Monday, 27 April 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / Why did Britney Spears just quietly drop an album then take it down again?

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When Beyonce won the universe by dropping her fifth album with no prior announcement in December 2013, I never thought that less than two years later I’d be bemoaning “surprise releases”. But let’s face it, they’re getting really fucking boring.

It was impossible to get even vaguely excited about Bey serenading Jay Z in their latest corporate romance Tidal-exclusive video. Nobody I know signed up to 'Dubsmash' to access Rihanna’s surprise drop of “Bitch Better Have My Money”. And Madonna’s decision to shock premiere her latest video on the Meerkat app was a bombshell on mute.

But even in my jaded state, I had a deep well of shitting hells reserved for the surprise album that dropped a few weeks ago on Good Friday. The very same day Jesus died for our sins, a mysterious new Britney Spears album rose from the void, and - despite being placed on both Spotify and iTunes - hardly anyone outside of her most dedicated fans even noticed. Not even the gutter-end of pop music managed to drop a single news story.

Titled Life Is a Beach: Live in Miami, this Britney live album appeared to be released via SnapShot Records and distributed by Interra Music Publishing. It was available to purchase via iTunes and Amazon, and to stream on Spotify.

Worldwide, hardcore Britney fans started buying into it. It broke into the Top 30 on iTunes in various South American countries, Mexican Britney fans had it charting at #20, and in, erm, Costa Rica it went top ten! There wasn’t as much enthusiasm in the UK mind, where it languished in the uncharted waters of #747. Still, the Twitter hashtag #buylifeisabeachonitunes became a rampant social beast for at least 48 hours. And the more I listened to this bizarre pop artifact, the more I became overwhelmed by its many WTF aspects.

Let's just take a second to consider the mere concept of a Britney Spears live album. Understandably, she’s never released one of these before. Don’t get me wrong, I adore her key vocal ticks – the breathy/raspy sex kitten delivery, the way she goes “baaaaabaaaaay” and “meeeeeh” – but vocal prowess has never been her USP. I’m not saying Britney should be seen and not heard, but her theatrical performances are a major part in turning her songs into visual experiences. On my deathbed, I will regret how many hours my teenage self spent watching Britney Spears: Live and More! on VHS. You don’t get that on a live record.

But, even weirder than Britney’s decision to release a live album, was the tour it commemorated. The album recording was taken from the March 28, 2004 Miami date of Spears’ The Onyx Hotel Tour, or as we call it now: The One That Went Horribly Wrong.

Frolicking around a satin bed with a dancer while dressed in lingerie for “Breathe On Me” and performing her ode to masturbation (‘Touch Of My Hand’) while appearing naked in a bath tub, The Onyx Hotel Tour was marketed at an older, pornier audience than Britney’s dependably loyal teenage following. As a result, ticket sales took a big hit. After she sustained a knee injury, it was eventually cancelled after just three months. Britney had to sue a number of insurance companies to try and regain over $9 million in failed reimbursement payments. Commemorating this tour was like celebrating the day you sharted on the way to work, got laid off, and then returned home to find your significant other's belongings boxed up by the front door.

The moment Life is a Beach tries to capture, in 2004, was the beginning of pop music's biggest ever freefall. The few instances when Britney speaks to the crowd serve as uncomfortable reminders of where she was at. During "(You Drive Me) Crazy" she jokes about her 55 hour Las Vegas marriage that had taken place just a couple of months before: “I’m seeing a lot of cute fellas in the audience tonight. Are any of you guys feeling lucky? Who knows, maybe if you’re really lucky... *creepy stage whisper* I might marry you.” She even slags off her own back catalogue: “I have to go? I haven’t even sung ‘Sometimes’ yet… Oh God! I never liked that song anyway!”

Then, just as I was kind of getting into this Britney record, Life is a Beach was quietly yanked into extinction by the shepherd’s crook of a higher power. Its digital footprint was all but erased, aside from scattered YouTube uploads that were done in time. It was gone.

When questioned about the mysterious release, Britney's publicist could only say that despite it clocking sales and charting around the world, the release was unofficial. But she had "no idea" if Spears' label, RCA, had been behind the clean-up process to delete it from digital stockists. (And on a similarly unhelpful note, Sony, RCA's parent company, stated that only the aforementioned PR rep was at liberty to comment). 

But this is 2015 and the media is no longer a truly top down operation. In order to get some real dialogue going I spoke to Jordan Miller, the owner and editor of pop music website/the Internet's greatest Britney resource, Breathe Heavy. Some facts: Jordan works full-time on the website; his favourite Britney era is Blackout; he’s seen her current Las Vegas show six times - and on one occasion was pulled up onstage to dance with and be spanked by Britney.
 
Miller discovered the album's existence via the shared-knowledge cavern that is Exhale – the fan forum section of his music site. He also wrote the only English-language news post that ran about it. "It's interesting that it was being packaged and marketed as an album,” he explains, “because it landed on iTunes and Spotify. I streamed it there myself. I listened to the whole thing. I thought it would sound mastered but to me it didn't sound like anything special."

Even if it was just a professionally marketed bootleg, it serves as a reminder that Britney's no titan when it comes to recorded music sales anymore. I mean, even her 2013 record Britney Jean only peaked at No. 34 in the UK. Spears admitted in a recent interview with Billboard when asked about new music that whilst she is aiming to produce "an amazing album" it is just not her "full priority right now." 

When you really think about it: why would it be? Spears' Las Vegas residency show, now in it's eighth leg, is still killing it at the box office. Her Intimate lingerie line has now been extended to swimwear. Her latest fragrance (number 17), Rocker Femme Fantasy, is in stores now. Britney’s music is now her business card. 

Sure, she's currently prepping for her standalone “Pretty Girls” single release in May and has even drafted good-for-chart-bait-and-little-else Iggy Azalea to add to the hype, but this isn’t a ‘comeback’. These days, her Elizabeth Arden perfume lines have won her more beauty awards than Grammys, and her fragrance sales are currently estimated to total $1.5 billion. She might not hold rank on the Billboard chart anymore, but Britney puts the likes of Rihanna, Katy Perry and Beyonce on the bargain shelf next to Stacey Solomon, Ashanti and Tulisa when it comes to battling in The Perfume Shop.

So while her record company and PR team seemed happy to innocently shrug off and ignore a bootleg album that managed to chart globally, you can bet that anyone daring to release a phoney Eau De Britney would get shutdown quicker than a sex party in Times Square.

Written for NOISEY

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