Beyonce Drops Surprise 'Visual Album' Debut Into iTunes Overnight

by , Dec 13, 2013, 9:45 AM
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Okay -- maybe her new album is no Sgt. Pepper. We won't be seeing a poet of the stature of the late Allen Ginsberg walking us through the lyrics explicating narrative and meaning, as he once did with the Beatles' monument. But there are things of note here. In another indication of how much Apple, apps and mobile media are now driving the music industry, one of the world's most popular artists -- Beyoncé -- debuted a previously unannounced “visual album” exclusively on iTunes overnight. The self-titled “Beyoncé“ is “visual” insofar as every track has an accompanying music video. Announced with an additional background video at her Facebook page, Beyoncé explains that she encounters music visually. “That vision in my brain is what I wanted people to experience the first time.” From what I can see, the vision in her brain has a lot of cleavage and booty and rare furs. But, ya know -- her music is not really in my demo.

In explaining the approach to her new album, Beyoncé claims to be both recalling past rituals for experiencing music and anticipating new ones. She recalls seeing Michael Jackson's “Thriller” video in her childhood and is hoping to revive the visual, cinematic experience. She also wants to create a more immersive and continuous album environment that she says is fragmented by individual track sales. The album will be sold for $15.99 only in its entirety and as a video package until later this month when tracks will go on sale. And finally, Beyoncé says the unannounced and surprise release is an attempt to distribute directly to fans. The album was announced on her Facebook page, which alone has a reach of over 53 million Likes. The announcement post accrued over 110,000 Likes just in the early morning hours.  

The visual album has 14 tracks, with video accompaniments for each as well as bonus material. The album is being promoted by Apple with a total roadblock of the Web, iPad and iPhone iTunes store. It occupies every slot on the carousel.

According to SPIN.com, the “stealth album” approach to distribution has become popular in the last year, with artists like Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire all releasing new albums without advance fanfare. The Beyoncé album, however, is the first case where a major artist released an entire album of accompanying videos at once with the music and in an exclusive album-only digital package. The technique speaks to the power of digital channels like the artist's massive social media reach to communicate directly with the fan base.

While Apple's iTunes has become the major force in music distribution with over a 63% share, it is looking for hedges against falling market share. Amazon has made inroads, as have streaming music services Pandora and Spotify.

Beyoncé’s prattle about an album without fanfare and direct to the fans is dripping with unintended irony. There is nothing “grassroots” about this. One look at the videos suggests an enormous amount of investment and planning in the project. The visuals are as shiny, polished and well-cut as diamonds, which themselves are somehow frequently attached to the singer in the images. I admit to only having had time to sample the album so far, but Sgt. Pepper it is not. Beyoncé has an amazing voice that always seems to end up at the same wavering note. A few tracks in and you start wondering if she is parodying herself. But again -- not in her demo. If I understood the music and her appeal, her fans should start worrying.   

But there is something to be said for the ways in which apps, devices and their connectivity across screens to the TV are reasserting the power of the music video. This season, both Miley Cyrus' cringe-inducing “Wrecking Ball” and Katy Perry's more endearing “Roar” (and of course Robin Thicke's summer “Blurred Lines” travesty) underscore how music video can enrich both the music and the personality. At the very least, some of these videos have become public spectacles that revive an age-old music trope -- old farts like me complaining about the shameless exhibitionism of pop stars.

Devices have freed the medium from the desktop and TV and helped marry them to the music itself in a way never before possible. These pieces have been there working in parallel for a while. But the video revolution we are seeing in all aspects of digital content is also reorienting the music experience. Apple not only gets exclusivity here, but this visual album is also tailor-made for Apple TV and tablet viewing. In fact, the framing and image sizes in most of the video seems to me very much informed by device viewing. Close-ups abound, and a lot of macro-framing ensures that no detail will be lost even on a 4-inch screen. Its format anticipates music as a cross-platform experience that the listener can toss across devices and screens and engage on her own terms in different contexts. In one sense, it was intended as a holistic, immersive experience. But it can also be seen as a new kind of multimedia music dump that allows the listener/viewer to parse and redistribute the assets as she sees fit on her many screens.  

Here is hoping that some artists (or at least filmmakers) will grasp the opportunity in this to invigorate an industry that has failed abysmally at its core job -- creating new and interesting music. I may not be the audience any of these artists and labels aim to please, but I know an innovative note when I hear it. I was already outside the demo of Madonna, REM, Nirvana, Public Enemy, and Eminem when I first heard them over the eons, but their freshness and creativity were obvious. I have heard nothing in the last ten years that smelled of the new. I am sure there is a lot of innovation and creativity going on at the clubs and in niches. But I am interested in seeing it happen on the level of pop, where under the right conditions a shift in music can change the cultural environment. Maybe a music genre that marries video and music, where the multimedia needs to be executed across screens, will spark some new expression. Here’s hoping.    

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