Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo,’ music streaming – and why it matters

NICK GORDON

Contributor

The digital age has brought unprecedented changes to some of the most established media, altering them in polarizing ways. Physical copies of movies and albums have seemingly become novelties, while streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have become the primary sources of delivering the same content, except in digital form. In the music industry, the concept of music streaming has been a massive success. It has recently been recognized by Apple and Google, who have created their own streaming services. Furthermore, with music being so readily available online in tandem with the seamless ability to create and share content, websites like SoundCloud have emerged to facilitate music created by undiscovered artists.

All of these platforms have seen massive success, with their audience and participants growing substantially in a relatively short period of time. But just like their digital elders of content sharing like YouTube or MySpace, anybody with a computer, or even smart device, can upload and create content available for consumption, regardless of quality. In the few years that these websites have been active, there’s been a fine line drawn between the established content creators, who have enough viewers to warrant full-time jobs, and the average person, who casually uploads content hoping at least ten people view, or at best, share it. In essence, there’s a single, distinguishing factor between the former and the latter: professionalism.

You would never expect YouTube all-stars like Smosh to haphazardly upload hastily created, unedited footage, and even when there are mistakes, such as out-of-sync audio, they’re immediately berated by their audience for under-performing and being sloppy. The stars of Smosh, just like any content creating celebrities, are held to a standard of quality; they show up to their day jobs, knowing they must produce quality content and will be punished if they fail to do so.

The established norm of simply doing your job well has been echoed for as long as jobs have existed, and has never been in contention until about a month ago, when Kanye West once again sent waves through the music industry with the release of his much anticipated album, “The Life of Pablo.”

It would be foolish to continue without acknowledging the harbinger of the month-long escapade West would take his fans on. The title of this album has been changed three times in the course of over a year, but not within the confines of West’s studio. It was announced to the public via Twitter that every iteration of the title was the definitive title. His flimsy behavior was troublesome; everyone from the die-hard “Yeezus” devotees, to those who swore he was the worst human being alive, kept their ears to the ground, or rather their eyes to their Twitter feeds, as each new Tweet from the controversial musician regarding the album managed to “shock the world” – a feat that only a person with Kanye’s aura can pull off.

There were skeptics who said this behavior was indicative of the album’s quality, and those who swore this was another notch on the man’s belt in his pursuit to inspire and be seen as an innovator. After the actual release of the album, these sentiments were magnified to an inescapable degree, particularly for the average news-consuming, blog-reading music fan.

“The Life of Pablo” was released in the wildest of fashions at the very end of West’s performance on “Saturday Night Live” on Feb. 14, when he ran across the stage grunting nearly indecipherable words at a pace so fast that even his fellow rappers would’ve had a difficult time understanding.

Furthermore, this was two days AFTER the “official release date” which he also revealed on Twitter a few months before, making very few opaque justifications regarding its delay. A few articles, blogs and, most importantly, Tweets later, it was clear: Kanye’s album was available to the public, under certain circumstances nonetheless.

This wasn’t a physical album release, however, or even an iTunes release, but rather a streaming release, exclusive to Jay-Z’s digital Hindenburg known as Tidal. I say that because the service, when compared to its competitors, has been under-performing for most of the time it has been available, and it was clear to everyone that Jay-Z’s “little brother” was doing him a massive favor by making his album exclusive to his service. However, over the next few weeks after its release, it was quickly made clear that Tidal wasn’t getting just an exclusive Kanye West album. The rapper announced over Twitter that, just like the album’s title, his project would be changing soon, and his fully-realized creation had yet to be released.

According to Kanye’s Twitter, which quickly became his main platform to disperse his news, the album would be updated with the changes seemingly whenever he felt like it, with no specific dates given. Forget about deadlines and release dates: Kanye was presenting us with a new album that was simultaneously a work in progress and available to the public.

This tactic, which had never before been seen or performed by a professional artist, was the epitome of the digital age and a true representation of its impact on our lives.

The Internet has granted us the freedom to release all kinds of web related content. However, its place in our culture, where abrasive Tweets can be deleted in seconds, YouTube videos can be removed and re-uploaded for a better experience, and even live journalistic articles can be edited in post-release, has encouraged faulty behavior with little consequence.

But if Twitter’s “trending” feature is indicative of the long-term effects of these blunders, it’s clear that nobody really seems to care for more than a couple of minutes. We’ll continue scrolling through our feeds, granting ephemeral amounts of attention to whatever manages to hold our interests longer than it takes to read 140 characters. But just like Kanye exclaims in his polarizing, Nike diss-track “Facts,” he’s been trending for years, and the world will continue to praise or denounce him no matter the extent to which he exploits the Internet’s ugliest features.

Unsurprisingly, many people have claimed Kanye’s bizarre album release to be another stroke of genius, while others, like myself, see this as Kanye being irresponsible and lazy. However, the facts cannot be denied; Kanye blurred the lines between the professionals and amateurs, and how they utilize modern technology. Further delving into the contents of the album, from a producer’s standpoint, it’s just as messy as its release; peaking audio levels, half-baked instrumentals, and a lack of cohesiveness plagued the album. However, it was still good enough to earn my approval and that of many other critics and fans. But regardless of its quality, it’s essential to understand what this means for the music industry. Never before has an artist of Kanye’s magnitude released a major product in such a bizarre and amateurish way, but his at ions are more important for reasons most people are overlooking.

This release is an example that is entirely indicative of the effects of the digital age, where even Kanye West can simply upload anything without having to jump through the hoops that have become standard in the music industry. He no longer needs the approval of a label if he feels like putting a song on a service like SoundCloud (he’s released several tracks with very little mention or “hype”). He doesn’t need a PR team or even a marketing team to spread the word and generate hype around his future projects. And most importantly, he doesn’t need to be bound by release dates; he’s proved that he can release his material whenever he wants, and update it as he pleases.

Of course, many people will claim this is just “Kanye being Kanye” and that his antics won’t have an impact on the industry, but when someone of his stature pulls a stunt of this magnitude, you better believe others will be watching closely, and if the public responds well to this new formula, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it might happen again.

This is a future that poses characteristics that are just as polarizing as the man who’s spearheading its inception. On one hand, we could be heading into the age of even greater transparency between artists and fans, and possibly the elimination of third parties like record labels and PR departments, since artists have multiple free platforms on which to sell themselves. On the other hand, we could be facing the age of incomplete art, where musicians or perhaps even filmmakers constantly make updates and changes to their work, rather than delivering a definitive, final product.

Since the tools are so readily available, it seems awfully enticing to release nearly finished products in a lesser amount of time and put the finishing touches in “post-release.”

Whichever way you view it, it’s inevitable that the digital landscape is making its mark on established industries, and while it’s uncertain whether or not the outcome will be beneficial, it’s disconcerting knowing that millions of people are eagerly waiting for the definitive version of an album that was supposed to be finished an entire month ago. He can disguise it all he wants, but Kanye West has released an unfinished product – fortunately for him, it’s at a time when it’s never been more acceptable.

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