On June 23 1998, the music video for Ray of Light was released by Warner Reprise Video as a limited edition video single of 40,000 VHS copies. It sold 7,381 copies within its first month of release, becoming one of the best-selling video singles of the Nielsen SoundScan era. Madonna’s previous video single release, Justify My Love, which predated SoundScan, was certified quadruple-Platinum by the RIAA (for shipment of over 200,000 copies).
The reason behind Ray of Light being issued as a video single were twofold. Madonna was very pleased with the outcome of her first collaboration with director Jonas Åkerlund and her record company felt that there would be enough interest to warrant its commercial release. Secondly, Warner’s marketing team correctly sensed that the song’s then-experimental sound would be a tough sell at radio, so the decision was made to pull out all the stops to ensure the release outperformed on the sales chart. Another prong in this strategy was the inclusion of album outtake Has To Be as the b-side to the two-track single, while excluding it from the maxi-single in an attempt to persuade fans to purchase the single in multiple formats. The strategy proved successful, with the song’s number-five debut and peak on the Billboard Hot 100 mainly due to its sales strength. According to Billboard, the music video single boosted its first-week sales by roughly 7%, helping it to secure its place in the top-five.
Shortly after Ray of Light‘s release as a video single, Billboard magazine published an article musing on whether renewed interest in the relatively obscure format could ever prove lucrative for the music industry. A video buyer for a major retail chained remarked:
“Madonna’s Ray of Light video single is a success because she has a fervent fan base. There are very few artists with videos that consistently get people’s attention, but Madonna is one of those artists. It’s too early to tell if there’s a true market for video singles. Right now, it seems like record companies are trying video singles to see what happens. I think we’re going to see the lines becoming more blurred in how audio and video singles are marketed.”
Indeed. Within the next five years (and two Madonna video singles later), the emergence of online file sharing would obliterate the physical singles market in North America, and video streaming sites would soon spell an end to the prospect of marketing music video singles as a physical format. In digital form, however, music video singles may be selling in larger numbers than ever due to increased availability through iTunes. Strangely, however, sales of music videos through iTunes are not reported to Billboard and no longer count towards a single’s chart position (reportedly due to iTunes’ monopoly on digital sales of the format), while streams of music videos through sites like YouTube and Vevo are used in Billboard’s chart methodology.
On June 11 1998, Ray of Light became Madonna’s highest debuting single, peaking at number-five in its first week on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.
The title-track from her seventh studio album was present for a total of twenty weeks on the Hot 100, and placed at number seventy-five on the year-end chart. Much of its chart success was due to strong sales, while on the Airplay chart it fizzled out at number twenty-six. The remixes earned Madonna another number-one on the Hot Dance/Club Play chart, spending four weeks at the top spot and seven weeks in the top-five.
Outside the U.S., the Ray of Light single reached number-three in Canada, number-two in the UK, Italy and Finland, and number-one in Spain.
On May 29 1998, Madonna visited The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote her album, Ray Of Light.
Madonna sat down for a lengthy interview and performed two songs from her new album, the title track, Ray Of Light, and Little Star – both for the first time on television.
The episode marked Madonna’s second visit to Oprah, following a 1996 appearance to promote her film, Evita.
On May 6 1998, Ray of Light was released by Maverick Records. The title track from her seventh studio album was issued internationally as the album’s second single.
Ray Of Light is based on a track called Sepheryn by Curtiss Maldoon, and was included on their 1971 self-titled album. In 1996, Christine Leach, Maldoon’s niece, recorded her version of the track with William Orbit. Leach said she had always loved Dave Curtiss and Clive Maldoon’s work and noted that Sepheryn had a dream-like quality. Leach revised the chorus melody while Orbit provided new music for the song. After Madonna heard Leach’s version of the track, she immediately took to it and began reworking its lyrics.
Maldoon said he “couldn’t believe it” after he heard it, and was pleased with what Madonna had done with his original composition. Madonna said about the song: “It’s totally out of control. The original version is well over 10 minutes long. It was completely indulgent, but I loved it. It was heartbreaking to cut it down to a manageable length.”
Madonna’s original unedited version was set to be included on a remix album titled Veronica Electronica that was initially discussed as a follow-up to Ray Of Light, but plans for the collection apparently never made it past the drawing board.
On April 29 1998, Madonna made an unannounced appearance at the 9th annual Rainforest Foundation Benefit Concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where she performed Frozen with the East Harlem Violin Project, while wearing a Versace dress.
Jon Pareles from The New York Times felt that during this performance Madonna had “turned herself into America’s answer to Björk”.
Later that night, she wore a cowboy hat and joined various artists in a rendition of The Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends and Twist & Shout.
On March 6 1998, Madonna spent the day in Toronto, Canada conducting a press conference and various print interviews to promote her new album, Ray Of Light, released earlier that week. She ended the day with a live, hour-long interview on Much Music hosted by VJ’s Master T (personally selected by Madonna herself after viewing reels of the station’s on-air personalities) and Geneviève Borne (a self-proclaimed Madonna fan and VJ from Much Music’s French-language sister station, Musique Plus).
The much-hyped event, which marked Madonna’s first and only visit to the Much Music studios, was prefaced by the Canadian music video channel’s second Madonnathon – a day of all-Madonna programming. The first, which featured her 1992 interview with Jonathan Ross and a then-recent press junket interview with The New Music’s Jana Lynne White (and all of her music videos), aired in January of 1993 at the height of the Sex/Erotica/Body Of Evidence backlash.
After the appearance was announced, fans seeking a limited hot spot inside the studio for the interview were asked to call in and were queried a series of Madonna-related trivia questions to prove their worthiness, while others who didn’t make it inside lined the streets of the Queen St W studios on the day of the event to welcome the Queen of Pop to Toronto.