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Saturday, August 17, 2019

With Streaming, Musicians and Fans Find Room to Experiment and Explore

Something unexpected happened near the top of the album charts this year: Pop stars were acting like artists.
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That is to say, they weren’t desperately chasing the broadest possible audience with the most surefire formulas; they weren’t calculating what would fit radio formats best. Instead, some of them grew eccentric and adventurous, impulsive and experimental, instinctive and personal — at times, bordering on avant-garde. And they found that listeners were willing to pay attention.

In 2016, Billboard’s Top 200 album chart had entries in the Top 10 by Beyoncé, Kanye West, Solange, Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and Radiohead: arty, idiosyncratic, often dark statements that counted on listeners to engage with them fully. Rihanna’s “Anti,” which did have hit singles (including “Work”) to drive sales, turned out to be a brittle, even confrontational album about compulsive lust and multilevel betrayal. There were also final, uncompromising albums in the Top 10 from elders like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and A Tribe Called Quest. On all of these major releases, the music often eluded genre, tried odd structures and toyed with austerity or overload; there was a sense, illusory or not, of private statements being unveiled. They were closer in spirit to musicians working on the edges of pop, like Anohni or Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, than to its commercial center. This isn’t to say that mass-market, radio-friendly pop was scarce or in any way eclipsed; just askthe Chainsmokers. But making pop bangers, or trying to, was no longer the only game in town.

Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” for instance, comes across as more of a homemade reverie than a pop album. Its production, despite a few plush moments, is most often minimal, using just an instrument or two. It has songs that barely bother with a beat; songs without choruses; songs that process his voice into unnatural, barely intelligible tones and songs that sound like sketches or barely finished demos. Mr. West’s“The Life of Pablo” arrived online as a work in progress that he was still tinkering with; the fact that it was streaming, in files that he could replace at whim, allowed him to keep tweaking it long after its release date. Those two albums, like those by Beyoncé and Solange, appeared suddenly online as full-fledged cultural events. Streaming encouraged millions of fans to check them out immediately, on their own terms.

Chalk up these artistic choices, in part, to performers’ creative ambitions and the stubbornness to get them realized, as well as to the increasing clout of individual stars versus a scrambling music business. The seriousness of an election year may well have been another factor. Yet looming behind the change is also a shift in the medium and delivery system — to streaming — and in the metrics that streaming enables.

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