In August, Frank Ocean released his sophomore album Blonde, the long-awaited follow-up to his breakthrough debut. Though the album’s release was supposedly imminent, its sudden appearance on Apple Music took fans by surprise, thanks to a seemingly endless rollout period that included cryptic internet hints, pushed back deadlines, a mysterious online video stream, and the release of an entirely different collection of music, the “visual album” Endless. The fact that Blonde was dropped as a “surprise release” was the least surprising part of the whole ordeal.
In the span of the last decade, surprise album releases have become somewhat rote. When Radiohead offered 2007’s In Rainbows on their website with a “choose-what-you-pay” download model, it was revolutionary. Two years ago, U2 met a wave of derision when their new album, Songs of Innocence, was included in iTunes for free (to the dismay of non-U2 fans around the world, the songs could not be removed). Earlier this year, Radiohead had another go at it, making their social media accounts and online presence slowly fade to white throughout the course of a week before trickling out the release their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Beyonce caused a stir when she dropped her latest, Lemonade, with an avant-garde mini-movie on HBO, and Kanye West announced the digital release of The Life of Pablo on live TV after an SNL performance. He would continue to alter the songs and track listings of the album even after its official release.
All of this is to say – album releases sure have gotten complicated.
Did this trailer give you any idea that an album was forthcoming? Maybe not, but did it make you think?
There is perhaps no greater representation of the tectonic cultural shift that has taken place in the last 20 years than that of the music industry. The disparity between what an album rollout looked like in 1996 versus what it looks like now is immense, and your patience for the current model is most likely directly related to the year you were born. Not to be all “get off my lawn” about it, but in the 1990s (and before) the anticipation and proactivity involved in procuring your favorite musician’s newest album – the agonizing wait, the magazine articles, the lines outside music stores, the fear of copies selling out before you could get one – often leant a level of cultural and personal significance that, some would say, just doesn’t exist anymore.
Still, after forward-thinking artists tested the waters of what was possible with digital releases in the mid-2000s, it appears they’ve found a way to have their cake and eat it too, parrying the challenges of marketing in a here today, gone today environment into opportunities for innovative, strategic promotions that build excitement while maintaining the element of surprise.
Here are a few marketing tips and tricks lifted from the new album release model:
- Tease it out – If you’re rolling out a new product or brand, or getting ready to announce a big event, take advantage of the ways in which modern technology can create mystery, buzz and anticipation. The strategy of saying what’s going to happen and then making it happen creates messages that are easily swept away, but if you can make your audience think, then you’ve made a more lasting impact.
- Be adventurous – Marketing options in the 1990s were limited. There was print, radio, TV, direct mail, maybe even a little digital, but marketers had to work within pretty strict confines of a given platform. Now, there are almost infinite possibilities to do something different, weird and innovative. Go for it!
- Be a multimedia maven – The most successful rollouts don’t just drop MP3 files onto the internet or make streams available on Apple Music, they take advantage of multiple media platforms to reach either a broad or highly targeted audience in different ways. Take, for example, the aforementioned Beyonce album, Lemonade, for which the singer released a music video for the album’s first single, “Formation,” a day before her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, and then a trailer for a mysterious special on HBO, and then a 60-minute “visual album” at the same time a stream was made available on Tidal. For a “surprise release,” there sure was a lot of strategic use of multiple platforms.
- Be social – It’s hard to believe, but some marketers still think of “social media” as a dirty phrase or a passing trend. This year’s releases by Frank Ocean and Radiohead offer compelling examples of the power of social media marketing when done right. Ocean, for his part, built up a large and engaged social media following on Tumblr and Instagram, and kept those fans buzzing by posting cryptic photos or snippets of new song lyrics. Radiohead’s tactic of disappearing from the internet, including wiping all of their social media content, worked their already-obsessive fanbase into a frenzy. The band may have shown us “How to Disappear Completely,” but they dominated the social media sphere in the process.
Radiohead’s Facebook profile leading up to the release of A Moon Shaped Pool.
- Be strategic – This one should go without saying, but many companies still take a laissez-fare approach to digital marketing that would never fly in traditional media – a post here, an ad buy there, a website over here – and they suffer from a lack of measurable goals. Messaging across digital and traditional platforms should be consistent and comprehensive, meaning that nothing happens in a vacuum and success is clearly defined. In fact, your goals and those of the musicians mentioned above might be more similar than you think; while awareness might be difficult to measure, website traffic, page events (such as song streams), video views, followers and member subscriptions are not.
The idea of the surprise release, in some ways, reflects the oft-maligned attitude of “instant gratification” that seems to have accompanied the advent of the internet and smartphones, and those of us who remember a time when gratification was not so instant might be resentful of the new paradigm. But there are advantages to an audience’s desire for instant-gratification and relentless information; ways to leverage it into marketing success. Take a page from the musicians who are pushing digital marketing boundaries and capitalize on the ever-evolving tools and platforms available in smart, strategic and purpose-driven ways.