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Video Killed the Radio Star: The Visual Album

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In the last half-century, the music industry has been subjected to a continuous evolution. Starting in the post-war era of the 1950s, great improvements to the design of the microphone allowed for a more intimate style of singing, and a new style of ‘pop music’ flooded the scene. Deriving from western rock and roll music, the term came to define a softer alternative – somewhat the opposite – to that genre. Artists such as The Beatles and Buddy Holly are widely recognised as the archetypal ‘pop’ acts.

This sparked vast developments, when in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s the use of video gained prominence, leading to the rising prominence of the ‘live video’. The consequence of filming an artist performing a song, though, was the increased expectation placed upon their touring show. That is, they were expected to maintain the energy of one 3-minute clip throughout a 90-minute show. This could make or break an artist.

Expectations continued to mount with the start of MTV in 1981, where the success of a single (and its subsequent album) depended on a sleek, well-produced video. The impact of this can be seen when comparing Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage Tour in 1982 with their 1987 Shake The Cage outing; while in the former they toured as the original 5-piece, their later show featured an extensive backing band, fleshing out the songs to sound more like their original, multi-layered recordings.

In the ensuing decades, advancements have continued, with movie directors lending their hand to music videos (Tim Burton oversaw The Killers’ 2006 hit Here With Me, while Aerosmith had Alien 3’s David Fincher at the helm for Janie’s Got A Gun in 1994), and the development of extended music videos (see the works of Lady GaGa and Lana Del Rey). Consequently, audiences have come to expect more elaborate tours, with new and exciting lighting, multimedia, sets, and costumes. Now, it’s not simply a ‘gig’ – it’s a show.

Fast-forward to April 23rd 2016, which saw the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, her second ‘visual album’ following her eponymous 2013 release. When Beyoncé was released, I thought little of any wider implication on the industry – in fact, in a changing world where the commerciality of each song on an album determines its success, I thought this only a well-executed marketing campaign to get each song immediate airplay. But, Lemonade is different: it’s not 12 individual videos, but one extended film.

As an exploration of infidelity, separation and reunion, and what it is to be a strong black woman in the 21st century through music, visuals and spoken poetry, the artistry present is undeniable. While the format is not entirely new – Lana Del Rey released a similar project, Tropico, following 2012’s Paradise – as a standalone project it is the first of its kind. Subsequently, 800,000 viewers of the HBO special were enough for the record to sell over half a million copies in its first week in the US.

Whilst Lemonade is a commercial triumph, what cannot yet be seen are the implications it will have on the industry. Firstly for Beyoncé herself, as her last two outputs have resulted in increasingly raised expectations for future releases. And other major artists will no doubt want to compete with her, with album releases becoming more of a similar event. The implications on the up-and-coming artists of the future, though, are unknown. How are they to gain prominence in the face of such competition?

In the current climate, it isn’t easy for unknown artists to gain recognition. In an industry that has no money to invest in independent acts, it seems that they are to be assigned to the ‘underground’ scene, while the likes of Beyoncé and her major label contemporaries are rolling in big bucks.

It’s great if you make it, but the way things are headed, the odds against you are only getting more stacked.

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