2013: The year of the overhyped album blockbuster
The hottest musical trend in 2013 didn't have anything to do with music. Well, at least not with the world's biggest-selling artists and their major label henchmen -- the top one percent of the music biz, if you will. No, for them -- be it Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, or Lady Gaga's ArtPOP extravaganza -- 2013 was all about creating a spectacle and hyping up every would-be blockbuster as a massive, can't-miss event.
But as far as trends go, the big-budget album launch wasn't a particularly good one. More often than not, these "events" were poor placeholders for albums that underwhelmed musically. And, more troublingly, they were the spawns of a spend-because-you-can mentality that priced most players right out of the game. In short, it ain't exactly good for the industry.
As far as the music itself, 2013 was a bit lean for albums compared to recent years, especially at the top. (Singles were, of course, another story.) There were plenty of very good albums released, and a few that achieved something resembling consensus -- records like Yeezus, Modern Vampires of the City, and Random Access in particular -- but there wasn't much that could truly be considered great. There were no instant classics like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or even surprise opuses like Good Kid, M.A.A.d. City, although there were plenty of promising debuts and some solid if not-quite-career-defining efforts from veterans.
With that in mind, it maybe shouldn't be a surprise that elaborate album launches became so commonplace -- either to help fill the void, or as evidence of wandering creative minds. Jay Z was as good an example as any, not only launching Magna Carta with a flop of a mobile app funded by big Samsung dollars but also with an hours-long performance-art piece for "Picasso Baby." (It was billed as a stand-alone piece, but the promotional angle remained thinly veiled.) That Hova seemed more interested in his art collection than in rapping on the bored-sounding album wasn't too surprising.
There were plenty of others, too: Katy Perry dispatched a giant golden semi-truck as rolling billboard for her album Prism (which, in a twist of supreme schadenfreude, got hit by a drunk driver); Daft Punk threw a monster party in Australia, all of places, which they might not have even attended themselves; and Lady Gaga hosted the world's biggest vanity project via her artRave party, complete with enormous statues of herself and a series of inventions that ran headlong into the realm of self-parody. That it strained to affect an air of high art seriousness by capitalizing on artists like Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic hardly lent it any more credibility.
All of which was fun, in its way. For the nostalgia-minded of us, any one of these events could be considered a throwback to a time when everyone shared in the same musical experiences. And, hell, who doesn't want a diversion every now and then, or just a plain good party? Except that it winds up being a lot less memorable when the pretense of the party -- i.e. the album -- isn't itself very memorable. How many of us will remember where we were when Gaga first flew 10 feet with her jet pack?
For the labels and whatever other corporations who helped fund said pet projects, these glitzy album launches were an easy way to goose profits, but it was an artificial boost. In each case, they were leveraging immensely popular and profitable artists, ones who were bound to bring in sales regardless of the quality of the content. At a time when budgets are getting tighter and tighter in the industry, any bit of publicity must be worth the trouble -- except that these spectacles do nothing to solve the underlying problems of shrinking revenue. By late in the year, it looked like nothing more than a short-sighted spending war.
There were some exceptions to the rule that popped up along the way. Kanye West may have had the most inspired idea of the lot, projecting video of himself on buildings around the world to herald the release of "New Slaves." It was an act worthy of an art installation, filtered through all the egomania we've come to expect from him. Not coincidentally, it was for an album that was legitimately good.
Then, just last week, Beyonce sprung her self-titled sneak attack on the unsuspecting world, disguised as something like a counterpoint to the mega-gala trend: arriving without any prior promotion, having somehow been kept a secret, Beyonce was accompanied by videos of all 14 of its songs and would only be available (at least initially) on iTunes. As far as events go, this was the anti-"event" event, with the whole focus of the spectacle placed solely on the album itself.
It was a neat trick. Yet it wasn't quite the game-changer it might at first appear to be; only a superstar like Bey, with the backing of a multinational corporation like Columbia, could safely pull a stunt like this. She has the leverage to create demand for herself, and then force the public to access her music on her terms. The other "99%?" In their dreams. A coup it may have been, but it was still a rich person's game.
Not that it needs to be this way. There are plenty of "working class" musicians who have shown a real knack for promoting their work in creative ways and, what's more, engaging their audiences in the process. Among locals, Jeremy Messersmith has long been an expert at this, from crowd-sourcing his fans for input on his records to his unique supper club tours. Low, meanwhile, placed their art squarely ahead of self promotion with their now-infamous performance at Rock the Garden last June -- yet it also spurred on healthy debate about the merits of their music in the process.
Others farther afield have done even more to push the envelope: Dan Deacon developed an app that his fans could download at his live shows, building an impromptu network that added a whole new dimensions to the concertgoing experience. On the other end of the spectrum, controversial rap-punks Death Grips deliberately no-showed a concert in Chicago last summer, a decision that was as much middle finger as artistic statement.
Each of these artists operate on essentially DIY budgets; they may not have the means to do more than a traditional album push, or maybe an "exclusive online debut," but they're resourceful enough to think outside the box. Just imagine what they might do given a fraction of the resources of the majors.
In that lens, the superstar spectacles look more and more like extravagant wastes of money -- at the least, not exactly the sorts of things you'd call innovative. Let's just hope that the wastefulness that ran so rampant in 2013 will be but a passing fad, rather than a symptom of a larger, and likely unsustainable, trend.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.