The surprise album: a 21st century marketing technique

Oren Brown delves into the mystery behind surprise albums

Oren Brown
16th November 2020
Credit: Pixabay
The internet once threatened to swallow up the music industry; now, it is hard to imagine a music industry without it. When piracy and viral leaks looked to doom artists, one curious technique broke the mould and flipped traditional ideas of promotion on their head: the surprise album.

In the music industry, labels and artists are constantly striving for creative methods to advertise and generate interest in upcoming releases. One of the most innovative trends to emerge within music marketing in the past two decades is one in which no prior marketing occurs at all - the surprise release.

To find out how the surprise release came about, we must first look back in time. An unparalleled earthquake in the landscape of music arrived in 1999 when online music service Napster offered music for free at the click of the button. Napster, a software wherein members shared music with each other without permission of the artist or label, left a thorn in the side of the industry. Despite eventually being shut down, a culture of illegal music sharing has remained in its wake.

Sharing existing songs was not the only part of this issue, however, with music even being shared across the internet before it’s intended date of release. Songs and albums that fell into the wrong hands in the build-up to their release could be posted online and leaked to millions within hours, causing huge problems for artists’ sales. This left the music industry with an ultimatum – adapt to the digital age and embrace the internet, or be destroyed by it.

As labels slowly navigated the trials of the internet age in the noughties, a handful of innovative artists flipped the script of album releases, using the internet as a lightning rod for success rather than fearing it as some kind of copyright-infringing no-mans-land. A new, crazily simple concept arose: release the album without telling anyone about it. Cut the marketing bill to zero, and just drop the album to the public, relying purely on word of mouth to market it.

This left the music industry with an ultimatum – adapt to the digital age and embrace the internet, or be destroyed by it.

The earliest example of this would be Radiohead’s 2007 record, In Rainbows. Unlike any other album by any artist at the time, In Rainbows was available for any price on the bands’ website, having been released a few days after a brief announcement. Listeners could pay whatever they wanted for the album – even nothing. Although most did take the album free of charge, many paid generously. Radiohead pulled in millions without having to genuinely advertise the project, proving that a nonstandard release formula that relied on the internet’s viral nature was more than just possible; it was effective.

Following in Radiohead’s footsteps was Beyoncé’s self-titled LP in 2013, which was quietly released to the public without an advertisement campaign or announcement. Staggeringly, Beyoncé broke iTunes records with this album, selling over 800,000 units within the first 3 days of the release. This feat would have been impressive even with advertisement, but is almost difficult to fathom without. Whilst the media certainly played a central role in marketing the project, the most important factor in spreading the news was fans on social media. On Twitter alone, the album was referenced 1.2 million times within 12 hours of it’s release.

Beyoncé and Radiohead demonstrated a clear understanding of the pros and cons of the internet as a marketing tool in their respective releases. Not only did they shake up the industry, they negated any potential losses in revenue due to waning interest or leaked music… and did so without spending a penny on an advertising campaign.

Traditionally, advertising an album is massively important. It costs labels between $500,000 and $2,000,000 to break an artist in a major music market, with roughly 40% of the budget going into promotion and marketing. Even smaller artists who are seeking more humble levels of success are expected to spend thousands on marketing to ensure that their projects are a success. The surprise release album completely ignores this rule, and still succeeds.

Even smaller artists who are seeking more humble levels of success are expected to spend thousands on marketing

Taylor Swift, Drake, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino. These are just a handful of household names that have utilized the surprise album release to their advantage, saving millions whilst making millions. Though the industry continues to develop and change, the genius of the surprise release is yet to see its match, and will likely remain a staple of music for as long as social media dominates. Keep an eye out - you never know when your favourite artist could be dropping.

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AUTHOR: Oren Brown
English student. @orenajb

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