TLOP 1.75: Is Album Patching the Future of Music Releases?

A regular morning in the near future. A news alert on my phone wakes me up: there is a new version of my favorite album available with all new mixes and features. Would I like to update? What sounds like an absurd wet dream of a music revolutionist might be closer to reality than expected.

Last week Anthony Fantano aka The Needledrop, YouTube’s most prominent music critic, uploaded a video discussing if albums should be altered after they have been released to the public. Motivator behind this thought experiment was, and who else could it really have been, constant media content provider and boundary breaker Kanye West with his steady evolving album The Life of Pablo.

As it has been widely covered and discussed, TLOP already marks the album with the worst release run in music, but it wasn’t only the marketing strategy that was rushed, apparently the album’s conception was, too. Compared to the avoidable finished version that was premiered at Madison Square Garden in February the album was patched multiple times since. With each updated version over the last two months the world became an active part of the regular process of album editing. Tracklists were updated and extended by Waves and six other new songs. Recorded verses were added or reduced and final mixes suddenly weren’t so final anymore. Ye even went so far that he replaced lyrics. Unfortunately he didn’t go far enough to swap all asshole references.

As Fantano points out, the patch philosophy is well spread amongst most entertainment sections nowadays. What started off with computer hardware and software quickly moved over to movie special editions and director’s cuts (ask any Star Wars fan for further readings). Video games find their way to shop shelters in unfinished forms just to be fixed by patches later. While Ubisoft is notorious for their release strategy of unfinished and sometimes even unplayable games, Rockstar and GTA 5 serve as a great example of going the right way, constantly updating new game modes and content.

It’s surprising that the music industry didn’t join as the newest train passenger earlier, that is only if you don’t count special editions or re-releases of popular albums with additional bonus tracks. Changing the mixing, song arrangements and even lyrics of an album that is not even a full quarter old takes it a whole Air Yeezy — step further, even though the overall amount of patches in total was rather small. Still the single shoe fits onto the messy playing field that is this weird TLOP experience. During an album’s creation these changes happen all the time before the final product sees the day of light, or button of stream. Normally they can only be witnessed when one is inside of closed studio doors.

The main problems, however, are the waves (pun intended) that these actions take. If a superstar artist like Kanye pioneers and succeeds with this new strategy, chances are high it will rise to the norm and more artists will consequently follow up (like the surprise album tactic).

Imitating Ye artists would go an alarmingly safe release route. As any farmer would agree, a premature harvest and release is never the right way to do it. Sure, a quick buck is being made, artists stay more relevant in times of ADHD attention spans and the new material might even fetch entire shows. Plus there is always the backup plan of re-editing the material, in case the public is dissatisfied with the material.

As Fantano further explains, album alteration is only practical when the product is virtual (e.g. streamed) since physical copies can’t be edited. Hence as long as the physical market is still relevant enough to exists, the patching problem might not be as bad. As crazy as it may sound, but patching could further boost sales. TLOP wasn’t physically available before last week, but assuming it was, the unfinished version would be more valuable when months or years later it could very well be an updated version accessible that differs from the original. Fans could fall for the oldest trick in sales marketing, making them believe that time and offerings are not on their side, forcing them to purchase this current version immediately, because exclusiveness has always been sexy.

But that cannot be Kanye’s intention, can it? Fantano suggests that he is either not committed to his artistic statement or overly committed. Evil tongues could alternatively argue he is just trying to generate controversy that leads to more milk from the attention cow. Or was it a third party like his Tidal co-owners pushing him to release a product that he wasn’t satisfied with? Whenever Kanye does anything, coverage is guaranteed.

Whatever the reasons might be it’s safe to say that every creating person knows the anxiety of being unsure if the product is finally ready for the public. A punch line can always hit harder, every hi-hat line can be adjusted, or a singer be replaced with a smoother one than who’s currently featured. There might always be a sharper cut for movie directors, or another bonus level that might elevate a video game’s overall appeal. Hell, there is always a certain sentence or even a single word that I as a writer can fix to elevate my craft by at least the slightest bit. When a certain point is reached, creators simply need to draw the last line. That counts for Martin Scorsese, Hideo Kojima, Kanye West, the neighborhood Soundcloud rapper, an art school student and a guy, who writes music articles at a coffeehouse alike. A release date should remain a point of no return. The least thing this industry needs is another run of half hearted output.

The question remains if we can expect more changes to come. Fantano further points out that the re-releases or remastered versions of The Beatles and Pink Floyd albums have coursed controversy in the past due to their variation from the original. Imagine if said perfectionist artists would have worked under comparable circumstances. If today’s musicians start to change their current projects, who guarantees that earlier albums are safe? Will The College Dropouts’ Never Let Me Down average mixing find a reworked version on Tidal next? Why not go further and replace Brandy’s vocals from Late Registration’s Bring me Down with a Kylie Jenner feature? While we are at it, let’s fix all the outdated references and rap about snapchatting a million dollars, instead of talking about planking on it. I’m sure Tidal boss Jay-Z wouldn’t mind new rules.

I’d really enjoy finding out how the final product of a Kanye album comes into existence. What I don’t enjoy is the feeling of foolery for a quick dime and attention, and obvious insecurities from a man who, as I believed rightfully, calls himself a genius. Further proof is the fact that the album can now be officially bought and streamed pretty much anywhere, withdrawing this interesting tackle at preexisting release tactics that was meant to be this breathing and living organ of TLOP.

I highly doubt this is a scenario any music supporter would tolerate in the long run. If the fans or the artist himself is not content with the final product, than take it to heart and do better on the next release instead of fixing what is already there. This is not a romantic relationship, it’s about creating dope music. And that’s the beauty of creating art; there is always a next chance. After all, there are always people who underappreciate the highest acclaimed albums like MBDTF (right, Anthony?), so pleasing everybody should never be the main mission for an artist.

Hopefully the only patch I’ll be notified about in the future is when Twitter introduces hologram videos. If album altering does ever become the norm in music, I might as well just patch this article a few years down the road.