Category Archives: Music

No One Made Her Do This: The Trouble With Taylor Swift Tix

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When Taylor Swift debuted her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” it came with an intriguing link to “ticket info.” And so while I was listening to the single, I started digging around on Swift’s website looking for information about a tour that logically won’t be starting until sometime next year. And then I stumbled across this video, which explained why there was such an early mention of tickets.

At first, I presumed the video was simply a way for Taylor to announce that she was following the lead of other artists and using Ticketmaster Verified Fan, a new service designed to help combat ticket bots that keep real human beings from seeing shows at face value. But as the video continued beyond the explanation about the evils of ticket bots, the video takes a turn.

A “new way of buying tickets?” Perfect!

A “better way of buying tickets?” Wonderful!

A “fun way of buying tickets?” Uhhhh…what?

And then it’s made clear that “Taylor Swift Tix” is not just about making sure that bots don’t buy all of the tickets: instead, it allows you to login and “have the opportunity to participate in unique activities that advance your spot in line.” And these activities are not just fun games that help you kill the time: as evidenced in the video, they are inherently commercial ativities, including pre-ordering her album, buying merchandise from the record, and streaming the single’s lyric video.

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These are all things that the most devoted Taylor Swift fans would likely do anyway. But by “game-ifying” the concert ticket purchasing process by way of the transactional economies of the music industry, Swift is doing something she was fundamentally not “made” to do: while the move to a Verified system is a positive one, the other choices create clear incentives for her wealthiest fans, and sacrifice any type of egalitarian system in favor of a shrewd financial gambit that is 100% gross and 1000% genius.

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Erasing Herself From The Narrative: Taylor Swift and the absence of intimacy in the launch of Reputation

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 8.44.44 AMBeginning in 2010 with Speak Now, Taylor Swift album releases have been an “event”: in an age where prominent artists often struggle to clear 200,000 units in their opening weeks, Swift’s last three albums have all sold over one million copies in their first week. When Red released in 2012, it came with Papa John’s tie-ins and intense cross-branding with Target, the latter of which continued with the launch of 1989 two years later. Although Swift’s sound would change over the course of these records, gradually phasing out her country roots, the calculus of the album launches largely remained the same.

However, while these albums have undoubtedly been major music industry events supported by robust and organized marketing campaigns, they’ve never actually been positioned as such by Swift herself when they were first announced. Instead, they were debuted with a conscious effort to frame these albums as gifts to her fans as opposed to gifts to music retailers, utilizing the power of the internet to create intimacy between artists and their audience.

And so it was striking that when Swift’s most recent album cycle—delayed by a year—started this week, it began with the erasure of her social media history, a symbolic act reflective of the focus implied by the album’s title—Reputation—but also fundamentally at odds with the way she has launched three mega-successful albums in the past. And so even before she releases her first single, she’s announcing a marked departure over the way she understands her mediated presence, giving up the form of control she had previously but replacing it with another type of control that may mark a fundamental shift in the way she connects to her audience.

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Keep Your Money, I Got My Own: Lemonade and TIDAL Exclusivity

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As has long been expected after Beyoncé released “Formation” and announced a tour in support of a single song, the full album Lemonade debuted exclusively on TIDAL last night, alongside a visual album debut on HBO (which will also be exclusive to TIDAL after a 24-hour streaming window on HBO’s own services).

Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and (to a lesser extent) Rihanna’s ANTI before it, Lemonade’s TIDAL exclusivity fed into the internet’s running joke about the streaming music service, which has struggled to gain a foothold in a marketplace where Spotify was “first” and Apple Music benefits from pre-existing cultural saturation. TIDAL first attempted to differentiate itself based on its streaming quality, but has since focused on its exclusive content, helped by both the immediate social circle of founder Jay-Z and an artist-friendly policy that helps the service attract exclusives like Prince (whose absence from more established streaming services was a significant discourse following his death).

But TIDAL has struggled for a variety of reasons: those who already subscribe to other services (and who have built playlists, gotten used to interfaces, etc.) don’t see the logic of subscribing to more than one, given the relatively small number of exclusives (whereas TV has reached a point where this idea is more palatable); those who don’t subscribe to any services because they listen to music for free on YouTube are growing ever more resentful of paying more music in general; those who actually prefer to buy music resent the fact that exclusive albums like The Life Of Pablo and Lemonade are not (at least initially) available through outlets like iTunes or formats like Vinyl where they prefer to make those purchases. And while The Life Of Pablo did convince some people to subscribe, the album’s eventual release on Apple Music and Spotify (which you can use for free, with ads, unlike TIDAL) actually spurred talk of a class action lawsuit from those angry they’d been tricked into subscribing to the service.

That lawsuit foregrounds how the discursive construction of a TIDAL exclusive has yet to be wholly defined: it’s true that West and TIDAL were never clear whether the deal was long term (not that West is ever clear about anything), but I’m more interested in the way the reasons behind the choice can be articulated. Cynically, exclusive content exists to boost subscriptions, and to help the company’s bottom line when a significant number of the people who sign up for free trials forget to cancel their subscriptions or, in TIDAL’s ideal scenario, enjoy the service and continue to subscribe by choice. But West also used the time The Life of Pablo was streaming on TIDAL to continually tweak the album, the streaming window becoming an extension of the lengthy public tinkering with the album West performed on social media. TIDAL exclusives might be there to drive subscriptions, but they can also serve the artist-friendly brand, giving artists—or, at least artists who are Kanye West and intimately connected with the site’s founder—and their fans hope that it can become a platform for experimental modes of distribution.

The same does not apply to Lemonade: this, like ANTI, is a complete and finished album, and is similar to the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 that still launched exclusively, but to the industry standard iTunes Store. The logic there was the presence of the visual album, which required digital distribution, and which at that point precluded the use of streaming services: with both TIDAL and Apple using video—and soon television—as significant parts of their streaming platforms (with Apple the home to exclusive music video debuts like “Hotline Bling,” along with Taylor Swift’s 1989 concert film), Lemonade is an experience fit for the current streaming era, but not one that would have been impossible as a more traditional album release on iTunes. Therefore, it’s easy to read its placement on TIDAL as the most significant effort yet at driving subscriptions through exclusive content (with no clear window on if or when the album will be moving outside of TIDAL*).

* Well, there wasn’t a clear window. Hours later, The New York Times reports that Lemonade will arrive on iTunes at midnight tonight (Monday), per inside sources. Less clear, however, is whether or not the visual album will also be available for purchase as part of the bundle, or whether that content could remain on TIDAL exclusively, which seems like an option. The album, meanwhile, is also now available to purchase on TIDAL, as eventually happened with The Life of Pablo.

But in addition to thinking about the cynical business-oriented decision-making behind Lemonade’s exclusivity, there’s also a narrative of what is being sacrificed by making this choice. This likely includes, at least for the moment, any type of Billboard chart placement: TIDAL did not report its streaming numbers for The Life Of Pablo to Nielsen, meaning that despite obviously being the biggest album release of the year thus far, Beyoncé may not have the number one album in the country unless TIDAL (conveniently, which makes it possible) chooses to report those numbers this week. There are cynical business reasons for this (like hiding how few people are really streaming music on TIDAL, even with exclusives), but it also helps support the idea that TIDAL is doing things differently, and “challenging the status quo”: West eventually celebrated hitting No. 1 with The Life Of Pablo, so they’re not devaluing Billboard entirely, but he did so noting it was the first album to go Number One off of streaming.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.45.13 PMThat’s admittedly a bit misleading, given it was available for sale on TIDAL and West’s website and much—and potentially all, as I can’t get a handle on whether or not TIDAL included streaming numbers when the album went wider—of this likely came from Spotify and Apple Music, but it had the highest share of streaming of any No. 1, and Billboard reports noted the impressive feat of reaching “the pinnacle” even after being “available” on TIDAL for six weeks beforehand. It was West and TIDAL saying “We can offer the album on TIDAL, tinker with it for six weeks, and we’ll still go No. 1 when we release the album wider.” Regardless, it creates the potential for releasing an album on TIDAL as appearing “outside” of the traditional industry standard, albeit on a service that very much desperately wants to become an industry standard, and which is run by an artist who is just as much a business at the end of the day.

TIDAL will never be an outright counter-cultural service, but it’s a potential node of articulation as it works to convince the public that its exclusive content is eventually going to coalesce into a competitive advantage in the streaming marketplace. TIDAL is built for a world in which everyone subscribes to one music service or another, but we are not yet in this world, and whether or not the current marketplace can reasonably sustain three major services is still an open question. And while Lemonade cannot alone resolve that question, it certainly brings the conversation around “TIDAL Exclusives” further into the mainstream, and will generate a new wave of free trials they hope we forget about.

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Go Away, Justin: Carly Rae Jepsen, “I Really Like You,” and the Business of Bieber

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In January, Scooter Braun—the head of Schoolboy Records and manager to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others—gave us our first indication of how Carly Rae Jepsen would be following up “Call Me Maybe.”

True, she followed it up with a really great pop album that got unfairly ignored, but this is different. This is the follow up to a song of the summer, an earworm on a scale we rarely see from a “debut” artist (the quotation marks referring to her previous success in Canada, typically erased in her media narrative following her breakout success). And as Braun’s comments to Billboard indicate, there was pressure on Jepsen to recapture the success that started it all:

“Her new single is coming in March. I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of “Call Me Maybe.” And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”

That’s a lot of pressure for a new single, and I would argue that “I Really Like You” delivered as best it could: it’s not “Call Me Maybe,” but nothing can recreate the sense of discovery that came with that song. The narrative of an unsung artist being elevated to the status of sudden stardom through the help of some famous friends was not just about Justin Bieber/Selena Gomez lipdubs—it was that the song was something people discovered, and then shared, and then acted out themselves and shared again. It became, for lack of a better term, a “cultural phenomenon” in a way we rarely see, and in a way that makes creating something on the same scale nearly impossible.

“I Really Like You” succeeds in being catchy, and got the type of attention it deserved: lots of headlines debating whether or not it lives up to “Call Me Maybe,” with none of them being able to definitively claim the single lacks the same DNA musically. The issue is that there’s no way to recreate a cultural phenomenon, which is a big part of why my personal interest in Jepsen’s followup has more to do with the album—packed to the gills with interesting producers and collaborators—than with the single, which based on Braun’s comments is engineered to tap into a vein that I would argue was a product of a specific time and a specific set of circumstances.

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Come and Stream Your Songs?: The Jukebox Soundtrack in the YouTube/Spotify Era

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When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.

This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.

Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.

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2 Channels of Discovery: YouTube, Stardom, and 5 Seconds of Summer

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Around two years ago, America was meeting One Direction.

Pop music moves quickly: since then, One Direction has released three albums and a feature documentary/concert film, and is preparing for a U.S. stadium tour later this year. Building on my initial consideration of the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, the band and its fanbase have been a point of interest for me during this period. There was the time their fans threatened The Who on Twitter, the time they fought back against restrictive definitions of fandom reinforced by Ubisoft in a YouTube ad, and the time when Larry Stylinson shippers were shamed by promotions for a documentary airing in the U.K. And that’s only scratching the surface of a band and fanbase that remain at the epicenter of contemporary notions of stardom both on the Internet and within the music industry (where the band continues to function in a marginalized yet lucrative corner different from the “success” of the boy bands of my own youth).

Within this context, my brother Ryan—who, if you’re unaware, writes about music as I write about television—reached out for my thoughts on One Direction’s opener on their upcoming stadium tour, 5 Seconds of Summer, who are currently embarking on a similar American tour. His interest was in thinking about the function of genre, as the Australian foursome functions as what he calls “the next logical evolution of One Direction” through their direct engagement with rock music. Whereas One Direction’s expansion into the rock space was part of a gradual evolution (and a clear claim at legitimation relative to the bubblegum pop of their “youth”), 5 Seconds of Summer is starting from a place of playing their own instruments, writing their own songs, and resisting the label of “boy band” despite being a group of four teenagers with carefully cultivated haircuts.

The band raises many interesting questions, and considering the relationship between the two bands—who are not coincidentally managed by the same company—offers lots of broader considerations of the way we can understand “boy bands” as a construct that can cross generic lines in our contemporary musical moment. Musically, “She Looks So Perfect” looks set to make a run as a potential summer anthem, and the EP of the same name sold 143,000 copies in its debut (which is not far off from the 176,000 copies One Direction sold of their first LP in 2012).

But what I’m interested in exploring is what I discovered when I was prompted to consider the band more carefully. Searching for the band on Spotify turned up She Looks So Perfect and its four carefully curated pop songs, designed to break the band into the American market after previous success in the U.K. and their native Australia. However, what I found on YouTube was something entirely different, an extensive back catalog of original material and video content. The discovery has me thinking about the narrative of “discovery” as a form of branding, and the ways the band’s launch shows an interest in maintaining that narrative as the primary lens through which the band is to be viewed.

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It Came In Like a [Carefully Calculated] “Wrecking Ball”

Earlier this year, Billboard announced that it would be including YouTube streaming in its calculations for its Hot 100 chart. The same week, “Harlem Shake” became the number one song in America based on thirty seconds of it being used in thousands of viral videos.

Billboard chose to implement its new rules that week because it saw an opportunity to draw headlines, furthering their relevance while damaging their legitimacy (see the elder McNutt on that particular subject). They could have implemented them a week earlier, or a week later, but I’d bet money on them waiting for a moment to debut the metric when they could claim a song debuted at #1 because of their new streaming numbers that put Billboard on the pulse of how people are listening to music (Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo suggests it just happened to be that week, but I call shenanigans).

The impact of streaming has been less dramatic in the weeks since Harlem Shake’s five-week run atop the Billboard charts: One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” broke a Vevo record for most views in its first 24 hours and debuted at No. 2, but the single failed to gain traction and plummeted out of the Top 10 the following week (to No. 15). “Breaking the Vevo record” has become a new way for fans to support an artist, as Miley Cyrus set a record with “We Can’t Stop” (unseating Justin Bieber, who had unseated One Direction, who had unseated Justin Bieber), which was broken by One Direction, then tested—with some controversy—by Lady Gaga, before being claimed again by Cyrus with “Wrecking Ball.”

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