Pulling a Knowles
Event Music and the Art of Anticipation
2007. It was October. I was 13. After close to a year of waiting it was finally 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 racked up seven weeks at number one in the U.K.. Fast forward to April 2008 and ‘Bleeding Love’ was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. 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 two to 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. Cowell and co were creating anticipation 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 pop 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.
2016. Anticipation has become all too rare. In the age of streaming and New Music Fridays, artists t0o 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 specific record or simply purchase something on iTunes. If campaigns are messy, fans and the general public at large 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. With this in mind, it’s more important than ever that artists and the teams behind them create and maintain hype around their records 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 Yoncé’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. Bitterness towards Beyoncé’s absence 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 who continues to shape the charts and the music that dominates them.
Three years on and King B achieved the same feat with Lemonade. February 6th 2016 she debuted the ‘Formation’ video in all its political glory, leaving fans expecting/craving for an imminent album. Later that month. Nothing. March. Nothing. April. A trailer for Lemonade. 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 the U.S. 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 and by accompanying its release with three illuminating interviews on it. The Saint Heron 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 how the Knowles sisters do. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t look to them 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 product doesn’t live up to the hype. Beyoncé and Solange succeed because they make it a mission 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. One that artists before them, such as Leona and Madonna, have all used to great effect but one that today no-one uses better than Beyoncé and Solange. It is 2016 and when it comes to the art of anticipation and event music the Knowles sisters reign supreme. Pop peers - its time to take note.