2013: The year of the overhyped album blockbuster

Robin Harper
The hottest musical trend in 2013 didn't have anything to do with music. Well, at least not with the world's biggest-selling artists and their major label henchmen -- the top one percent of the music biz, if you will. No, for them -- be it Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, or Lady Gaga's ArtPOP extravaganza -- 2013 was all about creating a spectacle and hyping up every would-be blockbuster as a massive, can't-miss event.

But as far as trends go, the big-budget album launch wasn't a particularly good one. More often than not, these "events" were poor placeholders for albums that underwhelmed musically. And, more troublingly, they were the spawns of a spend-because-you-can mentality that priced most players right out of the game. In short, it ain't exactly good for the industry.

As far as the music itself, 2013 was a bit lean for albums compared to recent years, especially at the top. (Singles were, of course, another story.) There were plenty of very good albums released, and a few that achieved something resembling consensus -- records like Yeezus, Modern Vampires of the City, and Random Access in particular -- but there wasn't much that could truly be considered great. There were no instant classics like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or even surprise opuses like Good Kid, M.A.A.d. City, although there were plenty of promising debuts and some solid if not-quite-career-defining efforts from veterans.

Joe Lemke
With that in mind, it maybe shouldn't be a surprise that elaborate album launches became so commonplace -- either to help fill the void, or as evidence of wandering creative minds. Jay Z was as good an example as any, not only launching Magna Carta with a flop of a mobile app funded by big Samsung dollars but also with an hours-long performance-art piece for "Picasso Baby." (It was billed as a stand-alone piece, but the promotional angle remained thinly veiled.) That Hova seemed more interested in his art collection than in rapping on the bored-sounding album wasn't too surprising.

There were plenty of others, too: Katy Perry dispatched a giant golden semi-truck as rolling billboard for her album Prism (which, in a twist of supreme schadenfreude, got hit by a drunk driver); Daft Punk threw a monster party in Australia, all of places, which they might not have even attended themselves; and Lady Gaga hosted the world's biggest vanity project via her artRave party, complete with enormous statues of herself and a series of inventions that ran headlong into the realm of self-parody. That it strained to affect an air of high art seriousness by capitalizing on artists like Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic hardly lent it any more credibility.

All of which was fun, in its way. For the nostalgia-minded of us, any one of these events could be considered a throwback to a time when everyone shared in the same musical experiences. And, hell, who doesn't want a diversion every now and then, or just a plain good party? Except that it winds up being a lot less memorable when the pretense of the party -- i.e. the album -- isn't itself very memorable. How many of us will remember where we were when Gaga first flew 10 feet with her jet pack?

For the labels and whatever other corporations who helped fund said pet projects, these glitzy album launches were an easy way to goose profits, but it was an artificial boost. In each case, they were leveraging immensely popular and profitable artists, ones who were bound to bring in sales regardless of the quality of the content. At a time when budgets are getting tighter and tighter in the industry, any bit of publicity must be worth the trouble -- except that these spectacles do nothing to solve the underlying problems of shrinking revenue. By late in the year, it looked like nothing more than a short-sighted spending war.

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