Musicians often protest the toll that streaming music services, illegal downloads and leaked tracks have taken on their business models. But when you’re as big as Kanye West, Beyonce or Taylor Swift, technology is no threat. Instead, it offers pop-music titans an opportunity to exert greater artistic control over their album rollouts and creative processes.
There’s perhaps no better example of this than the intentionally scrambled release of West’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. Most album releases follow a deliberate pattern: Musicians do a tour, release a single or two, release an album, perform it on TV, then go on another tour. West hasn’t just upset this formula; he’s crumpled it up and thrown it in the garbage, then set it on fire.
The Life of Pablo isn’t available in stores. West has tweeted that he doesn’t plan on selling physical copies. He’s also opted to elude Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music and iTunes. Instead, the complete album is available only on Tidal, the streaming service he co-owns with other major music artists like Jay-Z, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. (West briefly made it available for purchase on kanyewest.com, but took it down shortly afterward, directing users to Tidal instead.)
Metro Boomin, a 22-year-old producer who worked on West’s new album, thinks the rapper’s digital-only release strategy is keeping with the times.
“Think about all the people that are 13 and 14 and 15,” he said in a radio interview on March 12. “They don’t give a fuck about buying CDs, at all. That’s damn near like a tape from when I was younger to them. If you’re 13, a CD? It’s crazy.”
Very few artists have the power to restrict a release to only one platform in the age of streaming music. And plenty of people illegally downloaded The Life of Pablo. But overall, West’s strategy seems to have paid off. Tidal has soared up the App Store charts since the album was uploaded at 3 AM on Feb. 13 and peaked at number 1. (It was back down to 178 as of March 18.)
West has subverted album rollout tradition in a number of other ways too. Over the course of a number of weeks starting on January 8, West released tracks from the album on select Friday’s using the popular streaming music service SoundCloud—a tradition he started in 2010, dubbing them “GOOD Fridays.” He’s essentially already “toured” with the album as well. His fashion line debut at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11 doubled as a listening party for The Life of Pablo too. Twenty-thousand people shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend the event, and 20 million people watched the event live online, according to Tidal.
And weeks after the initial release, West is still tinkering with his album. He’s changed lines around in some songs and altered the production on others. He even dramatically changed one song, “Wolves,” in response to critiques from fans who missed the guest vocals from an earlier version of the track, released back in Feb. 2015.
When he fixed the song by adding in guest vocals by Sia and Vic Mensa on March 16, West called The Life of Pablo a “living breathing changing creative expression”–a diagnosis with which it’s hard to disagree.
Meanwhile, West has used his Twitter account as a way to directly communicate with his fans and lift the veil on his artistic process. He’s tweeted extensively about changing the album’s name, adding tracks, and cutting others, all while posting hand-drawn illustrations of his collaborators and photos from the studio.
West also took to Twitter to explain the album’s slight delay. “BLAME CHANCE,” West joked, because 22-year-old artist Chance the Rapper had convinced West to add the song “Waves” to the album. West’s obsessive adjustments paid off—”Waves” is one of the album’s best tracks.
West’s strategy shows how well he understands social media as a promotional tool. But it also demonstrates how deeply he understands his fans, who have thrilled at the chance to feel like insiders. Data from Google Trends shows that searches for “Kanye West” reached the second-highest peak of his career in February 2016. We all know that musicians constantly tinker with their work behind the scenes. West successfully spiked excitement for his album by showing us just how he does it.