While it’s not exactly a new concept, the visual album has become more commonplace recently than ever before. French artist Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 visual album Histoire de Melody Nelson has received some nods for arguably being the first visual album. Through the rest of the 20th century, bands such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Prince released visual albums as well. However, this phenomenon didn’t die with the ushering in of the new millennium.
Along with grunge, Justin Timberlake, and all the fashion trends that many thought would die with the turn of a decade, the visual album has continued staying power in the music industry. In recent years, icons such as Beyoncé, G-Eazy, and Frank Ocean have released visual albums as well, which has begun to lay the groundwork for what could arguably become an industry standard in the future. Even relatively smaller artists like English alternative rock band Suede and Georgia based chillwave artist Washed Out have recently released visual albums, which shows that the trend isn’t seen solely in industry superstars.
As music videos continue to decrease in popularity, as seen through MTV’s move away from its original branding as a music video platform, artists are turning to different outlets to showcase their music. Some might wonder if these moves towards releasing visual albums are just a marketing gimmick.
Millennials, the ever-popular targets of advertising, are drawn to brands that can give them an experience. Experiential marketing has been used in a variety of ways recently to reach millennials. For instance, artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean have started opening pop up shops to increase merchandise sales and build buzz around themselves.
2 Chainz opened a “Pink Trap House” in Atlanta in July 2017 as a way to promote his album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. 2 Chainz also used the house to connect to his fanbase in the Atlanta community by opening a free HIV testing center inside the house and turning the home into a “trap church” to encourage locals to get involved with local organizations.
Millennials are swarmed daily by an increasing amount of advertising messages. Millennials wake up to ads on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They drive to work and see billboards plastered along the roads. They visit websites and see sponsored advertisements along the sides and top of the page. To break through the advertising noise, artists are increasingly having to try louder tactics to reach their audiences. If artists have any hope of increasing their fanbase then they might think to turn to a visual album in the hopes of cutting through the noise.
Visual albums are seen by some as just another form of experiential marketing. Visual albums elevate ordinary albums to ones that take the viewer directly into the mind of the artist. Visual albums can serve as a great way to build buzz around an artist as viewers obsess and pour over every detail of the video to glean every insight and nuance from it. This can potentially translate to increases in listening streams and sales of merchandise and concert tickets.
On the other hand, some see visual albums as an increasingly popular way for artists to showcase their music as a form of creative expression. Proponents of the visual album say that they allow for the viewer to see exactly what the artist’s intended message in their songs is. They say that visual albums allow them to better understand, visualize, and internalize the album through the mind of the artist. On the other hand, opponents of the visual album say that they enjoy music because the meaning is completely open to the listeners’ interpretation, and so visual albums narrow the interpretation to solely the artists’ viewpoint.
I personally think that visual albums don’t constrict the amount of interpretations for the viewer because the cinematography creates more layers of hidden meanings waiting to be interpreted. For instance, in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, the cinematography is so striking and unique that all the details, from the colors of her dress to the location and time period of the scene, leave room for the viewer to interpret their own meaning behind the music.
However, I digress. Fans can “experience” a normal album by listening to it but they’ll never truly see the album beyond the level that listening to it affords them. Visual albums add layers of rich meaning and substance to the album by letting the reader see the colors in the lyrics and the pain in the artist’s voice. Visual albums also allow for the insertion of metaphors and nuances visually instead of solely in the lyrics.
For instance, on Washed Out’s album Mister Mellow, the video for “Get Lost” collages a multitude of cutout photos of people from the 1960’s-80’s driving in cars. The cars help further the metaphor for getting lost and the old cutout photos of people dressed in vintage clothing help further the throwback vibes established by the keyboard and backbeat in the song.
In the world we live in, everyone seems to be disconnected from one another. We all talk to each other from behind screens and social media seems to be one of the only outlets for artists to connect with their fans. Visual albums can be another way for artists to reach through the screen and personally connect with their fans. The viewer can be taken inside the mind of the artist to connect with them on a deeper level.
So the question of whether visual albums are a marketing gimmick or a form of artistic expression remains. I personally think that it’s a little bit of both. One thing is certain, however: Visual albums aren’t going anywhere, and I predict that in the coming years they will increasingly become an industry staple. Let me know what you think in the comments below.