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The internet took the album away, and now it's giving it back

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How the surprise release led to an album renaissance

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

For decades, the album was the primary form in which music was delivered to the masses. But ever since Apple introduced iTunes back in 2001, the album has been on the decline. When online piracy ravaged the music industry, music revenues went from $14.7 billion in 1999 to $7.7 billion in 2009, according to the RIAA. While the $0.99 single kept some money flowing into the industry, it changed the way we experienced music. Singles are cheaper to buy and quicker to make than a full album, and that shifted the mindset of labels and artists toward focusing on making more radio-friendly songs instead of focusing on complete albums.

But now we’re in the middle of another shift — digital music sales declined 13 percent in 2014 while streaming services (which pay artists less) became the go-to method for listening to music. And surprisingly, with that change, the album is making a comeback.

the internet has paved the way for the return of the album

In the last year there’s been a noticeable wave of top-tier artists producing great, cohesive album-length projects, rather than just chasing singles. Artists like St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift all put out albums in 2014 that were all conceptual in their own way. The entirety of the album was the focus, not just a song here or there. It’s a noticeable shift from the 2006–2012 era, with its Soulja Boy-esque novelty rappers, one-hit-megawonders like Carly Rae Jepsen, and pop stars following the two singles / 10 fillers formula. Once believed to be the harbinger of death for the music industry, the internet has paved the way for the return of the album. A few years ago this wouldn’t have been possible, but thanks to Beyoncé, the power of social media, and, surprisingly, iTunes, the music industry’s favorite format is returning to the forefront.

Beyoncé’s surprise release changed the music industry more than any other album in the last 10 years, but not in the way you may think. When she released her eponymous album at the end of 2013, the reaction was unparalleled. There had been surprise releases before, but none of this magnitude. There were no leaks. No physical copies. No marketing budget. No singles. No streaming. If you wanted to hear one song you had to buy them all. And yet Beyoncé still sold over 800,000 units in 72 hours on iTunes. It was a ***Flawless rollout and an unprecedented risk for a superstar artist in the prime of her career to take.

Beyoncé put the focus back on the full-length album like it hadn’t been in years

There wasn’t a single appearance on a late-night talk show to belt out a single, no billboards or posters, no interviews touting her recording process, nothing. It was a new blueprint for musicians, one that was so intriguing it was studied by Harvard Business School. The classic album rollout protocol — at least two singles, a huge promotional tour, and finally the album release — was turned on its head. Beyoncé put the focus back on the full-length album like it hadn’t been in years. And more importantly it showed that people are still willing to pay $15.99 for a full-length album, especially if they’re already invested in the artist.

That blueprint has been successfully repeated recently by Drake and Kendrick Lamar, with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late selling 495,000 copies in three days, and To Pimp a Butterfly moving 325,000 units in its first week. Kanye West has hinted that his next album won’t be announced before it’s released. It’s a brilliant move, and one that more artists will surely take part in. Why pay for marketing when you can let the fans take care of it?

surprise releases aren't going anywhere

Musical artists have arguably capitalized on social media more than anyone else, and their massive followings underscore that. Four out of the five most followed people on Twitter are musicians. That reach enables artists to essentially cultivate online street teams that can spread the word of a new album better than any marketing budget. It’s hard to create a moment. That time where seemingly everyone is reacting to the same album at the same time. The combination of a surprise release and fans touting an album all over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can create moments that no marketing budget can manufacture.

The potential to grab the interest of the internet and benefit profoundly from a positive response has incentivized artists to play the long game work toward making a great album. I’ll never forget where I was when Beyoncé was dropped on the world and the internet damn near broke. Even the greatest single can’t replicate those moments. The world is different now. But an organic response from fans can create those moments, and that’s why surprise releases won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

And a surprise, leak-free release is much easier to pull off without brick-and-mortar retailers. It’s slightly ironic that the entity that killed the album — iTunes — will likely be a main factor in its revival. Apple is going after more exclusive album releases like the deal it had for Beyoncé, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it got more of them. In reality, only a few artists can withstand an album leak and still do major numbers in the first week, making security the most important factor after an album is finished. Not everyone is Taylor Swift — an album leak can and does negatively impact dozens of artists every year. But unlike every album that heads to retail stores on the initial release date, albums released on iTunes first simply don’t leak. And while other platforms like Google Play Music and Amazon Prime Music have similar track records when it comes to securing an album, they don’t have the reach of iTunes, putting Apple in prime position to make those exclusive deals happen.

Apple may end up even more powerful than it already is in the music industry

It’s amazing that Apple may end up even more powerful than it already is in the music industry. A surprise release doesn’t happen if a leak occurs, and with Apple reportedly planning to release a new streaming service (a paid version without a free tier, which labels hate) in the coming months, artists and labels may be more willing to launch their albums with one partner who has the reach and ability to produce an error-free release.

If artists continue to approach their albums as cohesive projects and leverage their fan base to create moments around their release, it may blunt the blow that streaming services are delivering to the revenue of digital music sales. Moreover, we have proof that people will pay for full albums in those moments. The method isn’t foolproof, and it’s possible only artists who have substantial social media followings will be able to execute the surprise album perfectly. But good music is good music. Now we just need more of it.