COLUMN: Selling a music album is old news

This year, Chance the Rapper was the first artist to win a Grammy for a streaming-only album, which basically means he won a Grammy for his mixtape. The award is revolutionary for music in a lot of ways, but what’s most important is that Coloring Book is another example of the changing landscape of the music industry.

Chance the Rapper isn’t the only artist who has joined the trend of releasing music in a unique way. Frank Ocean and Beyoncé both released visual albums last year, and both sparked enough chatter to get fans wondering if this is the new trend that artists are moving toward.

The history of visual albums is very obscure, and it’s only now that visual albums are getting the attention they rightfully deserve. Daft Punk did it while recording Discovery — creating an animated short film and collection of music videos that uses music to accompany a storyline. Even The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night could be considered a visual album, despite its dated age.

However, one of the most unique and committed ways an artist has released new music is Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet. The rapper went all out with the release, not only making a darker album that showcased his growth as an artist, but also taking advantage of his public perception and shaping it into  something bigger. He even released a screenplay with Because the Internet to connect its overarching narrative to his first album.

He accomplished this because it fit his public persona: a multi-talented artist who can act, write, sing, rap and produce — among many other skills. In a sense, he didn’t merely create a new album — he constructed a fictional universe that included this character in his albums. He even went so far as to dress, speak and act like the same character to promote his new albums, so whenever Childish Gambino was in an interview, he was also portraying this character.

This begs the question — did he make the screenplay for this album? Or did he make the album as a soundtrack for the screenplay? Does it have to be one or the other? If you’re a true Childish Gambino fan, you can understand what he’s trying to accomplish as an artist who wants to do something groundbreaking. This is Childish Gambino’s way of finding his own voice as an artist in digital age, and other artists are doing the same.

Beyoncé and Frank Ocean didn’t release traditional albums because they felt like their music was above that. Chance the Rapper said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon that he releases his music for free because it gives him “more space to create,” and that other artists are also doing creative and unique things with their music because that’s what the landscape of music is like today.

He’s absolutely right about that. Artists are discovering new ways of making music that go beyond traditional albums. With the internet, anyone can download their music for free, so it’s up to artists to figure out different ways to make themselves stand out. New concepts like visual albums haven’t taken off until now because there was no need for them. People were happy to buy an album and call it a day, but that’s not the case anymore. The more creative you can get with your music, the more likely you’ll be able to find fans who respect and appreciate what you’re doing.

The shift from releasing music in a traditional sense to the current, diverging methods of music release hasn’t been the smoothest transition. But this new wave of music trends is in its early stages, and there’s an electricity in the air that piques people’s interest. I wasn’t necessarily sure what to make of Kanye West’s fashion show and album listening party, but I was certainly intrigued. I thought it was interesting to see how his music inspires his fashion and vice versa. I was even more skeptical when he said he actively changed things on his album even after it was released, calling it a “living breathing changing creative expression.” But I’ll admit — most of the changes were for the better. 

Living in the current world of music is living in a world of uncertainty. However, we shouldn’t resist the changes that are happening. It’s captivating to see new changes unfold. Never in a million years would I have thought that someone like Chance the Rapper would release their music for free, but it’s a welcome change. The music industry is changing at a rapid pace — don’t blink, or you might miss it.

Spencer Lee is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column, ‘Spencer’s Soapbox,” runs every other Thursday.