Welcome back to The Mixdown, a series breaking down music’s relationship with the internet. Now I’ve been studying the tactics artists use to market records ever since a fateful day back in December of 2013, when Beyoncé released her self-titled record.
When Self-Titled (I’ll refer to it as this from here on in) dropped, there was this tangible feeling in the air that this was a moment in culture that would change everything. It was, at once, the world at large acknowledging Beyoncé’s power as a performer and icon and the birth of a more intentionally transgressive artist than we had seen in her past releases.
Self-Titled was record shattering, internet-breaking music and signified the birth of something that I like to call The Event Artist — Artists who create blockbuster-levels of hype with their craft, similar to how films like Avengers Infinity War, Black Panther, or The Force Awakens dominate the public conversation weeks after their release.
We’ve had a couple of these Event Artist instances over the years following the release of Self-Titled, with even Beyoncé herself doing it a couple times over with the release of Lemonade and Everything is Love.
But one moment stands out from all the rest. 5 years after Event Artists began to dominate the music industry, a young woman sent out three words in a single tweet and made another culture-shifting impact:
I’d like to posit that as a result of Ariana’s surprise release of Thank U, Next, we’re seeing a new type of Event Artist take shape, one that has the clout of the music industry behind her, but the motivations of an artist just starting to make some noise and wanting to share her craft with her audience.
It’s no secret that Ariana Grande has become one of the biggest pop artists in the last 5 years or so. This is in part to her powerhouse vocals and dedication to the craft of R&B, but it’s also due in part to her incredible presence on social media.
Her transition from TV actor to pop superstar was amplified by her using her social accounts to connect with and build her audience. Artists need to be using their platforms the way Grande has — engaging with folks on a genuine, person-to-person level of interaction.
That’s why the strategy with the rollout of Thank U, Next felt like a masterstroke of a social media marketing move that has earned Ari some incredible autonomy as an artist in the music industry.
See, Thank U, Next came almost immediately after, if not right in the middle of the album cycle for Ari’s last record, Sweetener, released in August of 2018.
No clue what an Album Cycle is? YOU’RE IN LUCK. Check out this little explainer right here:
With the Sweetener World Tour expected to kick off in March of this year, Grande hadn’t even finished the album cycle for Sweetener. Yet we already have three singles, two music videos and the name of the next album Grande is preparing. This *feels* unprecedented, much in the same way that Self-Titled’s release felt unprecedented. Now don’t think I’m trying to compare both tactics and see which one’s better. That’s not my goal here, because in my eyes Beyonce’s Self-Titled laid the foundation for Grande to break the cycle in the way that she did.
Additionally, they’ve both changed the way people think about releasing their music for different reasons. Beyonce intentionally kept things secret, releasing the album without warning, while Grande seemed to be creating and releasing this music in real time while in the midst of the Sweetener Cycle, almost similar in the way to SoundCloud artists produce and drop project after project, steadily building a large library of work over time.
One of the big questions that arose from Thank U, Next’s release for me was why? Why would she deliberately make the choice to produce market her music in this way?
Now, I can’t speak on her behalf, but to me it felt like with Thank U, Next, Ariana was creating music in a completely different headspace than when she created Sweetener. This can happen frequently during the album cycle, because artists can become bogged down by the fact that, despite having loved and appreciated the music that they’ve made for an album, they are way more excited and eager to share new music with their audience.
Funny enough, I recently heard an entire exchange on this subject happen live on the Elvis Duran show one morning. Artist Alex Aiono was in to promote his latest single “Big Mistake,” but made the choice to flip the script and perform a completely different song. His reasoning? He was in a better headspace to perform his new song than he was for “Big Mistake.”
To me, Grande appears to share the same mentality as Aiono, and it feels like the main intention behind the release of Thank U, Next. In the last couple years, Grande’s experienced quite a lot of ups and downs in her life which has inspired her music but also a lot of tabloid fodder and fairly nasty things to be written about her and the people around her.
In the context of social media, folks were talking less about the music that she’s written with such passion and love, and I can only surmise that one would be truly angered by the fact that the only reason they remained relevant online was through what’s being speculated about their life, and not the art they deliberately choose to share with the world.
In releasing Thank U, Next, Grande single-handedly took control of the narratives crafted by tabloids and social media haters for herself and centers the conversation back on her talents of performance and songwriting. She’s masterfully written a record about the gratitude she’s had for past relationships as well as the self-love she’s found through her experiences. Grande is able to infuse a great deal of melancholy, hope and joy in her performance of the lyric.
It’s also no coincidence that her primary mode of revealing the song, video and name of the next album came through her social media. The day after the release of the song Grande tweeted,
“thank you for hearing me and for making me feel so not alone. I truly am grateful, no matter how painful!”
It makes it all the more clear that Thank U, Next broke the Sweetener album cycle because Grande wanted to share a clearer picture of where she was at and drive the narrative back toward her music, and also give it as a gift for her fans who had stuck through these last couple years of ups and downs, and who would connect with the message she infused through her performance. In doing this, she’s strengthened the already powerful connection she’s established with her fans.
So while Beyoncé focuses on the spectacle of an Event Artist by making new records an experience and cultural *moment*, Ariana Grande takes a more human approach through person-to-person connections she builds on her social media platforms.
However the moment any other artist tries even a similar approach, it’ll always be tied back to the incredible strides Beyonce and Ariana Grande made in their artistry with these releases.
Both artists have defined the Event Artist experience in their own way for years and years to come.