By JOE COSCARELLI NYTimes.com 9/27/16
Does every pop star these days need a “Lemonade”?
Among Beyoncé’s more influential tactics at the moment is her insistence that an album should not be just an auditory experience and that the standard music video — a sort of trailer for an artist’s current sound or creative era — is far from enough. “Lemonade,” her sixth solo album, had its premiere in April as an artsy and provocative hourlong film on HBO, raising the bar set by “Beyoncé,” the surprise “visual album” that came with videos for every track in 2013.
As the value of digital music continues to hover near free for many consumers, some brand-name acts are following Beyoncé’s blueprint with high-concept mini-movies that can add artistic heft to projects competing for attention in an infinite pile of content. These extended videos, with their headline-grabbing cameos and high production values, have also become the latest theater in the music streaming war as services like Tidal and Apple Music function not just as platforms but as creative partners (and sometimes financial backers) with artists, in exchange for exclusivity.
On Sunday night, Apple Music released “Please Forgive Me,” a 22-minute video with a loose action-movie plot that strings together hits from Drake’s “Views,” the biggest album of the year so far. Shot in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, “Please Forgive Me” is available only as an Apple stream — even screenshots have been disabled, minimizing Drake’s usual meme-ability — and credits Larry Jackson, the service’s head of content, as a producer and co-writer. It follows the release last month of Frank Ocean’s “Endless,” a 45-minute “visual album” and musing on the artistic process that was also exclusive to Apple. (The “Lemonade” film is available for streaming and downloading only on Tidal.)
“We are living in such a visual time, social media-wise, with Snapchat and Instagram, that every project needs to have some sort of multimedia component,” said Jeff Rabhan, a veteran artist manager and the chairman of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. But a single with an accompanying four-minute video “just doesn’t cut through the noise,” he said.
By advertising “Please Forgive Me” as a film that was “inspired by the album” — not simply a long music video — Drake and Apple cryptically telegraphed the premiere as an event à la “Lemonade” instead of another step in the “Views” marketing plan. In fact, by aiming for prestige, artists may sacrifice some commercial impact: “Please Forgive Me” came in lieu of an earlier stand-alone YouTube video for Drake’s chart-topping summer single, “One Dance,” which could have juiced its Billboard statistics and extended its reign. (Streams have been a significant part of Drake’s success now that Billboard counts them, along with album sales, when calculating chart positions.)
“For an artist who is really wanting a body of work to be examined as a conceptual whole, this creates that environment in a singles-driven world,” Mr. Rabhan said.
Beyond the artistic-credibility incentive, the immersive experience of an extended video can also serve as “a commercial for the tour,” he added. “Drake, Beyoncé — they’re not making their money on streaming or sales. They’re making money when we spend $180 to go to Citi Field and watch ‘Lemonade’ in person.” (With Drake as its most prominent artistic face, Apple Music has also partnered with him on a Beats 1 online radio show and sponsored his “Summer Sixteen” tour with Future, another Apple-affiliated artist.)
While high-concept promotional music films and event videos date back to the Beatles and Michael Jackson, with Lady Gaga and Kanye West picking up the torch to begin the post-MTV YouTube era, more recent video projects have taken advantage of new outlets for distribution, knowingly sacrificing wider audiences by partnering with closed digital platforms thirsty for buzzy products.
Tom Connaughton, the senior vice president for content and programming at Vevo, the online music-video platform that provides some of the top clips on YouTube, said that a video is twice as likely to be shared on social media than an audio track, according to his company’s data. As a result, he said, “You’re seeing big multinational companies involved in a music streaming war using video in addition to audio to drive their agenda.” That includes luring subscribers with exclusives.
And while a major label may be reluctant to fund big-budget music videos in leaner times, ambitious artists can capitalize on their clout with streaming services that are willing to shepherd and promote such projects.
“There’s an element of competitiveness among top-tier pop stars to making bigger, flashier delivery systems for their music,” Mr. Connaughton said. “They all want to outdo each other.”