Pulling a Knowles

In Commentary, HOME, MUSIC by Sam Prance

Event Music and the Art of Anticipation

2007. It was October. I was 13. After close to a year of waiting it was here. ‘Bleeding Love’ was available as an online exclusive on Perez Hilton’s website. I gathered myself, paused and pressed play. I was transfixed.

Fast forward to Christmas and ‘Bleeding Love’ had managed to rack up seven weeks at number one in the U.K.. Fast forward to the end of 2008 and ‘Bleeding Love’ had topped the Billboard Hot 100 and become the best selling single of the year worldwide. Leona Lewis – the ‘global songstress’ had arrived. This was not mere luck or a simple case of talent triumphing. This was music management in its finest form.

Before Leona won the X Factor in 2007, British talent show winners rarely received much love. Generally they released an album of covers three months after their win and went however far their new earned fame could carry them. Leona was different though. Firstly, she possessed a voice of the Whitney/Mariah variety that suggested that superstardom was a genuine possibility. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Simon Cowell and the rest of the team behind her treated her like a superstar from the moment that she beat Ray Quinn to the X Factor crown. No rush release. Instead, a year passed with Leona developing her sound and working with the hottest names in music (Ryan Tedder, Stargate, Dallas Austin etc.). Cowell and co were creating anticipation for Leona’s music simply by taking their time. All the while, hyperbolic news stories dropped every now and then, building hype, suggesting that Leona was about to save the world with her talent. Leona then debuted the best song to come out of those sessions – and one of the best singles of all time – on Radio 1 and one of the most popular blogs in the world. For the song’s U.S. release, Simon Cowell went on Oprah with Leona to show America just how much he believed in her. Anticipation surrounded Leona’s music before people even knew who she was and ‘Bleeding Love’ became a global hit because of it.

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2016. Anticipation has become all too rare. In the age of streaming and New Music Fridays, artists too often inundate audiences with content  in the hope that they won’t be forgotten. The sad reality being that we’re presented with so much new music that it all becomes a bit of a headache and good records get lost in the mix. With streaming we invest in music in general instead of specific albums and singles; we’re less likely to be committed to new releases in the same way that we were when we traveled to HMV to buy a record or simply purchase something on iTunes. If campaigns are messy, fans and the general public at large start to lose interest. Promising acts, such as Pia Mia, Becky G and Tinashe, who’ve found success in one or two songs but are yet to truly take off, are evidence of this. They need to strategise their releases better. With this in mind, it’s more important than ever that artists and the teams behind them create and maintain hype around their music in order to stand out. Anticipation needs to be built and release dates turned into events if great albums and singles are going to be given the attention that they deserve/need to sell well.

Today, no artist does this better than Beyoncé. After the relatively lukewarm chart success of 4 in 2011 – it was her lowest selling album to date – Beyoncé had to change her approach to album campaigns, were she to remain one of the biggest popstars on the planet come solo album number five. Cue: the surprise release of BEYONCÉ, December 13th, 2013. R.I.P. me etc. Rumours about the album’s release began in January, in advance of King B’s headline performance at the Super Bowl. Nothing. She announced and then went on a nine month long tour. Nothing. A teaser of a new song featured in a Pepsi commercial in April. Nothing. A teaser of a new song in an H&M commercial later that month. Still nothing. Fans and the public at large were forced to wait close to a year before it dropped. 2013 was a stressful year for the hive. The surprise release, however, was P.R. magic. Any bitterness towards Beyoncé’s absence immediately vanished. In Beyoncé’s own words ‘she changed the game with that digital drop’. Not only that but BEYONCÉ was Beyoncé’s most adventurous album to date and it came with 17 glorious music videos in tow. Here was a popstar, utilising anticipation to market her best record to date and utilising surprise to make an event of it. A week after its release, it had broken iTunes records and topped charts around the globe. One year later and it had sold over five million copies, officially establishing Beyoncé as one of the few myths in music who can be both a legend and a current popstar that continues to shape the charts and the music which dominates them.

Three years later and Yoncé achieved the same feat with Lemonade. Feburary 6th, 2016, she debuted the ‘Formation’ video in all its political glory, performed it at the Super Bowl and then announced a world tour leaving fans expecting/craving for an imminent album. Later that month. Nothing. March. Nothing. April. It seemed that 2013 was repeating itself but then a trailer for Lemonade dropped. Arresting visuals, poetry, a mysterious lack of music. ‘What are you doing my love?’ Peak anticipation was back in full force.

Only this time, Beyoncé debuted her latest album on HBO in an hour long film in celebration of black womanhood. Once again outdoing herself as an artist and making anticipation her toy in the game of pop. Six months later and the album is platinum and still in top tens worldwide. It wasn’t just an event in music, the HBO special was the music event of the year and subsequent podcasts/articles/reviews attest to it.

Beyoncé is not alone though. After a four year wait, Solange, has just earned her first U.S. number one album with a surprise ode to the black experience in America. After years of critical acclaim but relatively low sales to match, Solange quietly recorded one of the best albums of the year. Not only that but she finally achieved the commercial success that her talent merits. Like Beyoncé, she used anticipation to her advantage. An incident in an elevator and her Met Gala presence have helped increase Solange’s celebrity over the past few years and thus anticipation for her music. However, as opposed to latching onto these and rushing to meet the ever growing demand for her music, Solange took time to build anticipation and create a full body of work worthy of the anticipation that she’s built. Not only that but she made A Seat at the Table an event by announcing its release just three days in advance of it coming out and by accompanying it with three illuminating interviews on it. The Saint Heron one with Mama Tina makes for a particularly special read.

Not everyone is Beyoncé. Not everyone has 26 years in the business to their name, nor the receipts to back it up. Not everyone is Solange. Artists who debut today lack the celebrity to use anticipation in the ways that the Knowles sisters do. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t look to these two sisters for inspiration, nor does it mean that those with burgeoning fanbases can’t apply Knowles tactics to their own campaigns. Frank Ocean soared to number one with the surprise release of Blonde this year after four years of silence. Likewise, Little Mix, went from great girl group to one of the most successful girl groups of all time in 2015, simply by taking the time to make Get Weird the brilliant album that it is. Both albums thrived because the artists behind them took time over them and, in doing so, increased the anticipation for them.

Anticipation means little if the end product doesn’t live up to the hype. Beyoncé and Solange succeed because they make it a mission of theirs to exceed themselves and create something new with every project. The Knowles sisters offer a seasoned approach on how to stand out in the music industry today. An approach that artists before them, such as Leona and Madonna, have all used to great effect but one that no-one uses better than Beyoncé and Solange today. It is 2016 and, when it comes to event music and the art of anticipation, the Knowles sisters reign supreme. Peers – it’s time to get in formation and take note.

Sam Prance

Sam is the Editor-in-Chief of PTL. He likes adapting surnames into brand names and spreading the gospel of Little Mix. His possibility model is Janet Mock and he turns to Beyoncé interviews for guidance on the regular. Sam tries to make out that he has his shit together but more often than not can be found pretending to be professional and/or crying watching Desperate Housewives reruns. Some episodes are really sad okay.

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(Images: Lemonade & A Seat at the Table)