Can one man change the entire music industry?

Kanye West says a lot of things:

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If you pay enough attention to him, it’s easy to become exasperated. His twitter feed is a constant bombardment of fragmented ideas and declarations. Most of them, seemingly incoherent, float away lost in the vast expanse of the web. But every now and then he will say something that incites, encourages, or is otherwise meaningful enough to stick with you. When these tweets hit you, you begin to realize that maybe there is something more to his ramblings than meets the eye. And if you pay even more attention, you’ll stumble upon something that could quite possibly change the world, or at least a big part of our world:

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“The Life of Pablo is a living, breathing, changing creative expression.” What a monumental statement. This isn’t the first time music has been crafted in a way intended to be ephemeral. Many live acts, from The Velvet Underground to Parquet Courts, have quit the script onstage and explored sounds in a way that made their music more fluid and alive. But never before has an artist referred to an album, or any other recorded piece of art, in that way. When a musician releases an album, when an author publishes a novel or when an artist sells a painting, there’s a kind of finality that sets that piece of art in stone. It will never change. It is complete. There is nothing left to be done to it.

So what does it mean that Kanye called this album living and breathing? He could take this thing any direction his mercurial whims desire. He might update “Wolves” and be done with it. He might add a song later down the line. He’s already changed some lyrics for “Famous.” What if he slowly transforms the music, line by line, sound by sound as his life progresses, creating an ever-changing platform to express himself? If that is the case, where does this album end and the next one begin? The artistic possibilities are endless, and we may never really know what he plans on doing with it.

Where the immediate, concrete effects of “The Life of Pablo” come into play are on the industry side. Specifically: how we consume music. He has been dropping hints as to how he could change the whole game, the whole industry, since the unofficial drop of “Pablo.” Within the copious amounts of baffling tweets, it seems that maybe Kanye has had a carefully strategized plan all along, and I’m going to try to pick out the meaning:

Important tweets 1 and 2:

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After delaying the release of the album, it finally appeared on Tidal, shortly followed by the first tweet above. The tweet seemed like a desperate grab at trying to help out the business endeavor of his mentor Jay Z, but then he bombshelled us with the second tweet. Never for sell? Only on Tidal? Are you willing to go all out like this, just to help out your friend’s ridiculously expensive streaming site? The idea seemed overtly absurd to me. Surely he was only saying that to get people to subscribe, and that he would eventually, in fact, release the album. It honestly made no sense to me for him to make a move like that. What in the world could he gain from making “The Life of Pablo” a Tidal exclusive?

And then important tweet 3 happened:

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Notice these tweets aren’t in chronological order. Never expect chronological order with Kanye. You can only begin to understand him when you go back and look at all the pieces, slowly puzzling them into the big picture.

When I saw this tweet, I thought I had it figured out. Of course, Kanye has some kind of deal with Tidal where he makes his music exclusive to the site, and they fund his ideas. It could be that simple, but it probably isn’t.

Important tweets 4 and 5:

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Kanye expanding on his definition of art and his place in the world. More meaningless bullshit? Maybe not. He is reaffirming his dedication to the things he makes, and this is his way of letting us know his only goal is to create art. But if his only goal is to create art, why is it such a big deal to never release a finalized, concrete album?

Important tweet 6:

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If anything, his commitment to keeping the album exclusively on Tidal emphasizes his dedication to his art. He’s not selling CDs? Why wouldn’t he sell CDs? He could make a killing off of selling CDs! Hell, I was going to buy the record on vinyl just to hang it on my wall. Maybe he’s being real. Maybe all he really cares about is his art, and money is an easy secondary to that goal.

Important tweet 7:

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Kanye admitted that he was $53 million in debt. He publicly asked Mark Zuckerberg for funding. Anyone else doing this would have been making a fool of themselves. But Kanye? He could explain himself in the most simple way and it all starts to make sense. He doesn’t care about money. He doesn’t care about business. He doesn’t care about the tediums of life. He cares about his art. He is willing to basically ignore all practicalities to make what he feels he owes to the world. Is doing so rash, reckless and poor planning? Yeah, definitely. But it also proves that he is striving to produce art in its purest form, which gives us, as fans, the most ascendent experience possible.

All of this brings us to the tweet that I mentioned earlier, the tweet that brings it all together:

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This tweet is so important because it outlines his artistic goal: to make an album that is effectively alive. Scouring through his statements we found that:

  1. The Life of Pablo will only be on Tidal. Ever.
  2. Kanye West is a, if not the most, sincere artist.
    1. Proof 1: He went $53 million in personal debt to create his art.
    2. Proof 2: He is willing to miss out on physical sales to be able to let his album grow and change.
  3. The album will, in fact, grow and change.

His artistic vision alone is something that will bring us an experience like we’ve never had. It’s an overwhelming and awe inspiring vision. But what does that mean for the fans? We’ve never experienced a living album before, one that can change and grow and evolve, so how will it be possible to consume one?

This is where the seemingly lacking planning genius of Kanye West comes in. He knew all along what he wanted to do with “The Life of Pablo.” He wanted to effectively destroy the album cycle. But how do you go about distributing, and then sell, an album if you want to destroy the concept all together? First and foremost, you abandon all concern for making money. Second, you see into the future of what streaming sites can provide artistically.

Music streaming has been around almost a decade. Before, when musicians wanted to sell their work, they could only do so by releasing physical copies. Later, iTunes happened, and then you could still buy physical copies, but it became much easier to deal with music digitally. However, buying digital copies of music never really distinguished itself much from the physical side, besides the fact that it is easier to deal with music on our computers and devices. Things changed with the introduction of music streaming.

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(Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Spotify, the leading music streaming site, offers subscribers libraries of music as vast as that of iTunes, but for free (as long as you can put up with advertisements). That means, when an artist drops an album, if they want people to hear their music, they will put it on Spotify. This greatly decreases album sales, because listeners can access their music as easy as it is to find internet connection. Who in their right mind would pay for music when you can just as easily get it for free?

However, very few artists are happy with the way Spotify compensates them for the streams they get. According to TIME, artists make between $.006 and $.0084 per stream. Over a year ago, Taylor Swift took all of her music off of the site, stating that her work is worth more than the compensation that she receives from Spotify. Vince Staples, at a recent Spotify event at SXSW, as reported by Pitchfork, slammed the streaming site saying, “Shoutout to Spotify. Thank you for giving me this check to make up for what you’ve done to me and all my musical friends.” And then to the crowd, “Listen to your favorite album 1,000, 2,000 times so everybody can get an album sale.” I did the math. If you take the median compensation for a stream of a song, $.0072, then it would take 1,389 listens for the artist to earn $10, about the price of an album sale. So Vince’s math was right, which highlights the ridiculous situation.

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(Photo courtesy of Got Somethin on Flickr Creative Commons)

So how have artists combatted this new reality? Well, Jay Z created his own streaming site, which features CD quality streams for an ungodly $19.99 a month, or lower quality streams for $9.99 a month, a price which matches Spotify’s Premium (ad free) membership. Many other sites have developed streaming services as well, including Apple, marking a huge shift from their iTunes focus. But still, unless you’re rolling in the dough, who in their right mind would pay $10, or even $20 a month for something they can get for free? Upon the launching of Tidal, Grantland published an article where their contributors listed things for which they would rather spend $20 a month. The whole thing seemed doomed from the start, including a failed attempt to grab subscribers with a lackluster Lil Wayne Tidal exclusive.

(Photo courtesy of Got Somethin on Flckr Creative Commons)

(Photo courtesy of Got Somethin on Flickr Creative Commons)

But then “The Life of Pablo” happened. Everything Kanye has done with “The Life of Pablo” coerces fans into buying a subscription. His plan, picked out from all of the madness, is genius. When he released the album on Tidal, it was easy to find a torrent. According to Torrent Freak, it is the most pirated album ever. But then he updated “Famous.” And then a few weeks later, he updated “Wolves.” Now it seems it could be just as easy to find torrents of these new songs, but having to pick out individual songs within torrent sites is more tedious than you think, plus you’re never really sure if you’ve downloaded the right version until you can listen to it. In other words, it takes a lot of effort. Plus, the fact that Kanye called the album “living, breathing” means there could be a lot more changes in the future. At some point, it will only make sense to subscribe to Tidal if you want to hear the album. And any fan of music will want to hear the album, not to mention the fascinating process of it evolving over time.

And that’s the artistic revolution streaming sties can provide: the ability to constantly update, change, remix and remaster music. This is obviously impossible with physical copies, and if this happened on iTunes we would have to buy the music again (which we wouldn’t). So Kanye, the first one to see this possibility, makes sure that he chooses a streaming site that artists are OK with, and thus begins the revolution of the music industry. I know that eventually I’m going to have to buy a Tidal subscription. I want to hear The Life of Pablo as it changes. And I predict that, five years from now, even if musicians aren’t creating breathing albums in the future, a Tidal subscription will be what Spotify is today just because of Kanye’s vision now.

There it is, I called it. So hit me up and tell me you think I’m stupid. In half a decade, we will see.

(Photo courtesy of mario millions on Flckr Creative Commons)

(Photo courtesy of mario millions on Flickr Creative Commons)

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Bradley Harrison is a senior at College of Charleston. After a long and painful stint as an engineering student at a university in Georgia which you probably have never heard of, he has decided to come back home to his native Charleston and study Spanish and Education. As a keen observer of pop culture, he loves art house cinema, Pitchfork.com, and the Ringer. FOH Army for life.


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