What the Surprise Album Says About Music Right Now
First there came Beyoncé, with her scintillating release of "Formation" and the spew of Internet speculation leading up to Lemonade. Kendrick Lamar followed suit a few weeks later, casually dropping off eight unmastered tracks at the Internet's doorstep as if they were a box of old clothes for Goodwill. The wave of unexpected releases continued: Drake made good on his January promise and gave us Views, James Blake debuted the sparse and melancholy The Colour in Anything mere hours after its initial announcement, and Radiohead, amidst a social-media blackout, released A Moon Shaped Pool.
And thus, these artists cemented the musical catchphrase of the year: surprise album fatigue.
The surprise album is a 21st-century phenomenon, but one certainly not confined to 2016. Beyoncé and Radiohead have perfected the art of the secret album drop, the former with her gravity-defying self-titled release at the end of 2013, and the latter with both In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. There are, of course, many other examples of artists bucking the studio-release standard, capitalizing on social-media echo chambers to amplify their albums' signal in an atmosphere crowded out with so much noise. But the cost and consequences of these hyperspeed music blitzes are still being calculated. Do surprise albums actually make more money than traditional releases? How are they changing the music landscape? Are we over them?
While some laud the advent of the surprise album as a vehicle through which to engage in communal listening, others are not so sanguine. "Following pop music right now feels like having accidentally overheard a conversation about your surprise party but not knowing when or where it will take place," writes Lindsay Zoladz. "You walk into every room half-expecting to be bombarded with balloons. It’s exhausting." What once was a riveting treat has now become a source of paranoid anxiety, not merely for fans obsessively refreshing the iTunes store, but for critics as well. As Amanda Petrusich writes in "The Music Critic in the Age of the Insta-Release," the pace of music criticism "feels plainly insane." A critic, instead of being a thoughtful curator of an increasingly flooded music market, instead becomes a slave to the scoop, desperately trying to file the first Internet hot take before the moment is passed and forgotten about.
Perhaps the surprise album is at its most interesting when it (supposedly) fails. Rihanna's Anti serves as one notable example: After months of delays, the streaming service Tidal unexpectedly sold the album for 30 minutes before removing it from its store entirely, only to make it available for streaming again later in the day. While the age of surprise releases should breed a healthy skepticism of any clickbait controversy, the haphazard Anti release was widely seen as a mistake, one that was largely Tidal's blunder. Alternately, Kanye West's release of what ultimately became known as The Life of Pablo emerged as a rudderless act of performance art. After surveying listeners for a title (but ultimately ignoring them) and teasing the album mercilessly amidst a barrage of offensive tweets, West culminated the creative exercise with what one critic described as a "rambling, chaotic, deeply underwhelming, impressively audacious" Madison Square Garden live premiere. A month later, West did a significant overhaul of the album, inspiring confusion rather than delight. The Life of Pablo certainly came as a surprise, but perhaps not the one that West intended.
Discussing the aesthetic consequences of the surprise album elides a more salient issue: money. Much digital ink has been spilled about eye-popping album sales and streaming numbers of 2016, but most critics fail to recognize that artists at the top of the contemporary sales heap, such as Adele or Taylor Swift, are the ones who eschew streaming and follow a more parochial release model. Chart-topping artists might not be cashing in on the element of surprise as much as they are cashing in on their already sizable stockpile of fame. Musicians who double as global celebrities are the 1 percent of the 1 percent; the tabloid attention they attract allows them to drop albums at a moment's notice and still generate revenue. Most small- to medium-size artists can't afford such a privilege. These members of the musical proletariat must rely on traditional promotional routes in order to garner critical attention, and with them, must navigate the brutal economics of a 21st-century music market that awards its top performers and few others.
The surprise album, then, is merely a symptom of a larger disease. Musicians who resort to guerrilla tactics to catch our attention are only navigating a media landscape where attention is the benchmark of success. Unexpected releases from high-profile pop stars may attract eyeballs, and surprise exclusives to various platforms might boost revenue. But they still exist within a framework of long-shrinking profits for not just music but all creative production in the age of the Internet. Celebrity and surprise are not enough to sustain a vibrant, innovative music community where creative work is given the careful attention and compensation it deserves. These surprises might be profitable now, but when their charm fades with time, we'll still be left with an industry that inspired such desperate machinations in the first place.