The Internet Single and the Evolution of the Music Industry

The Internet Single and the Evolution of the Music Industry

Stephen Graham discusses the phenomenon of internet releases, and listens to three recent internet singles.

It used to be easy to collate the output of popular musicians. Singles, albums and, depending on the commercial success of the artist, EPs or compilation albums, in addition to the unofficial catalogue of live bootlegs and pirated copies of sanctioned releases, defined and comprised the canon/s of popular music.

This model of popular music production and circulation has shifted in our digital age with the advent of music and social media sites such as Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and so on, but it has not broken down completely. Artists from Bjork to the Kaiser Chiefs have experimented with the form of the pop album, and yet the album obtains as a way of organising popular music into discrete but substantial groupings of material.

The single, too, remains an important marketing and aesthetic device for popular musicians, but its practical circumstances and its canonical function – of introducing or publicising an album through radio or television exposure – has certainly shifted. Artists now leak or release tracks to sites such as YouTube or Vimeo well ahead of their official release dates. These could be album tracks or tracks intended as singles. Other songs or even whole albums are streamed temporarily, leaked and disseminated through filesharing, or compiled or constructed artificially by fans or opportunists eager to draw traffic to their channel or site.

Many artists are experimenting further with release schedules. The British grime artist Wiley gave away two hundred songs in the summer of 2010. Similarly, US hip hop artists such as Lil B and The Weeknd have released huge amounts of free material, whether it’s in the form of solitary songs, mixtapes, quasi-albums, or official albums. It is now often unclear, or at least it is materially beside the point, whether songs are part of the ‘official’ release canon of the artist, as singles or otherwise.

I’ll be trying to keep track of some of these releases, both in terms of their form and their music, in this new column. I start out this week by examining three ‘internet singles’, that is, songs released to streaming sites on the internet well ahead of their official release dates, or songs made available over the internet as a way of simply publicising the artist.

Azealia Banks – Need Sum Luv

Azealia Banks is a young rapper from Harlem who has harnessed the changing media tides of 2011 and 2012 to great effect. One of her first songs, ‘212’, received a lot of exposure and acclaim late last year, and even propelled Banks to the number one position on the NME ‘Cool List’. Banks has released a number of interesting songs since then, including ‘L8r’ and ‘Liquorice’, each of which reflect the sexual themes of ‘212’, whilst also matching its formal invention and lyrical vivacity.

The latest track from Banks is the Machinedrum produced ‘NeedSumLuv’, which she released to her Tumblr page on 16 January. The track features a speeded up drum sample from Aaliyah’s ‘One in a Million’, and sees Banks once again blending Xenomania or even J-Pop style textures and gestures with the weird vocal tics and arrangements of noughties hip hop acts such as Missy Elliot. The emphasis here, however, is less on the weirdness and abrasion of Elliot and others like her, and more on R&B sophistication and authenticity of emotion.

Banks sings throughout in a slight but emotionally affecting voice, whilst the production, though a little bland, creates flavour here and there with some nice synth and FX shots. The insistence of the (oblique) titular loop creates some musical tension, as does the rather abstract coda, but otherwise this fun track feels a little more like a style essay (as does the G-funk of Banks’ ‘Runnin’) than a vibrant toying with rap and alternative music conventions, a sense of subversion and experiment that is evident in some of her other work..

Azealia Banks plays Whelan’s in Dublin on 6 February.     

Nicki Minaj – Stupid Hoe

Minaj’s guest spots on other artists’ tracks, such as her work with Kanye West, Drake and David Guetta, have commonly lifted those tracks into the highest artistic realms. Her work under her own name has been a little less consistent, though ‘Super Bass’, from last year’s Pink Friday, is as strong and earwormy a pop-rap track you’ll hear.

Ahead of the release of her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, where Minaj spotlights her gay male alter ego, Roman, Minaj has released two tracks (neither of which will be the official single). The second of these tracks, ‘Stupid Hoe’, was made available in late-December 2011.

‘Stupid Hoe’ mirrors ‘212’ in seeming to steamroll common-practice song form of verse and chorus, and replacing this with a charged, flattened, but propulsive space where the spotlight is on rhythmic bounce, timbral novelty and spark, and, above all, lyrical grandstanding and trickery. Like Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, ‘Stupid Hoe’ re-purposes bizarre and squelchy synthesiser effects as central features of the arrangement, and re-configures the pop song not as a classically proportioned complex of bass, harmony and melody, and supporting and leading instruments, but as a future-orientated convoluted noise-machine of the utmost ingenuity and verve. 

Minaj is second to none in terms of the musical invention of her rapping flow; simultaneous clashing characterisation, word-bending, electronic manipulation, rhythmic looseness, weird gestures and subtle inflections of line all feature commonly. The occasional nastiness or over-ripeness of Minaj’s actual words is more than mitigated by those words’ music, although the distinction of her approach means that Minaj’s style is at risk of becoming a little tiresome. That hasn’t happened quite yet though. The many (unrepeatable) disses and the twisting and writhing lines of ‘Stupid Hoe’ are as vital and compelling as most of what’s come before in Minaj’s output. 

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Del Rey, like Banks, is an artist who has achieved huge levels of exposure (and opprobrium) via internet releases. Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ became a huge internet phenomenon in late-2011, going on to top many critics end of year lists, including that of The Guardian newspaper.

The central issue driving much of the debate around Del Rey is that of authenticity. Del Rey released an EP under her real name, Lizzy Grant, in 2010. She was then taken on by a team of managers, and her image and musical style as Lana Del Rey has significantly evolved from her work as Lizzy Grant. But such re-inventions are de rigeur in all types of mass mediated music – David Bowie is an obvious example – and the intensity of the objections to Del Rey can, I think, in large part be attributed to her gender. They are, in any case, unimportant in judging her music.

Dely Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ was made available on the web in December 2011, ahead of its official release on 22 January 2012. An album of the same name is due on 31 January.

The track, like ‘Video Games’, issues from a stark emotional state, one Del Rey shares with torch singers such as Julie London and with modern chamber pop specialists such as Antony and the Johnsons. Del Rey, however, adds a contemporary aspect of tragedy somewhat absent from those other artists, an aspect conveyed in the sumptuous but anxious arrangements and vocal delivery of her music, as much as it is by the melodramatic performances of her videos. A sense of foreboding permeates Del Rey’s world; Del Rey’s conception of Americana, much the same as those of Twin Peaks or The Virgin Suicides, is one where darkness and oblivion are the promise, and the risk, of daily life.

 

Published on 19 January 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at www.robotsdancingalone.wordpress.com.

 

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