SNL via YouTube
Lil Wayne performing the song "6'7'" on stage at "Saturday Night Live" just days after it was released on iTunes.
All week we'll be talking about the best and worst ideas in music this year — click here to see all the stories. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if anything in the business or culture struck you as particularly effective or shockingly misguided in 2010.
If we're entering what could charitably called commercial music's post-retail age, what does that mean for the dissemination of music? Fans who were minted as recently as 10 years ago likely have memories of lining up outside record stores for Midnight Madness sales as Monday wore on into Tuesday, or at least making a point to hit up their local music emporium when an artist they enjoyed was releasing a new full-length.
But amplifying the fact that release dates are still important has become somewhat more difficult as the world of music news has become more diffuse and more specialized. And the culture of the leak has muddied the waters as far as when an album actually comes out — is it when a record is sent to journalists, or when it makes its way online, or when it eventually lands in the ever-dwindling number of shops that still stock music?
Which isn't to say that the idea of the release date having a sort of importance has entirely gone by the wayside; certainly the chart triumphs of Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Sade this year wouldn't have happened if fans hadn't organized and voted with their dollars around the time of the blockbuster albums' release. And news organizations still figure their editorial calendars around the release dates of records, because in the news cycle of music, putting out new product is one analogous to, say, the release of a new movie, or the debut of a TV show.
Kanye West, who seemed to be at the forefront of so much smashing of existing paradigms with his shrewd use of the Internet, figured out a way to make release dates his own late this summer, when he launched G.O.O.D. Fridays. The plan: Release a song a week every Friday between August 20 (when he launched the project with a remix of "Power" that featured Swizz Beatz) and Christmas. The songs didn't always land exactly on Fridays — Tweets with links to the brand-new tracks would often show up on Saturday morning or afternoon — but the anticipation surrounding the release of each track was not all that dissimilar to an online version of those punch-drunk Midnight Madness sales.
Kanye's experiment brought a bunch of imitators in its wake — Wu Wednesdays, Monster Mondays, and the like — but it also highlighted the importance of immediacy on the Internet. Recall Radiohead's In Rainbows, which was announced and then released in a timespan that seems like nothing compared to the three-months-out lead time many records receive; the 10-day window between its announcement and its release allowed the anticipatory excitement to be contained, as opposed to the seemingly endless roll-outs that other albums receive. (iTunes is complicit in this as well, slowly dribbling out songs from on-the-horizon releases in its "Countdown To" series. Sometimes getting people to choose the "Complete My Album" option on release day works, like with Taylor Swift; other times people decide to stick with the singles.) Those long lead times can often work against artists, with casual fans thinking, "Oh, that's out?" or "Oh, that's not out yet?" when they eventually do make the decision to buy.
In 2011, the cycle between completion and release will likely become even more compressed. Take this past Saturday and the year's final episode of Saturday Night Live, which is still one of the most visible outlets for musicians to hawk their wares, and where Lil Wayne performed his new single "Six Foot Seven Foot." The "Banana Boat (Day-O)"-sampling song leaked online Tuesday, became available on iTunes Wednesday, and was performed on Last Call With Carson Daly that night; the track's producer, Bangladesh, said that he'd crafted the beat over the summer, which meant that the song was recorded after Wayne's early-November release from prison. That a song could go from the studio to one of the country's highest-profile places to tout music in such a short while is unprecedented, and it's also a sign of how compressed the musical hype cycle has become.