The Life of Pablo, Video Games, and the Future of Music

by Thomas Loughney ’16

Kanye West is doing it again. He’s doing it. Again. It! One mo’ ‘gin! Whatever his logic, his motivations, his reasoning – Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy’s The Life of Pablo has the potential to change the way artists think about releasing material. The “living breathing changing creative expression” is something that has grown and evolved in many ways during the short period of time since its release. Kanye’s been adjusting lyrics, production, etc. It’s been an interesting watch, if nothing else, and I’ve kept a keen eye. See, TLoP shares a lot of similarities with one of my favorite mediums – Video Games.[1]

Kanye’s clearly got games on the brain.

Since online connectivity became a built-in feature of game consoles, developers have used this functionality as a means to fix post-release glitches, perfect the balance of competitive multiplayer, and generally make everything Run More Gooder. Why wouldn’t we want to afford our favorite musicians with that same luxury? That can only lead to good things, right?

Well, maybe.

Speaking specifically to the most apparent function this technique might offer – post-release fixes – music patches could result in divisive trends. Sure, it’s great that artists can change a lyric or clean up an instrumental track, but this has some negative implications as well. Release dates have become somewhat problematic in the games industry due to this ‘fix it in post’ mentality. Some publishers have adopted the silent attitude that – in the event that a game isn’t ready for release – it’s okay to force it out the door, as the developers will just be able to correct any mistakes that have yet to be addressed. Recent examples include the literally unplayable PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight, Skyrim’s disastrous PS3 launch, and the catastrophically broken Assassin’s Creed: Unity. These games represent a cultural normalization of unfinished products – a direct result of the freedoms offered by post-release fixes.

While it might seem ridiculous to think that a musician would ever put out music that wasn’t finished, people felt the same way about video games not too long ago. Something that we sometimes don’t like to acknowledge is that music is a business, and that means somebody somewhere is thinking about a bottom line. Maybe shortcuts to release won’t manifest in the same way that they do in games – it seems unlikely that someone like Adele would, say, release a track with a poor vocal take with plans to fix it later – but they will show up somewhere. Maybe it means that an instrument is left out of an arrangement until a later version gets uploaded. Maybe it means that you have to pay extra to get the ‘completed’ version of your favorite single. Companies are evil, you guys. We know this. Record companies especially. When we see a new trend, we see something that could change the artistic landscape. When a Company sees a new trend, they see new ways to make more money. This is, unfortunately, something that holds true across all industries.

Yikes, that was cynical. On a lighter note – I think there’s a lot of potential for musicians to do really interesting, subversive things with this model of post-release fixes. Kanye’s beenusing it to achieve a fuller realization of his artistic vision, but games have shown how this feature has an even broader range of applications. Take marketing, for instance. We live in a world where Death Grips’ ‘bold’ and ‘visionary’ self-marketing technique pretty much boils down to them acting like bigger assholes than everyone else. How visionary. Music patches could allow artists to do so much more! For example: video games’ favorite critical darling, Portal, received a very subtle patch almost three years after its release that slightly altered the ending of the game. You’d think people wouldn’t pick up on something like this, but the gaming community went absolutely nuts. They went nuts. Like teens to The Hunger Games. This patch got people hyped up for a long awaited sequel, which meant that they were ready and willing to participate in the eventual tie-in ARG viral marketing campaign that took place before Portal 2’s official announcement.[2] Think of how this could be applied to music! Patch in a new hidden track into an older album – maybe a demo version of an upcoming single off your new album. Throw in a secret message or code for your true diehard fans. The sky’s the limit. It’d be cool to see musicians take some cues from the marketing of other artistic industries, and watch them apply these techniques to an audio-only medium.

One other interesting, somewhat intangible result of post-release patches is ‘version loyalty.’ When Minecraft first became popular – but not quite as popular as it is now – it was still in Beta. This super early version was this incredible wild west – the rules were murky, the imperfect balance of game systems made for some of my favorite dynamic encounters in gaming, and existing in that world was perpetually entertaing. A virtual outback – no rules, just right.

And now it’s dead. It’s gone. Forever.

See, that was version zero-point-something. Now we’re on one-point-nine. That may not seem like a lot, but that’s seven years worth of version differential we’re talking about here. Back in Beta, even the developers weren’t sure how the finished product was going to turn out, and that meant their game had these really unique, charming characteristics – even if it made for a somewhat unbalanced experience. So they patched a lot of that stuff out. They added new systems that counteracted old exploits – old patterns of player behavior. After a few years, that gripping no-man’s land that held a place in my heart was gone, lost in a sea of updated code. Now it’s just a nostalgic memory.

But that’s where music has the advantage over games.

When you download updated versions of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Tidal[3] doesn’t go into your computer and destroy your old files. That would be ludicrous. No, instead, you get to hang on to those versions, and – here’s the cool part – you get to decide which ones you listen to. In games, you don’t have much of a choice. Sure, you can choose to disconnect from the internet and avoid an update, but that’s a war of attrition you are doomed to lose, my friend. With music, you get to collect every version – every track, every little tweak and change. That sounds really cool. This expands the curatorial possibilities of music, and might also serve to build stronger bonds between music listeners.

Music Listener A: “Hey what’s your favorite version of ‘Famous,’ man?”

Music Listener B: “Second version. I feel like Kanye just gets me on that one, ya know?”

MLA: “No way me too!”

MLA and MLB become music friends forever and ever and ever until the heat death of the universe.

Who knows if what Kanye’s doing to The Life of Pablo will take hold. I don’t. But it might, and it’s important to think about what that might mean for music. As much as I like video games, I don’t know if post-release patches went in a wholly good direction. Games have, however, forged the path, and – should musicians begin to utilize a similar technique – the music industry can hopefully learn from What Came Before. As with most things, patches are both good and bad. It all comes down to what you do with it.

 

[1] If you’re unfamiliar with games, take heed – this is gonna get a little jargon-y. If there are any terms that you don’t recognize and want to know more about, hit me up in the ‘ments. I’d be happy to address any questions.

[2] Video game culture! What is it!

[3] As long as I’m making ‘music is to games’ comparisons, Tidal is the Ouya of streaming services.

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