Let me start off by saying I love Spotify. I was an early adopter of it when it hit the States in 2011 and I haven’t downloaded an album on iTunes since – until now.
I ponied up the $17.99 for Beyoncé’s Lemonade because of one reason: she offered a heightened experience.
More on this in a minute.
Not to say I haven’t purchased music since 2011. On the contrary I’ve spent way MORE money on music because of Spotify. Just not for CDs and not digital downloads. I hate downloading music which clutters up my hard drive. My preferred way to listen to music is Spotify. It’s my new music player. And I don’t have a way to play CDs. But I love the vinyl listening experience. Whenever I discover an album on Spotify I love, I usually buy the vinyl. So many more of my senses are stimulated with vinyl – touch, smell. And mind. Is that a sense? I love reading liner notes and learning what went into the creation of the album. And it’s infuriating that no streaming (or download) service includes this information. Who’s the drummer on track 3? The producer on track 5? The songwriters on track 8? The trumpet player on track 2? The lyrics of, well, every track? Fuggetaboutit!
What we lost in the digital era was the full album listening experience. It has never been just about the music.
The music industry has been playing catch up to tech ever since Napster changed the rules of the game 15 years ago. The record execs had been laughing on the pitchers mound as they saw MP3 get up to the plate, walk to first, steal second, advance to third on a balk and finally waltz on home on a wild pitch while the execs tried to figure out who invited MP3 to the ballpark.
And that’s the problem. Tech has been driving society for twenty years, but the music industry has instead decided to fight against tech instead of working with tech to innovate and enhance.
Why we don’t have a fully immersive album listening experience is a failure on the music industry. The technology is there. But the music industry has been content selling, first CDs, then mp3s and now streaming. While using video solely as a promotional tactic. Not to mention other immersive possibilities. Unfortunately, though, with each new music listening platform advancement, the overall experience has diminished. At least CDs had liner notes, lyrics and fidelity. At least MP3s were tied to the album.
And now, streaming is just a remnant of a crumbling infrastructure where the architects are still trying to design and sell a 3 bedroom house when what the buyer actually wants is a spaceship.
But Beyoncé went a different way.
I could talk about the music and the story behind the album. I could talk about the risks she took collaborating with artists far outside her comfort zone. I could dissect the lyrics, the mix, the production and the vocals. But, by now, there’s little left to say that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam.
Lemonade, yes, stands on its own musically. But it’s not meant to just be a sonic experience.
The full piece of art that she envisioned as the artist (and her team executed as respected collaborators), is the film.
The album listening experience I had with Lemonade was unlike any other. Do I prefer this album over my top 10 favorite albums? No. Well not yet. But I had a heightened experience I so rarely get with simply audio albums.
Beyoncé was able to tell a more complete story with the film. The heartbreaking poetry by Warsan Shire set atop equally depressing and uplifting visuals of New Orleans, gave this work depth unparalleled by anything we’ve had in recent memory.
Sure, “Thriller” was a compelling short film around a great song. Pink Floyd’s The Wall had a similar structure as this. And Beyoncé’s last release had accompanying music videos with every song. But Lemonade is human. It’s honest and open. Provocative and jarring. Sexy and brash. It’s empowering, yet vulnerable. Disturbing, yet beautiful.
This is a true piece of art.
And, a kind of innovative art the music industry hasn’t had for a very long time.
Of course there have been plenty of music videos. Some albums even had a music video for every song released at the same time. Some are even tied together into a playlist (on YouTube) for the album order. Some are even more cohesive than that.
But very few have the thread that weaves through Lemonade, creating a perfect braid. A weave so culturally significant it requires no net.
Yes, I experienced this on a 55″ plasma TV, in the dark, with a pristine sound system. Those watching on an iPhone with a half inch speaker may find themselves underwhelmed.
But the experience is possible.
This piece of art is worth every penny of the $17.99 I paid.
This isn’t the same as charging $18 for a CD of 10 flops and one hit – like what used to be common practice in the pre-MP3 era.
People were so frustrated with that practice because the music industry stopped delivering true value!
People will pay for experiences. Millennials especially. A 2014 Harris Poll study found 78% of Millenials would rather spend money on experiences than things.
And people will pay for great art.
The problem is greatness is so rarely delivered.
Great music is important, sure. But it’s no longer enough. Frankly, it’s never been enough. But the system in place in decades past had at least encouraged more immersive experiences around full albums: liner notes, 12″ album covers, concerts, record stores. It was never just about the music.
Don’t try to top Beyoncé’s film. But you should try to bring something significant and different. Premiering on HBO, then Tidal and finally selling it on iTunes worked for Beyonce, it’s not the best course of action for you. Every artist is different. Every day is different. Your unique creation demands a unique release and a unique experience.
Maybe you go the Bandcamp subscription route and build up a community of $10/mo supporters JUST FOR YOU and you deliver them experiences unparalleled anywhere else. Maybe you organize worldwide listening party potlucks and have everyone live stream (and record) them and then you compile it in a documentary about the experience. Get 20 people per listening party, 100 parties, 2,000 people that had a magical first listening experience who will then evangelize for you – and now you have a built in story around your album. Maybe you create the new Wizard of Oz / Dark Side of the Moon experience. Maybe you create a guided meditation that pairs with your album. Regardless of what you do, it must be creative and different. Just creating music with no enhanced experience, no story and no additional visual component is not an option anymore.
Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m a musician. I’m an artist. Believe me, I get it. I know you’re infuriated by this. “But I’m a musician, Ari! I create music. I don’t want to worry about all the other BS.” Fine, then watch your peers surpass you. Surround yourself with other creative minds who you can collaborate with on creating a truly magical experience around your brilliant music.
A true visionary delivers tomorrow’s art. Not today’s. And definitely not yesterday’s.
What kind of artist do you want to be? One that creates art that’s “good enough” to earn a few bucks? Or one that creates art that challenges the status quo and questions the current confines of the medium in which you choose to create? Art that will live on and be remembered for generations.
No, you don’t need $1.35 million (Lemonade’s estimated budget) to create great art. You just need to challenge yourself to move the needle – even if ever so slightly.