Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Few Artists Have Experimented in Notable Ways With the Unique Characteristics of Digital Music Distribution

Cherie Hu, Complex:

Streaming hypothetically throws this nightmare out the window. Artists no longer need to commit to manufacturing tens of thousands of physical records upfront and hope that they all sell. After all, in a streaming environment, songs and albums are fundamentally just a combination of 0s and 1s that algorithms analyze and spit out as sound, to fans who pay a monthly subscription for access. Not only is the concept of “inventory” irrelevant in this world of infinite shelf space, but the cost of experimentation and modification around artwork, track order, track content, and other features of digital releases also plunges dramatically as a result.

[Kanye West] was the first celebrity to take advantage of this new, fluid technological landscape with The Life of Pablo, which first came out on Valentine’s Day in 2016, but ultimately had multiple versions released to the public. The rapper first premiered a nine-track version of the album four years ago today (February 11, 2016) at his Madison Square Garden fashion show, then made a different, 18-track version available for sale briefly on Tidal with slightly modified lyrics—before taking it down and making a separate “partial version” available to stream as a Tidal exclusive. By the time TLOP was made available on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services nearly two months later, there were yet more changes, most notably some new celebrity features on “Wolves” (which were leaked a few weeks prior anyway).

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Yet, despite this media chatter and fan frenzy, virtually no artists have followed suit in creating a truly dynamic album with content updated over time on streaming platforms. Instead, it’s mostly the same old process as artists opt to release a static album, no modification needed or planned.

Digital music distribution has had a couple of major effects on the way music is listened to: the surprise album drop, something that was nearly impossible when hundreds of thousands of copies of a record needed to be shipped to stores; and increasingly lengthy albums, which are incentivized by the way streaming services calculate popularity and royalty payments.

But few artists seem to be exploiting the unique characteristics of the format in a deliberate way. West’s multi-version album is one; back in 2008, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Slip” featured different covers for each track. But I haven’t seen many other popular artists treat streaming and internet-purchased music as anything more than a slightly different way of obtaining a series of songs.