Five and a half albums that hint at the future
From Chance the Rapper to Beyoncé, some artists' break from traditional record labels could pave the way for others in the industry
Chance the Rapper's biggest single this year was No Problem, a song excoriating traditional record labels – and an indicator of the changes he and other artists are forcing through the music industry.
Streaming music services such as Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal are shifting not just how music is consumed, but increasingly how it is funded, created and marketed. The talk of the industry is increasingly about playlists and how labels and artists can seed their music into high-rotation mixes on streaming services to blend their new offerings with old favourites.
Still, the past year was fundamentally one of enormous albums. And the story of five (and a half) of them can help illuminate how the future of music might play out.
Take Chance, for example. He released Coloring Book, which he hesitates to call an album, initially just through Apple Music – without a label. He's always been averse to making his fans pay for music directly, so going straight to a streaming service made sense – fans get it along with millions of other songs.
Coloring Book marked the 23-year-old's mainstream breakthrough: Billboard declared it the first streaming-only album to land on its lauded Billboard 200 chart.
That Chance did this without a record company – albeit with a savvy business team and a co-sign from Kanye West – indicates that streaming platforms, leveraged deftly by artists, can skip the overhead costs needed to market and distribute music widely.
"If he starts building a stable of artists he respects, he could be a new outlet by bypassing the labels," said Ted Cohen, a long-time major label executive and managing partner of digital entertainment consultancy TAG Strategic.
Chance is not alone in finding new avenues for his music. The New York Times reported last month that, after years of frustration with his label, Def Jam, Frank Ocean bought himself out of his contract this year – releasing a final video project, Endless, before dropping Blonde independently on Apple Music later the same weekend.
Ocean's music was among the year's most highly anticipated; the move prompted speculation that record companies would begin scuttling service-specific exclusives in its wake.
That has yet to be seen. And Ocean's triumph was built on previous success with a major label. But it did show that established artists, with luck and money, can control their music and still be heard – Blonde hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
As a medium, streaming offers fresh creative opportunities, too. West's The Life of Pablo is famously malleable: He modified and re-uploaded the album constantly in the weeks after its release, and it may yet see more changes.
If Pablo is the start of an album-changing renaissance, digital music analyst Mark Mulligan suggests it may frustrate many listeners. "The audience wants to be able to listen to what they heard last month," he said.
But if different versions of the product are all made available, it's an opportunity, Mulligan says, "to extend the life cycle" of a record, with all that content gobbled up by hard-core fans.
Apple joined streaming in mid-2015 and now has 20 million subscribers. Spotify now has more than 100 million users, 40 million of whom pay subscription fees for full service. And those are just the sector's leading players.
Pablo was, for a while, exclusive to high-fidelity service Tidal, which West co-owns. Beyoncé has kept the streaming of her critically acclaimed album Lemonade exclusive to Tidal since its release (her husband, Jay Z, heads the service), but despite this limited access, the album's streaming and sales propelled it to the top of the Billboard 200.
Lemonade, then, showed that exclusivity can still rule the charts. But what if Beyoncé had let the album stream elsewhere? She might have beaten Drake for the year's crown.
Toronto's very own released his long-awaited album Views in April, first exclusively to Apple, then everywhere. The strategy worked: In addition to being Apple Music's first album to hit one billion streams, Drake also became the most-streamed artist on Spotify this year – for the second year in a row – and is the service's all-time top artist. Despite the early exclusivity, fans kept gravitating to him anyway. Which says something about fame: The view from the top is nice.