In the coming days/weeks you’re going to hear a lot of people talk about Watch the Throne, the new joint album between rap’s biggest names in 2011, Kanye West and Jay-Z. You’re going to hear people talk about how great it is, how terrible it is, how ambitious it is, how boring it is, how whatever it is and how not whatever it is. You’re going to hear a lot about how the record didn’t leak, and how that affected sales and public perception and changed the way other artists might handle their unreleased music. So let me just preface all of this by saying that I, Chris Bosman, have not heard Watch the Throne yet.
Partially this is because I’ve been busy, partially it’s because I don’t have a release calendar and forgot it was coming out, and partially it was one of those high-handed critical attempts to listen to a record after the hype has passed, so I could hear it in as much of a critical vaccuum as I possibly could. That last reason is always the worst, mostly because it’s pretentious as all hell, but also because in 2011 it’s just impossible. We have too much information from too many angles inundated into our daily lives. I check Twitter and Facebook daily, and the odds were that I’d hear something about Watch the Throne before I actually listened to it, even if I avoided any and all music websites, even despite the fact that it didn’t leak.
And I did. Logging on to Twitter this past week, at least half of my feed at any given time was something about Watch the Throne. Whether it be fellow Prefix writers or other critics discussing it, or Aziz Ansari and ST 2 Lettaz from G-Side quoting it, the album was just everywhere. So I closed out my Twitter and opened up my Facebook and it was the same thing, including links to YouTube rips and Mediafire downloads, which would probably have been shut down by the time I got to them. Basically, the record was unavoidable.
This isn’t the first time that this phenomenon has happened this year. On Valentine’s Day, Radiohead announced that they would be releasing their latest album, The King of Limbs, on the 18th. I worked during the day on the 18th, but went to check it out when I got home. On my Twitter feed, on my Facebook, on my phone’s text messages for fuck’s sake, there was talk about The King of Limbs.
What’s the reason for this? Well, it’s two-fold. Firstly, how we talk about music in the public sphere has changed, and secondly, high-profile artists have changed their release strategies. The combination of the two has created a midnight Harry Potter movie release atmosphere in the music blogosphere. If you weren’t there exactly when it dropped, you better walk around with your fingers in your ears until you do.
The way we talk about music in the public sphere has changed due to the new methods of getting our voices out there. It used to be that to be heard on the Internet, you had to first prove you were worth listening to. It was a sort of chicken-and-the-egg question that meant that powerful voices were conglomerated in certain locations. This is why we didn’t immediately hear about the Internet killing newspapers and magazines; people still looked to those locations with a certain higher level of respect. But that’s not the way it is now, so what happened?
Well, the Internet has been legitimized. News stories now are culled from Internet rumors, CNN uses social networking to find questions, and bloggers have been turned into public figures, from Matt Drudge to Mike Florio. That’s not to say the Internet has been correctly legitimized— both of the men I mentioned have been accused of reporting their biases in addition to reporting the news– but men like them have allowed everyone on the Internet to feel empowered. In short, by legitimizing the Internet’s Robin Hood types, you empower the rest of the Internet. Now anyone with a Tumblr feels compelled to make absolute statements on all manner of things, from politics to music to art to their old elementary gym teacher (Mine inexplicably referred to me as “Freddie Bomber”).
That brings me to the midnight movie release aspect to this. Let’s go over Radiohead first because they’ve been doing this thing a little bit longer. In point of fact, if Twitter had been as popular four years ago as it is now, I might be writing this about In Rainbows. Freed from the confines of major label releases and the required advertising and hocking of wares that goes with them, Radiohead figured it out before anyone else that the way to make your releases a capital letter Big Thing was to surprise people with it. They did it with In Rainbows, announcing October 1st of 2007 on their site Dead Air Space that the record would be out in ten days. That timeframe was dropped to four days for The King of Limbs. This Wired magazine quote from Thom Yorke on the short timetables is telling: “Every record for the last four—including my solo record—has been leaked. So the idea was like, we’ll leak it, then.”
As leaks have come out, we as a music-listening corner of the blogosphere have become a little bit obsessed with listening to records the precise moment they become available. The music industry has tried to find ways to stymie the flow of leaks, or prosecute those who are responsible for releasing them into the world and/or responsible for listening to them, mostly unsuccessfully. But Yorke and Radiohead had it figured out, from a business standpoint at least. Leak it yourself, then you essentially let the product speak for itself.
Please note the wording I used earlier. I said that releasing it in that way would make your releases a Big Thing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your album will be a big thing. For all the immediate “Holy shit there’s a new Radiohead album coming out!” reactions this past Valentine’s Day, the general reaction once people had a listen to The King of Limbs was “Why were we excited for this, again?” That might not be fair– not to devolve into a King of Limbs review or anything, but the record was lambasted because of its subtlety, but that subtlety is why I, personally, keep returning to it. But in thinking about the reaction to King of Limbs and thinking about the reaction I’ve seen to Watch the Throne, I had a thought.
There is, or at least was, a reason why there were lengthy periods between an album being “finished” and a record being released. It’s the same reason why post-production on a movie often takes years and why video game release dates are pushed back so often. As an artist, you may think you’re done with the creative work, you may have finished the mixing and mastering and tweaked everything, but often those same artists need a rest period to disassociate themselves with a record, so they can listen to the “finished” product with new ears. Often, the reaction those artists have is “What is this shit?”
In September of 2003, the Wrens dropped The Meadowlands, which was an excellent indie rock record. Earlier in the year, the record has supposedly leaked, a full track-listing and an album’s worth of songs were out in the world, and I downloaded them. But when the record itself actually came around, it was different. The songs were basically the same, but they had been changed subtly, a production trick here, a lyric there, some whole songs were gone and a couple new ones were in their place. While the early version of The Meadowlands I had procured was supposedly “finished,” once the band had taken a break and re-listened, they had done some new things, and released a different product into the world. They had self-edited, an opportunity you only have when you’ve created a “finished” product and step away from it for a bit.
In the King of Limbs model, in the Watch the Throne model, those opportunities aren’t afforded. The longer something sits finished, the more of an opportunity it has to be leaked to the public. Your release is no longer a Big Thing, because it’s out in the world already and probably has been, even piecemeal, for awhile. You don’t have the chance to self-edit. For the King of Limbs, the consequence was a record that often sounded too Radiohead-y; their signature sound that had previously captured the critical imagination now seemed old hat for a band that prided themselves on pushing forward.
What will the consequence for Watch the Throne be?
I don’t know, let’s take a listen.