Beyoncé's new album been out for mere hours, and harried music writers are only just getting around to recording feverish first impressions and wondering if it's too late to revise their Pazz & Jop ballots:
Beyonce laughs at your completed Pazz & Jop ballot— SimonVozick-Levinson (@simonwilliam) December 13, 2013
But in the high-stakes surprise-album-drop sweepstakes of 2013, Bey has already won. Even if the self-titled album was nothing more than 14 silent renditions of John Cage's 4′33″ (by the way: it's not), the singer has already presided over the smoothest and sneakiest surprise release to come from a major artist this year.
First, some history.
The Surprise Album Release (or "SAR," not to be confused with SARS) is, naturally, a product of the digital age. (It'd have been a bit of a technological challenge for, say, Michael Jackson to shout "Ahoy, here's my new album Bad!" in 1987 and expect brick-and-mortar stores to keep up with the timing.)
You can loosely trace the trend back to the fall of 2007, when Radiohead self-released In Rainbows online, invented the pay-what-you-want model, and, in brief, changed the game forevermore. It's a gamble, of course, and one that only works if you're a big enough deal that your album announcement is, by extension, also a Big Freaking Deal and thus inherently newsy.
Beyoncé, naturally, jumps that hurdle. Which is to say, she can safely scoff at conventional album promotion:
Beyonce's publishing team: how are we going to promote your new album Beyonce: i'm Beyonce Beyonce's publishing team: true— Chanel. (@_BON_QUI_QUI_) December 13, 2013
This timing is both confounding—and impeccable.
Last week, we noted that December has become an album release dead zone, thanks to earlier and earlier end-of-year list roll-outs.
So it's a bit thrilling to see Beyoncé thumbing her nose at the whole charade. Already published your top 10 list? Too bad. It doesn't feel like a last-ditch plea for end-of-year recognition. Nor does it feel like straight-up trolling. Given the total lack of advance hype or warning—the album became available at the same moment it was announced!—it almost feels like a gift, a surprise. And it's almost Christmas!
this was an incredible move for bey in part because it feels like a caring gesture in the way that a gift or a surprise party does— l b (@lil_mermaid) December 13, 2013
Beyoncé broke the Internet, but she didn't literally, you know, break the Internet.
Which is to say, her album release fared quite a bit better than My Bloody Valentine's surprise release of m b v, the lauded shoegaze group's first album in more than two decades, last winter. When MBV self-released the album at midnight on a Saturday night, after dozens of broken promises, their website promptly crashed from the massive traffic only to recover eventually the next day. (Please: save your healthcare.gov jokes.)
Beyoncé, by contrast, made the album instantly available on iTunes, which was well primed to handle the massive demand. The only problem is, now you can't find that $10 iTunes gift card your grandma gave you for your birthday.
Beyoncé hasn't overstayed her welcome or pissed off her fans with sponsored publicity stunts.
In other words: Queen Bey has avoided the traps that befell two of 2013's biggest surprise album releases—one of which was her husband's.
The first big one came from Justin Timberlake. Well, two albums, really, after a sudden return in January. But neither of the LPs were really surprises by the time they arrived. By the time The 20/20 Experience hit stores in March, JT fatigue had already set in hard following a week-long stint on Jimmy Fallon. And when the far inferior 2 of 2 came in September, critical consensus made it doubly clear: everyone had gotten sick of Justin Timberlake. So props to Beyoncé: no one got sick of this press surge before the album release, because there quite literally was no press.
Nor have there been any divisive corporate sponsorships (except, okay, iTunes) or goofy publicity stunts of the sort that bogged down Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail and stole attention away from the music. In that regard: congrats, Bey. You have formally one-upped your husband.
Beyoncé has made paying for music cool again. Sort of.
Really, she hasn't given her fans a choice. The album's available exclusively on iTunes, for $15, and not available for free streaming on Spotify or elsewhere. And as Slate's Matthew Yglesias notes, it's an effective impulse purchase: everyone wants the album now, because everyone's tweeting and Facebooking and smoke-signalling about it now.
Oh, and it's self-titled—a serial music pirate's worst enemy, when it comes to web searching. In brief, a whole lot of twenty-somethings are paying to download music for the first time in a while right about now.