Beyonce ignited a virtual firestorm earlier this month when she released her eponymous album on iTunes with no single, no marketing, and no physical counterpart. It hasn’t left the news since.
The album became the fastest-selling release in iTunes’ history. The physical disc was promptly banned from Target — not that it matters — and Amazon. The spontaneous release has been called a model for journalism’s future and led to the best non sequitur of the year.
This is hardly the first album to see a digital release before the physical disc hits store shelves. Independent artists have been releasing their albums in this way for years, and some are never able to release a physical version of their albums at all.
But this is perhaps the first major release from a mainstream artist who decided to use all of the tools available to modern musicians in releasing her latest album. The album’s only pre-release marketing was done on Instagram. It was available exclusively through iTunes for a week. It debuted with music videos for each song, and bundled them with the album itself.
Put another way: Most artists release the digital equivalent to a vinyl record when they make their music available online. Beyonce instead created and sold an album that was digital-first and physical-second.
The album does eschew one hallmark of our digital music futures — streaming music services like Rdio and Spotify. Instead of making the album available on these services at the same time as the iTunes release or launching them alongside the physical discs, only two songs are currently available to stream.
There are plenty of reasons for an artist to choose to avoid streaming music services. Perhaps their label believes that making the album available to stream will hurt its sales, despite all evidence to the contrary. Maybe the labels are worried about piracy, even though making an album available to stream actually reduces the rate at which consumers steal digital content. Or maybe the artists themselves are worried about these services’ arcane and widely-derided revenue structure, which don’t yet match direct album sales.
But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re rapidly moving to a culture that values access over ownership. We stream our movies via Netflix. We read a few books each month through Oyster and Entitle. We watch television shows on Hulu. Resisting this shift is like insisting that cassette tapes are going to make a comeback.
Eventually someone will drop an album as noteworthy as Beyonce’s latest on one of these streaming services before they release it on iTunes, ship the physical discs to retailers, or make singles available to radio stations. Smaller artists have already gone Spotify-first; it’s only a matter of time before one of the larger artists does too.
It will probably take a while for that to happen. Hell, it took over a decade for something this noteworthy to happen on iTunes, and it has the added benefit of being pre-installed on many devices. The only question is how long it takes for these streaming services to have their Beyonce moment.
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