The significance of a release date in the music world has been shifting almost constantly since music entered the digital realm, but it seems that the industry has only recently started to try and accommodate. With the dawn of illegal downloading and Internet leaks, the concept of the rigid release date, toward which all marketing plans are based, has become weaker and weaker. Fans build up excitement toward an impending early leak date instead–a practical inevitability in this online business. Besides the obvious surprise digital release date that Radiohead brought into relevance with “In Rainbows” in 2007 (and Beyoncé used successfully with her last record), not enough moves have been made to change the industry standard of release dates.
The last month, however, has provided an interesting cross section of what could become major changes in the handling of release dates. March 16 saw the early release of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and Modest Mouse’s “Strangers To Ourselves”—the former unleashed 11 days before the expected release date and the latter just one day.
These are just small, minute moves in the grand scheme of the business, however they could (and hopefully will) anticipate a wider wave of changes to come in the release standards for the music industry. Perhaps these changes could include a more widespread utilization of the early release method, or maybe even an adoption of an explicitly digital release date much closer to a record’s announcement, with physical products to follow. These kinds of changes could perhaps allow labels and artists to combat with leaks and illegal downloading, or even use them to their advantage.
Although this may seem like a moot issue in the age of Internet all-access, this breaking of strict release day standards could actually anticipate a larger shift toward a less stringent time table of record releases. Both records, hotly anticipated, are major label releases—”Strangers To Ourselves” issued through Epic Records and “To Pimp A Butterfly” distributed by Interscope Records. This isn’t the same thing as a small indie label putting up downloads in response to early album leaks (a strategy labels like Run For Cover and Topshelf have adopted over the past few years to much success). This is an instance fully in the public eye. After all, it’s not an easy task to ignore a record that, according to The Wall Street Journal, broke Spotify’s record for most full album streams in one day, like Kendrick Lamar’s did. And, even if the act isn’t as popular, it’s also a large move for an independent scene staple like Modest Mouse, dropping an album eight years removed from its last. Major releases are getting this kind of treatment from big labels who perhaps have the most money at stake. These moves, however slight they may seem, can mean a lot when executed by some of the biggest powers in the industry.
This defiance of projected release dates showcases a hint of newfound flexibility in major label activity—a kind of flexibility that indie labels have been adopting since Napster dragged the industry, kicking and screaming, onto the web. The adaptation here is essential. After “Beyoncé” tested the waters of major surprise release in late 2013 to massive success, it seemed to finally become clear to the few powerhouse labels left that the Internet is now the central home of music distribution. The masses consume music online, legally or illegally and physical products available in stores on a specific date are niche products. Asthmatic Kitty Records reflected this sentiment perfectly in the wake of the leaking of Sufjan Steven’s latest record “Carrie & Lowell.”
“The people who download music are a) super enthused and just want to listen early and will support it one way or the other, or b) never would have bought it in the first place, in which case it didn’t matter anyway,” according to a statement released by Asthmatic Kitty.
The people who buy music are going to buy it whenever it’s possible to do so. They’re going to listen whenever it’s available, legally or otherwise. In order for the industry to successfully adapt to the modern climate of music consumption, the release plans have to bring a sort of flexibility into play so that these two occasions are as close to each other as possible. With the recent instances of official early release, it seems as if the majors and the business as a whole are finally starting to get that on a massive scale. Whatever happens, it’s great to finally see the industry making bolder moves after a surprisingly long era of unnecessarily slow transition in the wake of the digitization of music consumption.
Jordan Walsh can be reached at Jordan.firstname.lastname@example.org.