If, as the self-defeating industry narrative continues to tell us, no one’s buying records anymore, they certainly compensated in 2013 by reading about them a hell of a lot.
Even as publications such as Billboard lamented the lowest weekly music sales recorded since the dawn of Soundscan tracking technology in 1991 this past summer, a barrage of high-concept marketing campaigns unleashed in support of some of the year’s biggest albums demonstrated that people are still willing to invest a great deal of time, energy, creativity and (in some cases) money in the increasingly futile pursuit of huge chart returns.
This tactic guaranteed that all but the most off-the-grid, backwoods-dwelling hermits amongst us could not escape knowing that, say, Miley Cyrus and the Arcade Fire had new releases on the way this fall. Despite hailing from ostensibly opposite worlds, both acts proved immensely skilled at generating endless headlines during the weeks before their albums officially dropped — former child star Cyrus through savvy tweaking (or “twerking”) of America’s conservative tendencies, Montreal indie-rockers Arcade Fire through elusive street-art code and secret salsa-bar shows performed under an assumed name — and, interestingly, wound up giving their records a crucial final push via Saturday Night Live appearances.
The stunt work paid off, to some extent. Both Cyrus’s Bangerz and the Arcade Fire’s Reflektor were rewarded with No. 1 Billboard debuts. The end result of all the foreplay, however, was that enthusiasm for the final products was somewhat drained by the time the final products finally rolled around. Hit albums used to wedge themselves into the popular consciousness for months on end — Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the No. 1 U.S. album of 1983 and 1984 — but these days they’re quickly usurped by the next Internet-baiting blockbuster in line.
Enter Beyoncé Knowles, for instance. At the end of a year characterized by breathlessly covered long-lead rollouts for Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (teased with much cryptic visual robo-iconography and also via Saturday Night Live), Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (announced via a classified ad in the New York Times), Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP (feted with a flying dress and a two-day, multimedia “ArtRave” in Brooklyn and, yes, another Saturday Night Live appearance), Beyoncé hubby Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail (instantly delivered free via smart-phone app to a million Samsung Galaxy owners) and even obscurantist electro-duo Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest (preceded by an insanely complicated virtual “scavenger hunt”), Knowles dropped her fifth album, Beyoncé — including 14 songs and 17 videos — without warning exclusively via iTunes on Dec. 13.
She thus catalyzed an instant, global firestorm of press marvelling at how she’d managed to release a record without resorting to an elaborate, elongated marketing campaign. Which, of course, was the campaign all along. And not a particularly original one since, despite the assertions of folks like @SnoopDogg that “my girl @Beyonce just changed d game” ( sic), Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine had already kind of beaten her to the punch with “sudden” online releases of their own.
Five days later, Beyoncé had shifted a million downloads, but — a minor tizzy over past promotional partner Target’s sour-grapes refusal to sell actual CD copies of the album in its stores notwithstanding — Knowles’ hold on the entertainment media was already challenged by Justin Bieber’s specious announcement to Los Angeles radio station Power 106 that he was about to retire from the music business.
It was, of course, no accident that the Bieb’s own new album, Journals, was due in stores a week later, a fact dutifully mentioned in every news-site hit that picked up on the gag. As my good friend and fellow critic Jon Dekel put it at the time: “So, to AUX, Gawker, ABC News, the Irish Independent, GQ and the rest of the media, Justin Bieber, his management and his record label thank you.”
I’ve no idea where this is going. The Biebers and Beyoncés of the world have always and will always rely on “event” marketing to capture mainstream interest, while “outsider”-ish commercial forces like the Arcade Fire, Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend might as well have some fun with their positions as unlikely pop commodities.
But if a strictly cultish commodity like Boards of Canada was willing to go to such ridiculously extreme lengths as requiring fans to, as The Guardian put it, “piece together a 36-digit code from six fragments embedded in radio broadcasts, Cartoon Network commercials, YouTube clips, online message boards, cryptic vinyl releases and a projection in the art gallery opposite London’s Rough Trade East” to unlock a website simply announcing details of Tomorrow’s Harvest, that tells you how hard everyone out there is now fighting for even the tiniest pieces of a dwindling pie. Scary business.