Is no advertising the new advertising?

How do you release an album? For popular musicians, the process seems to become more and more drawn out every year. 

For his 2013 comeback release The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake exemplified the most common modern take on music advertising. Leading up to the album, he appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the Grammy Awards and the Brit Awards, among others, airing more than half the songs off his album before its release on RCA Records.

“[Timberlake] has been going with less-is-more,” Tom Corson, the president and COO for RCA Records, told Billboard.

This massive, multi-month campaign model is unquestionably effective. The long build gives consumers plenty of time to preorder their CDs and to spread the word; the method has led to many gold and platinum releases through the decades of its use. 

However, the music industry is changing, and the marketing behind its biggest artists seems to be following suit.

From 2013 to 2014 alone, revenue from subscription music streaming services, like Spotify and Groove Music, grew from $1.13 to $1.57 billion, and the format cemented itself as the heart of all digital music revenue. In 2014, digital music profits matched physical sales profits for the first time, and the growth isn’t slowing down. 

If this is the new way people are listening to music, how do you advertise for it? Some artists have chosen to completely flip the script. 

In December 2013, Beyoncé released a self-titled album out of nowhere, announcing it on the day of release on her Instagram account with just a short trailer and the caption “Surprise!” The stunt was a success, and she sold 1.3 million copies of her album in the first 17 days of its release.

Other artists have followed in Beyoncé’s footsteps. In 2014, U2 first announced its LP Songs of Innocence on the day of release, and both of Drake’s releases this year — If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late in February and What a Time to Be Alive in September — were surprise releases. 

This sort of sweeping change is unusual for the music industry, and the introduction of this new marketing model is as worrisome as it is inspiring.

Exclusivity powers the surprise release album. Instead of blanketing the media with promotions for an album, surprise releases rely on a much smaller group of consumers to spread the word themselves and, because those people are made to feel as though they are the discoverers of some big secret, they do so effectively.

“The Beyoncé album came out of nowhere and it was instantly the biggest story across the web, on television news and around the water cooler,” wrote Joe Schlesinger, account director for Gupta Media, the company that helped Beyoncé with her 2013 stunt.

This exclusivity could turn sour, however. All of the releases mentioned here were released first through iTunes. This may simply be because of the ubiquity of the iTunes platform, but it’s hard to imagine going forward — as relatively new streaming services such as Apple Music and TIDAL vie for control over the online music industry — that companies won’t begin paying artists to release their work exclusively on one platform to help boost subscriptions. 

This alienates fans who prefer, or can only afford, another service. 

Worse still, without the name recognition of superstar musicians like Beyoncé or Drake, the surprise release strategy is neutered. A wide industry swing toward this style of release will leave developing artists out in the cold.

There is still one great hope yet for the surprise release: the possibility of meritocracy. 

The surprise release does not guarantee success, with a prime example being Miley Cyrus, who simultaneously announced and dropped her August release Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz at the tail end of hosting the MTV Video Music Awards. Her album enjoyed mixed to scolding reviews, including a 3/10 from Pitchfork, a 3.5/5 from Rolling Stone and a 1/10 from The Needle Drop. 

Though the shock of the release was there, the content was not, and Dead Petz has not followed the commercial success of Cyrus’ 2013 LP Bangerz. 

Whichever way we see the trend of the surprise release go in the next five or 10 years, we can be sure of its place in the development of the modern music industry.

For better or worse, how we listen to and receive music is changing, and this is a rare opportunity for consumers to choose who those changes are going to benefit: themselves, record companies, online distributions, big artists or small artists.


Follow Cullen Walsh on Twitter.



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