The digital era of music has already destroyed that euphoric moment you experienced as a younger music fan when you would buy an LP, CD, or cassette at the record store, rush it home, get frustrated wrestling the cellophane loose and that stupid little anti-theft sticker that ran along the spine of the jewel case that never peeled off in one piece, frothing with anticipation of what you would hear. Now it’s fashionable to release three or fours songs, or more from a new record before the release date as opposed to the customary one lead single, or maybe two depending how the time falls.
I get it, the philosophy these days is that nobody listens to albums anymore, and you have to release songs to keep your artist in the news cycle. And this isn’t just a mainstream issue. It’s arguably even more pronounced in the independent/Americana realm where in the lack of actual journalists with actual ideas, you have to hand over pre album songs as “exclusives” just to get a periodical to write about you. By the time the release day rolls along, your core fans have already heard half the album, and expended half of their enthusiasm for it, if you didn’t spook them away by some song that turned them off because it needed the context of the full record to be understood.
Even ceding the argument that the album concept is dead for many listeners these days (which is not true at all for core, grassroots fans), there still doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of reason to release a large handful of your songs before an album’s street date, aside from that just seems to be what everyone does these days, and so people keep doing it without questioning the practice. In fact there seems to be plenty of arguments of why it’s bad idea, or at least should be severely questioned.
This was brought into clear focus when on last Friday (8-23), Miranda Lambert’s team released what is now her fifth per-release song from her upcoming album Wildcard. Lambert’s duet with Maren Morris, the feisty “Way Too Pretty For Prison” written by the Love Junkies, now means that over 1/3rd of Miranda’s 14-track record has been heard here in August, and it’s not even scheduled to be released until November 1st—over two months out. And it’s probably a safe bet that more pre-release songs are on the way.
And for Lambert, this move could be especially damaging because she has a single out called “It All Comes Out in the Wash” that is going to need support if it’s going to gain traction on radio (currently sitting at #21). Radio programmers and playlist curators look to see how much attention tracks are receiving when choosing what to add or delete. When you have five new songs out there sucking up attention from Miranda Lambert fans instead of one or two, it dilutes your metadata.
Not only that, but album cuts are made to be exactly that—cuts from an album that often need their brother and sister tracks to make sense to the audience and express the cohesive theme and massage an album and artist is trying to convey. Fans are often sent on wild mood swings with the release of each new song. Oh, the record’s going to be too pop, too rock, not energetic enough, too Americana, not country enough. This also can erode anticipation, and result in a deflated release day once it finally rolls around.
Jon Pardi is another good example, with four songs already released from his upcoming record Heartache Medication that is still a month away from being released. Labels and publicists may not care much about the album concept, but performers often do, at least performers who are actually artists. Maddie & Tae produced a concept album for their sophomore effort, only to have their label Mercury Nashville release half of it as an EP in April. Since their current single “Die From A Broken Heart” is struggling, who knows if and when we’ll get to listen to the whole thing in it’s cohesive, consecutive, and conceptualized form, which the way it was written and turned into the label.
Artists obsess over which songs should be placed where in a track list. Then labels play Russian roulette by choosing what to release when based off of spurious callout data or other capricious whims. Also, A&R is a dead art form these days. These labels seem to have no idea how to pick the best songs to either excite or entice fan bases, or represent a record well with what they choose to release before the album release date, let alone as radio singles.
Some of this complaining may be a bit of old man syndrome. But it doesn’t seem like a silly concept to say that album songs are meant for albums, and should be released to the public sparingly instead of giving into the era of instant gratification. If the public appetite for new material is voracious, good. Let listeners salivate and get to starving, then serve them what they want when the appetite and appreciation will be at its peak. Parting and piecing albums out that are meant to be considered as a whole is a reduction of both the artistic expression and listening experience albums are produced around. It also reduces the likelihood of consumers buying physical albums, which make much more money for artists and labels than the penny fractions racked up from streaming pre-release songs. Albums are for core fans who will go into battle with their favorite artists and pay their bills. Instant grat tracks are for passive fans of fleeting interest.
The receding importance of the album concept isn’t something that should be given into. It should be challenged. As we’ve seen with the recent emergence of surprise albums, people love getting all of the music at once, and it enhances the listening experience because of the fresh nature of the material. We saw this from there recent release by Mike and the Moonpies. With a surprise release, once again you’re able to get that euphoric feeling of listening through each song for the first time and altogether, just like you used to when music in physical form reigned.
Not every record is going to be right for a surprise release. But the autonomy of every record, the idea that songs on a record create something greater than the sum of their parts, and tantalizing listeners instead of giving into their urges for instant gratification is the way to keep the appeal and creative expressions inherent in music vibrant and healthy.