Last week, Kendrick Lamar surprised us all by dropping his third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly. This came only days after he announced its March 23 release date. And while it’s being called an error on his label’s part, it only further solidifies the fact that the release date is dead.
In the age of the Internet, labels have struggled to adapt to the way people listen to music. The CD died its first death when Napster was born in 1999, and the birth of iTunes in 2003 finalized this transition into the digital music world. But Napster had changed something; people no longer believed they needed to pay for music. Though iTunes offered songs for only 99 cents, the Internet offered them for free. Doors had opened that could not be shut.
Today we have streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube, which offer royalties to artists and require minimal payment from us. Still, album sales are down, so record labels try to combat the allure of the Internet. For instance, albums will inevitably leak. If your favorite artist has something out soon, you can probably hear it a couple days before somewhere in the crevices of the Internet. Artists know this and are adopting new promotional methods to prevent this, for example, by not using any promotional methods.
It began with Beyoncé and her 2013 self-titled project; arguably the most influential artist of our generation ignored all album release precedent and dropped a full audio-visual album without any prior promotion. The move was monumental. I mean, everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard “Drunk in Love.” This wasn’t the only time an artist had disregarded release conventions: Frank Ocean dropped CHANNEL Orange on iTunes a week early, Radiohead barely gave us any notice before King of Limbs, Death Grips uploaded Government Plates to the Internet with no warning. But something changed on that fateful December night when Beyoncé debuted.
Since then, fellow artists, too, have abandoned the traditional album rollout. Most recently, Drake dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late without any announcement, the title itself a potential comment on the surprise release. And who can forget the whole U2 Songs of Innocence debacle, where everyone with an Apple account got the album uploaded to their iTunes for free, whether they wanted it or not? D’Angelo, Skrillex and Kid Cudi also made little to no announcement before releasing their 2014 projects, and both Kanye West and Rihanna have said that their 2015 albums will drop whenever they want them to, without an official date.
And while there’s an obvious difference between surprise release dates and surprise albums – one involves promotion and the other doesn’t – both disregard the calendar. But this strategy seems to work in an era where people want easy access to everything, where people want everything right now. Take Beyoncé, for instance. It sold over 800,000 copies in the first three days, despite no promotional announcements. What’s the point of putting a specific date on the release when the album will sell just as many copies, if not more, without it?
So, I’m glad Kendrick dropped his album early. After a year of artists forsaking traditional promotional strategies, I almost thought it was a little lame that he was even giving us a release date.