It’s time to destroy the outdated big-label model for new album releases
On January 21st of this year, a mysterious and infectious pop song leaked online and quickly spread across the internet. It was Lady Gaga’s apparent new single, “Stupid Love,” intended to launch the promotion an upcoming album by the megastar, and as soon as it leaked online, fans rushed to get a listen wherever they could. It spread like wildfire, and early signs indicated it was a return to form for Gaga. Weeks later, Gaga and her label (Interscope) have been largely silent, minus one vague post from Gaga on Twitter — and they have yet to announce an official release date.
Then, on January 29th, Dua Lipa and her label (Warner) finally announced the release of her highly anticipated sophomore album, “Future Nostalgia.” The release date: More than two months in the future, April 3rd. The album’s lead single, “Don’t Start Now,” was released to the world on October 31, 2019, which means the full-length album is scheduled to drop a whopping five months after the release of the lead single (Nevermind the fact that Lipa’s self-titled first album came out two-and-a-half years ago, and fans are thirsty for new material).
The point? It’s 2020, and we’re stuck living in the past. Stuck living in a world where the big-label machine sets a stacked calendar of release dates with months of promotion and “anticipation” built in, and expects the world to tag along. We’re supposed to sit here, playing a stream of promo singles and half-baked remixes, content in the knowledge that an album like “Future Nostalgia,” which has most likely already been recorded, mixed, and finalized, won’t be available to consumers for another two months. What is the actual benefit of delaying the inevitable? The album is already highly anticipated enough… Is another two months of waiting really going to make a difference? It might be crucial in the eyes of the label, but to listeners it’s just nonsense.
This model might have made sense 30 years ago, when positive buzz was difficult (and slow) to come by, but it doesn’t work in today’s world. The world has moved on, and audiences have moved on with it, while the industry clings desperately to an outdated model. Fans are impatient; when every song and album known to man is available on-demand through Spotify and Apple Music, when piracy and streaming have destroyed the market for actually owning full-priced physical and digital media… why wait? Why the constant baiting? In the case of “Future Nostalgia,” fans have already been waiting for any news since Halloween; the official album release should already have been announced weeks ago.
You no longer need to count on IRL word of mouth, or the painstakingly slow uptake of radio stations scattered across a huge geographic area, in order to build buzz for an artist or their material. Sure, back in the days of physical media, snail mail and independently owned radio stations and record stores, it took a while for word to spread. Artists and labels spent months building momentum and gathering a fan base because they had no other choice; things just progressed more slowly back before artists could self-release on Soundcloud and distribute their own material in a flash. We live in the digital age now, and the internet will take care of generating buzz for you and disseminating it across the entire globe.
It’s been six years since Beyoncé suddenly and without warning dropped her self-titled masterpiece “Beyoncé,” which means it’s been six years since people began wondering, “Did Beyoncé just change the publishing game?” The short answer is no. It was a huge step forward for the industry that only managed to nudge a handful of people into changing the game. Some artists have followed suit and surprise-released their new material, only to be called copycats, while a few others took the hint that expectations have changed in favor of shorter promo periods. The ironic part is that in spite of the industry’s stasis, Beyoncé just keeps innovating; after “Beyoncé” she released the just-as-masterful visual album “Lemonade,” which sent shockwaves through the cultural consciousness with both its message and its visual presentation. She’s sending a message loud and clear: Step up or your game or get left behind.
Gaga and Lipa’s current release schedules make it clear that the biggest of the big labels are still clinging to their meticulously planned schedules, refusing to meet their audiences halfway — and they’re in danger of getting left behind as artists like Beyoncé innovate in circles around them.
That’s not to say that this is the fault of Lady Gaga or Dua Lipa, and it certainly isn’t to say that Beyoncé is more of an artist than either of these women; it simply illustrates the way this industry works. Gaga and Lipa are talented artists and powerful, independent women in their own right — but they’re women who are part of the big-label machine, largely run by men, that just continues to churn and churn with more of an eye for profits and exhaustive old-media marketing campaigns than for cutting-edge innovation in the face of audience’s dwindling attention spans. You might even be able to make the argument that Gaga herself is constrained by her own artistry; as an outside-the-box Artist with a capital A, her silence in the face of the “Stupid Love” leaks could be stubbornness that her creative process has been intruded upon. But Beyoncé runs her own label and makes her own rules. She’s playing no one’s game, while Gaga and Lipa are constrained by Interscope and Warner, respectively. At the end of the day, the labels call the shots and determine the timing of their releases.
And you could certainly make the argument that sexism is at play in the machinations of the music industry. Male artists don’t seem constrained by the same lengthy development and promotion periods that women are. Look at Justin Bieber, who also lives on a big label (Def Jam), but who just announced on January 28th that his new album’s release is scheduled for February 14th. In the span of just a few weeks, one of the biggest pop stars in the world is staging his comeback with two new singles and a full album. Weeks, not months. When time is of the essence, and there’s always something new to consume, why wait?
In today’s digital world of instant gratification, stretching the prerelease promotion into a half-year-long affair, or staying silent as music leaks onto the internet, isn’t building buzz; it’s encouraging piracy, it’s doing nothing to stem the anemic free tiers offered by streaming platforms, and it leaves users stuck with a disappointing diet of cheap, unprofitable singles instead of putting the focus where it belongs: on an artist’s body of work.