Did Kanye just Reinvent the Song?

Album reviews are dying, Billboard doesn’t know what’s popular and algorithms are becoming as influential as word of mouth. In the age of streaming, will the song as we know it become something new?

Over the past few years, the music industry has shifted from throwing middle fingers at subscription steaming to embracing it, albeit cautiously. These days you can get nearly every song in recorded history for the price of a pizza a month. Music releases have already dramatically changed with artists releasing full albums on pay-as-you-please models (bandcamp), free for all (SoundCloud) or as we’ve seen most recently in The Life of Pablo, exclusive one-service releases. Clearly, since artists aren’t making money on their music anyway, they’re up for experimentation.

I’m all for experimentation. Without it we’d probably still be bumping tunes on a Walkman. As a startup founder, I’ve never been more convinced by a concept than that of iterative prototyping. That is, constantly making a remaking a product to build an ideal experience. Fluid products are the only ones that last in a world where there’s always something new to try out.

And it’s for that reason and that reason alone that I would like to discuss Kanye West’s brilliant ability to reshape the musical landscape around new technologies.

Political and mental-illness arguments aside, Kanye has consistently pushed the envelope when delivering his music. Back in 2010 he ran the most incredible music campaign I’d seen in my lifetime. Good Music Friday’s was a feat of marketing prowess that still holds its own today. It connected a whole generation of rap heads across the world using blogs to fuel the fire. We spent every second of the week talking about the latest release while eagerly awaiting the next Friday. There was nothing like it that I know of. Album-quality music with collaborations from some of the best artists in the world all being released for free, every Friday. There wasn’t even a question in my mind that I’d be paying for the album even though I already had half the songs downloaded for free.

It is because of my clearly fond memory that I want to credit Kanye (among others) for sparking what might be the next revolution in music distribution and production.

Streaming has a ton of advantages to physical formats that I don’t need to go through but one that I haven’t seen discussed in the news is that the original file can be changed anytime. Yes, any artist with music on SoundCloud, Spotify, tidal, yada yada can just submit a new version of a song and delete the original. That’s what I’m here to talk about. For the first time since recorded music gained prominence, songs are finally ephemeral again. I say again because before recorded music, an artist or band could go perform at various venues playing the same song with different inflections, different instruments, even different chords and each audience could appreciate it in a new way. Yes, this is still possible in live performances but think about the implications for recorded music.

Tomorrow, Kanye could drop a new version of Wolves and erase the old version from history. Obviously there would still be original copies available but the vast majority of the world wouldn’t go out of their way to find them. And Kanye has done just that. Only a few hours after releasing TLOP, he made changes. We’ve come to view art as something frozen in time. Picasso can’t just rip his art off the MOMA wall and make some edits. With streaming though, the possibilities are endless.

Here’s where I think songs could change forever. Imagine if, similar to Good Music Friday’s, Kanye were to release a new version of his album every month. Sure, many people would just move on to other artists, but for the ultra fans like myself, we’d be absolutely hooked. It would fundamentally change the album as we know it. Not only would it keep him in the news week after week, it would make the album more than a collection of songs, it would be an ever-evolving experience. Something worth discussing and re-discussing at each change. The next generation of songs might be fluid.

Who knows how many artists will actually take advantage of this or if it will matter to enough people. But as a music nerd, I’m ready to tune in.

Update: It Happened

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