Beyonce and the Rise of the Visual Album

In 1981, MTV was launched in the USA, allowing for a new marriage between music and video. Previously, live concert performances or actual films promoted with an album (see The Beatles – Hard Day’s Night) were a main source of visual music, but MTV now gave artists a platform to create and distribute short videos to the masses. Immediately, the music video became a new for of media and a new marketing tool. It helped to sell an artist or a band to viewers in an exciting new way, becoming an incredibly powerful platform from which to reach an audience.

The MTV generation has now become the Internet generation, with platforms like Youtube obviously having become the most important tools to spread videos across the globe. Extending beyond even single videos, the concept of a “visual album” has steadily risen in frequency and popularity risen, applying the importance of a visual component to music on a far wider scale. It is a result, in part, of the digitalisation of music. It provides a new means to reach an audience in an increasingly overcrowded marketplace. Simultaneously, it gives the audience something extra – another reason to listen to this album, a crucial factor in a world overflowing with artists and new releases.

Today we’re taking a look at exactly what the visual album is, and why has it suddenly become a major talking point within the industry, most notably ignited by Beyonce’s self titled release in 2013, and more recently, Lemonade.

In  a paper titled The Visual Album As A Hybrid Art Form by Cara Harrison, the visual album is technically defined as “an audio-visual product. It must have a direct relationship with the music from a corresponding audio album by the same artist. Its album length is more than the standard music video length, and strong visual and textual relations are present to form continuity throughout the whole album.”

One of the first times the term was used was in 2010, when Animal Collective described ODDSAC as such. However, it was Beyonce’s self-titled release in 2013 that first brought major, widespread attention to the art form. The release is particularly notable for not only championing the visual album, but being among the first major mainstream albums to drop with no advance notice or singles whatsoever. She spoke of a unified vision when outlining the intentions of the album, saying, “I wanted people to hear things differently and have a different first impression. Not just listen to a 10 second clip, but actually be able to see the whole vision of the album. It was important that we made this a movie. We made this an experience.”

As a whole, a visual album is way to gain the audience’s attention through an all-encompassing single piece of media. Instead of a mass of unrelated videos, or the need to switch between audio and visual formatting, a visual album – especially one which incorporates skits and additional footage atypical to a recorded album, offers a narrative to connect with. As Landon Palmer pointed out in his article How Visual Albums Are Changing the Way We Think of Movies and Music Videos, “In the past few years a new music/video form has become increasingly prevalent. The visual album continues to emerge as a means of creative visual expression… It is promising a synesthetic expression of musical creativity.”

Meanwhile, the loss of the physical element in music nowadays has actually contributed to the rise of visual albums. Most listeners don’t spin an entire album start to finish; they’ll cherry pick their favourites, add them to a playlist, and be on their way. To essentially provide a listener with an entire movie, can engage them in a new and different way – a way that hopes to shift attention back to the album as a whole.

In the last five years or so some artists already appeared to be moving away from the conventional music video. What they were doing seemed more suited to a visual album. Musicologist Fabian Holt labelled them as “cinematic song-videos”. They tended to shift from the standard running time and incorporated film-like techniques, such as dialogue and long introductions featuring no music, in order to establish a scene, like Lady Gaga’s 2010 video for Telephone, which clocked in at over nine minutes long. The visual album is pushes those boundaries even further, as more and more film techniques are incorporated along with the usual music video standards. Much like musi crosses genres at all turns, so too does the musical output itself – it has become a hybrid, far more than just the audio output.

In Harrison’s paper, she explains that, “the visual album does promote the audio album. But because of its hybridity and its function as an artwork, it does not always behave like a music video… It creates a blurred line between film and music video. Thus a separate art form emerged; the visual album.”

In terms of album sales, the music industry has been in decline. This is no secret. The rise of single-song purchases and then the introduction of streaming sites has meant a significant reduction in physical record sales. Similar to when the major labels finally reacted to the punk movement and used marketing tools to entice fans to buy their products, the industry is now using a range of new methods to sell their music. When Beyonce premiered her new album on premium cable channel HBO, she effectively released a film, not an album. A dramatic, continuous offering with a beginning, middle and end, not to mention stunning production values, it could well have aired in cinemas across the world. Like you’d watch a film on Netflix, the full length film premiered on Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal.

But beyond marketing and creative expression, why has the visual album suddenly become so favoured? In “Seeing Music Performance: Visual Influences on Perception and Experience” by William ThompsonPhil Graham and Frank Russo, they said that, “an absence of visual information leaves an impression that the performance is a solitary act, in which the listener’s role is primarily that of a voyeur. That is, visual aspects of music personalise the music, drawing performers and listeners closer together in a shared experience.” Music has always been a great connecter between people, and tin 2016, that is immensely heightened by adding visuals. Like a film, it allows for a collective and shared experience.

The success of Lemonade is far from standalone, and even artists like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have announced intention to unveil an entire new album as a film, set to air in cinemas this September. Hers is the strongest example this year, and much like how the rise of surprise album drops dramatically increased after her 2013 self-titled, so too is she leading the way for the visual album. It’ll be really interesting to see where this format goes next, and the ways this will change and evolve the music industry.

Read our review of Lemonade here.

Image: The Guardian.