunes store (instead of the usual offline channels) and in the process setting all sorts of records. Being a fan of her music and videos, I thought it was quite a nifty Christmas present and was one of the 830,000-odd people who bought her album — literally within minutes of seeing the tweet from her on Twitter. The “album” and its success prompted some random thoughts in my head.

  • The much maligned “album” format has a future in an all-digital world. We just need to reimagine what the album looks and feels like for people to buy it.
  • Just like people bought albums despite radio, we are going to buy albums despite Pandora and Spotify, as long as the artists give us a compelling enough reason to buy it.
  • From the looks of it, video storytelling –not just the music — has to be a factor in the new concept of “album.”
  • The importance of Twitter and other social media services has never been more important in getting the word out for musicians and artists.

Not everyone is a believer in the game-changer tag being attached to Beyonce’s album. In a blog post for The Washington Post, Dominic Basulto wrote:

Is Beyoncé’s new album really a “groundbreaking way to experience music” – as touted by iTunes? The mixing together of musical tracks and videos, that’s been done before — maybe not as artfully and seamlessly as Beyoncé did it — but it’s been done before. The “groundbreaking” part of the visual album is that once you visit iTunes to download the album, you can also listen to a mix of Beyoncé’s favorite songs on iTunes Radio. But even that concept – the curated playlist – has been around for years. What separates Beyoncé from all but a handful of performers in the music industry is her ability to do everything on a massive scale.

All fair points, but I believe the time for this kind of new approach to albums and music is now.

As a society, we have hit a point where we have much wider penetration of broadband — both wired and wireless — and can conveniently afford to consume such massive chunks of digital content. We are social-networked enough to actually forge a (faux) relationship with the artists. We live in the era of instant gratification and music is one of those things that provides instant gratification.

End of Physical Media?

Target might act all tough and not want to sell music from Beyonce, but then we might not really want to wait to go to Target in the future. And you can call me naive, but this is yet another example of internet reinventing the notion of middleman, media and medium.

As I wrote last year:

The unifying fabric behind all these new behaviors is broadband. For the longest time, physical media was the container that moved content. Records became compact discs. Movie film became VHS tapes and then DVD. Books didn’t really change. And neither did newspapers and magazines. They are all mere containers.

It didn’t matter if you read Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone, Esquire or in form of a book. He created content (art, if you ask me) and the companies packaged and sold it in containers.  They used their distribution networks — trucks, newsstand networks and book stores – to get us to pay for Wolfe’s works.

In the post-broadband world, Internet is the truck, and app stores are the newsstand and book store. Result: the slow and steady decay of physical media as a container for content. Sure, today people still have CD players and DVD players, but tomorrow when all our music will be either downloadable or streamed to us on many devices, who needs those CD players? The shift to digital music will increase with network density — that is the number of connected people and connected devices.

The next logical step is that we are going to see a more app-like approach to the album — one that combines music, video and other experiences into an album-app worth paying $15. Lady Gaga, for example, recently released her experimental app that could very well point to the future where her albums are a bouillabaisse of her disparate and vast talents, tied together by her music. She has been always ahead of the curve in understanding technology and popular mass media and she knows how to bend it to her wishes. Her “app” release is a good indication that as a society we now consume “apps” and “apps” are the new containers of media.

Photo courtesy of Beyonce PR

Photo courtesy of Beyonce PR

Jay Z & Samsung Fail

I am not sure what the app/album looks like, but I definitely hope it won’t be anything like that privacy disaster of an app (Magna Carta) released by Jay-Z (Beyonce’s hubby) in partnership with Samsung; the very same app that The New York Times’ music critic Jon Pareles lamented by calling it “creepy.” Of course, since that was part of a deal rumored to be worth $20 million between Samsung and Jay Z, one would imagine the fallout was acceptable collateral damage. Still, it turned me off Jay Z and his music and left me with a bitter taste as a fan.

Basulto goes on to make the following point in his post:

Beyoncé’s decision to drop the album without any advance notice – getting an exclusive deal with iTunes in the process – is better viewed as a response to the changing dynamics of the music business. Beyoncé’s latest move is a business tactic, just like her husband Jay Z’s album release earlier this year, in which he released his “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” as part of a promotional stunt with Samsung to boost first-day sales as rapidly as possible. Artists are looking for ways to get paid for the music they create — and to sell as much of it as they used to back in the day.

And again, nothing he says I really disagree with. However I personally think the Beyonce model is a better approach. Beyonce raked in about $13.3 million in album sales in three days — without alienating fans, getting privacy nerds in a tizzy and most importantly, only generating positive buzz. If I was a popular musician, I would take a real hard look at my plans on how to release the next album. This is a good business model, one that can gain traction if Apple can figure out how it can help sell more albums.

The iTunes Story

The last point I wanted to make was about Apple and the role of its iTunes Store. Given all the attention lavished on Apple’s hardware products, the iTunes Store often gets overlooked for the role it plays in paid digital content economy.

And when it does get attention, it isn’t the right kind of attention — rightfully so, because it is an under-leveraged asset that also encapsulates Apple’s inability to adapt to a more data-driven, algorithmic reality of the internet. The iTunes Store — both on apps and music/video front — can be vastly improved, if the company took a step back from its old way of thinking, but I will digress and leave the rant to another day.

Still, as Ryan Aynes, co-founder of Edge Collective, a music marketing firm told USA Today

“It’s a big move for iTunes to get back into the limelight and it helps their revenue. This is a dual play from the artist and the partner.”

Today, with the convergence of music, video and app type experiences, Apple actually has a unique opportunity to help jump start this new emergent ecosystem. Beyonce’s album could just be the spark that makes “albums” interesting all over again.

Beyonce. Photo courtesy of Beyonce PR

Beyonce. Photo courtesy of Beyonce PR

  1. It clearly worked well for Beyonce but what about for an up and coming artist? They can’t just put out an album on iTunes and expect it take off…

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    1. Eric

      The reality is that up and coming artists also have to work doubly hard to get attention today, be it from their record labels or radio and distribution agencies. Social media is a way for up and comers to get traction.

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      1. For the up and coming artist, I recommend searching for data about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Their album — The Heist — was self-produced and they skyrocketed to the top of iTunes. It took longer, but most people had no idea who they were last year or 2 years ago.

        I agree with Om that iTunes is still way to edit driven, but they will learn and personalize and help newer bands come up because people will be willing to spend money to discover new acts.

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    2. truth is, up and coming artists are just that. beyonce’s marketing for this album (and anyone who doesn’t know this was calculated is uninitiated at best), was brilliant for an established artist. she did what all up-and-coming artists need to do to even begin, get their music on iTunes and other major digital outlets, which seemingly simple task is become more and more controversial by the year. but, the current structure and the way it operates is really no different than the music industry of old (TMTCTMTSTS). i will give you it is plain cheaper to making a “record” with a reasonable level of recording quality, so more people are not using $$ as the excuse to not cut that record. too bad, because most records should really never be cut, but i didn’t say that out loud.

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  2. Yes,

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    1. Samir: No.

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  3. “The “album” and its success prompted some random thoughts in my head.”

    To be clear – the thoughts in your head were not random. If they were random they wouldn’t be specifically focused on Beyonce, the music industry and end of digital media. They would be random, maybe about the itch on your lower back, dinner, the ball game or whatever other truly random thought might occur. In fact the thoughts in your head were the opposite of random. They were driven by the article into an analysis of the industry that led to certain specific conclusions and that resulted in a blog post. What was random about this?

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    1. Adam: go away please.

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  4. Beyonce’s move is clearly innovative and not only does it indeed signal the end for physical media but more importantly it points in the direction of where the recorded music industry needs to be if it is to recover from its near death experience at the hands of the digital age. Unfortunately the recorded music industry will continue to be on life support because of the economic fact that the ability to make a perfect copy of a digital work of art ad infinitum ultimately renders that work valueless. The die was cast in 1982 when Sony/Philips released the digital Compact Disc. Recorded music lacks the intrinsic interactivity of software – gaming software in particular – that helps with digital monetization. Adding an app fudges the issue.

    It should be no surprise that the pirated copies of Beyonce’s new work will start appearing before not too long. What is needed to bolster digital music content’s value is another level of innovation which can add finite quantities and limited quantity editions even in the digital realm. If this can in effect be done in the digital realm for something as fundamental as a currency (with Bitcoin et al), then surely it can be done for digital works of art and music in particular, which is the form most at risk thus far.

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  5. I think it’s funny how this is an updated argument of what heard in the Napster days: if artists want to sell albums when they can download or stream for free, then give them an expanded package to buy. In those days it was a CD ROM, then a DVD with an interactive experience. The app is an evolution of this.

    So why do musicians keep trying to work the 90′s model and expect people to buy something they’re not going to buy?

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  6. hmm, when I got my copy of Cheech & Chong’s ‘Big Bambu’ many, many, years ago, it came with a giant rolling paper – wonder how they will duplicate that in the 21st Century?

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